Roy Halladay and the pathology of greatness

Philadelphia Phillies' Roy Halladay in action during a workout at baseball spring training, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, in Clearwater, in Fla. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

One of the reasons we gravitate toward competitive sports is the illusion of control that it offers us. The world is a scary freaking place. Think about the moment when the first of our ancestors developed consciousness, when he or she looked up and down and left and right and experienced a trickle of realization about what, exactly, all of us are up against. Talk about "Oh, crap" moments. The course of human history has been shaped by our attempts to exert control over an environment that, at its fundamental level, is uncontrollable. We build cities and then watch them crumble atop the plates that shift beneath them. We build levees and then watch them burst, build friendships and then watch them turn to dust. Spend a night watching television commercials at some point and count how many of them appeal to our desire to fortify our psyches with a sense of control. You can control your age, you can control the feelings of your fellow man, you can control your restless leg. Take this pill, drink this beer, drive this car, and the world will be at your mercy instead of the other way around.

Professional athletes inhabit a world that was built for them to control, and for most of their lives, they exert dominance over it. When they do not, the root of that failure is easy to identify. Every problem has a solution. Longer workouts. More practice. A mechanical adjustment. The greatest of these athletes are the ones who will go to any length to find the solution that surely exists, the ones whose defining characteristic is a will to exert complete control over their environment, to establish themselves as alpha. When they do not succeed, is is not because of the weather, or the opponent, or the physical condition of their body, or their deteriorating skill. It is because they failed. And to be great requires convincing oneself that failure can always be fixed. 

In a certain sense, great athletes are liars, and the greatest are the most pathological. They are the ones we are drawn to, because they are the ones who make us believe that the entire world is within their control. We watch sports because of the way this pathology manifests itself within the framework of controlled, competitive situations. Michael Jordan draining a jumpshot with 5.2 seconds left. Derek Jeter relaying the ball to home plate. Tom Brady leading a last minute drive. The will to win is a very real thing, but I think a more accurate way of describing the phenomenon is the suspension of disbelief in one's own limitations.

Roy Halladay is one of the greatest athletes that his sport has ever seen. He is great because, long ago, he learned how to suspend disbelief. He did so with the help of the late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman whose pragmatic, tough love approach to the mental side of sports won him legions of followers. Dorfman preached the importance of focusing on the aspects of performance that an athlete can control. An excuse is the first step toward believing that something cannot be accomplished.

During Brad Lidge's brutal 2009 season, people would occasionally snicker when they listened to the closer assess his performance. His body was always healthy. His pitches always felt good coming out of his hand. He never cared what the radar gun said. Lidge was a Dorfman client, and he was always convinced that the tools he needed to succeed were at his disposal. I'm not sure what people wanted him to say. An athlete cannot maximize his ability if he does not possess a steadfast belief that he is in possession of the tools that are necessary to do so. A pitcher cannot control his physiology, or the aging of his arm, or the maximum velocity at which he can throw. The only option is to believe that his tools are good enough. And then it is on him to make them work.

For the last month, Roy Halladay has insisted that his tools are good enough, that he can make them work. His body feels great. The ball feels good coming out of his hand. He can feel the strength building in his soon-to-be 36-year-old arm. Yet on Wednesday night, in the wake of an outing against the Braves that lasted just 3 1/3 innings,Halladay offered a few small glimpses of the internal confliction he has battled. Last year, Halladay always insisted that he did not care about the velocity readings that said he had lost a couple miles per hour on his sinker and cutter. He always insisted that pitching is not about velocity. Yet on Wednesday night, he talked about how that lack of velocity affected him last year, forcing him to stray from his usual strategy of pounding the strike zone.

"Last year, feeling the way you do, you feel like, I can't throw an 86 mph fastball to a general zone, it's going to get hit," Halladay said. 

Last year, he insisted that his body was healthy, that his shoulder was not an issue. This February, he admitted that was not the case. 

On Wednesday night, Halladay said that he can feel velocity on his pitches that was missing last season. The radar gun said otherwise, particularly over the last two innings. The problem, he said, was that he was too picky, that he did not trust his stuff enough and ended up nibbling at the corners instead of pounding the zone. The sinker that Justin Upton blasted for a home run was a case of a poor choice of location. The cutter that Evan Gattis blasted was just a mistake. The tools were good enough. The failure was on him. 

Those of us who are outside of an athlete's mind know that there comes a time when the tools are not good enough, when a running back loses the burst in his step, when a basketball player loses the bounce in his legs, and, yes, when an aging power pitcher loses the fire in his arm. When Halladay steps on the mound to face the Mets on Monday night, chances are good that we will see him rely on the stuff that made him great. He will pound the zone with sinkers and cutters instead of the offspeed stuff we saw against the Braves. Halladay spoke like a man who has reached the "Screw it" stage of internal conflict, the part of the journey where a man finishes like he started or goes down trying. 

"I'd rather lose 20 to nothing and pitch eight innings than pitch three-and-a-third," he said.

The mind is a powerful thing, and maybe, just maybe, Roy Halladay's last act of greatness will be to teach us all just how powerful a thing it can be. He knows that there is reason for all of us to doubt.

"You guys can write whatever you want," he said, a rare snarl of defiance in his voice. 

Public opinion is something that is outside Halladay's control. As for what remains within it? Well, that's the kind of thing that makes us tune in to see.