Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay
By Todd Zolecki
Triumph Books LLC, 2020
Reviewed by Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
On May 29, many Canadian baseball fans were glued to the ESPN documentary about Roy Halladay called “Imperfect: The Roy Halladay Story” that was broadcast on TSN.
The 60-minute production shone an intense spotlight on the longtime Toronto Blue Jays ace who despite his tremendous major league success and his loving and strong family, struggled with anxiety, depression and, in his final years, addiction.
The documentary was both heartwarming and heartbreaking, moving and gut-wrenching. But as a Canadian baseball writer, and someone who has read a lot about Halladay’s formative years, I couldn’t help but feel like some of his early influences had been shortchanged.
The ESPN doc failed to mention Colorado pitching guru, Bus Campbell, who worked tirelessly with Halladay during his teens. Nor did it mention the efforts of Blue Jays pitching instructor Mel Queen, who through tough love and wise instruction, helped revive Halladay’s pro career after it had bottomed out in 2001.
Fortunately, we have Todd Zolecki’s excellent new biography, “Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay,” to remedy this. In this riveting, just released, 346-page book, Zolecki devotes entire chapters to Campbell and Queen.
In the chapter on Campbell simply called “Bus,” Zolecki writes that the Colorado pitching sage, who never took a dime for his services, saw “limitless potential” in Halladay and instructed him closely. Most importantly, he deeply cared for his young pupil.
“Roy thought of him as a grandfather,” Halladay’s wife, Brandy, told Zolecki. “When Roy and I started dating he would go and do these bullpen sessions with Bus. Bus would record them on a video recorder. I’d sit down there and I’d hold the camera or we’d set it up. He could literally watch you for three seconds and be like, ‘Yep, there’s your problem.’ Half the time he’d be like, ‘Stop.’ Roy was like, ‘I didn’t even start.’ But he knew. He was so smart, so on it, so sharp.”
Halladay never forgot Campbell and when he was promoted to the big leagues, he purchased a satellite package for Campbell so he could watch his starts.
Also thanks to Zolecki, Queen gets his rightful due in a chapter called “Mel.” In 2001, with his confidence shattered after posting a 10.64 ERA in 19 major league appearances in 2000, Halladay was demoted to class-A Dunedin to start over. As Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick puts it in the book, Queen was the “fixer” in the Blue Jays organization.
Zolecki describes how before he started to work with Halladay, Queen spoke to a sports psychologist who recommended that he break Halladay down “mentally and emotionally.”
“Queen called Halladay naive. He called him stupid. He called him every name in the book. Halladay took it all,” writes Zolecki.
It was a definitely a tough love approach, but Halladay was desperate to try anything to get back on track. Queen then implemented his plan to reinvent the young right-hander. He suggested that Halladay adopt a lower arm slot and taught him new grips for a sinker and a cutter. These resulted in more movement on his pitches and most importantly boosted Halladay’s confidence, which was crucial if he was going to navigate the long road back to the big leagues.
The chapters on Queen and Campbell are just a small sampling of the exhaustive research that Zolecki did in order to tell the full Halladay story. And his efforts, combined with his compelling prose, skillfully reinforce that Halladay was far more than his perfect game, playoff no-hitter and a tragic sports figure who died far too young.
Zolecki conducted more than 100 interviews for the book and includes some great behind-the-scenes photos of Halladay. And it’s a credit to the author’s interviewing skills that he’s able to paint such an intimate, fascinating and comprehensive portrait of such a complex and private man.
In almost every speech or interview we’ve heard Brandy Halladay give since her husband died in a plane crash on November 7, 2017, she has mentioned that Halladay felt he had to be perfect on and off the field. And Zolecki’s fine book, much more so than the documentary, offers insight into why Halladay owned this mindset.
The author interviewed Halladay’s sister, Heather, and she believes that Halladay’s father, also named Roy, may have pushed him too hard. Halladay’s dad, who is a commercial pilot, purchased a house with a basement big enough for his son to throw, often caught his son’s practice sessions and was an intimidating coach.
“I think he [Halladay’s dad] wanted my brother to understand that anything he wanted in life he could make a possibility,” Heather told Zolecki. “But I just don’t think he realized to what detriment it was at some point, you know? Because I’m his sister I saw a little bit more than I think a parent would.”
To his credit, the author also interviewed Halladay’s dad and asked him about this.
“He just loved every second of it,” Halladay’s dad told the author about working with his son to hone his baseball skills. “We did a lot of things, but he was involved in it. No, he didn’t miss out on anything. This kid just had a huge passion for the stuff.”
The book is understandably heavy in parts, but the author balances it with some fun trivia and anecdotes. For example, when Halladay checked into a hotel, he frequently used the alias Jim Nasium.
And for Canadian baseball history fans like myself, there are also some interesting revelations about Halladay’s trade instructions to the Blue Jays after the 2009 season. Zolecki shares that Halladay, who had a no-trade clause in his contract, wanted to be dealt to contender but had told the Blue Jays he would only accept to a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies or New York Yankees.
“It was an impossible market,” Alex Anthopoulos, who was then the new Blue Jays GM, told Zolecki. “Every time I asked about other teams it was just like, ‘No.’ Which was fine. I don’t begrudge that he had it [a no-trade clause], but from there I’ve never given out a no-trade clause. We were caught in a tough spot. He made it very clear, ‘I’m leaving. There’s nothing you can do to talk me into staying. I can’t emphasize this enough. You can’t extend me. You can offer me all the money in the world. I need to win. I want to win.'”
As we know, Anthopoulos ultimately dealt Halladay to the Phillies on December 16, 2009 for prospects Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Taylor.
The true star of the book, however, is Brandy Halladay. She shares that Halladay’s most serious troubles began after he felt a pop in his back in the second inning of his pitching duel with Chris Carpenter in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series. Halladay gutted out the rest of the game, but the Phillies lost to Carpenter and the Cardinals 1-0.
“That game, that’s literally when our whole world changed. That was it. That was the start of the end,” Brandy told Zolecki.
From that point on, Halladay’s back was never right. In his final two major league seasons, unable to perform to his own lofty standards, he found a doctor (outside of the Phillies) who prescribed him painkillers. He was soon addicted to the medication and it ultimately led to two stints in a rehab facility.
It’s clear in the book that Halladay struggled to find his way after he hung up his playing spikes in 2013. He suffered from anxiety, depression and was still fighting back pain, but Brandy says he was doing better in the months prior to his death. He enjoyed coaching his son’s ball teams. He had bought his own plane and savoured his solo flights. And he was serving as a mental skills coach with the Phillies, even delivering a lecture to club’s minor leaguers the day before he died.
The book also includes heartbreaking details of the day of Halladay’s fatal plane crash, including how he was supposed to show up at his son’s band recital, how he had written an apologetic text to Brandy that morning and how she when she returned home that day, there was a sheriff at her house and she just knew what had happened.
More than two years have passed since Halladay’s death and Brandy told Zolecki that she and her two sons, Braden and Ryan, are still learning to how to cope with life without him. But she’s bravely trying to move forward.
“It’s hard to move forward when you’re constantly looking back,” Brandy told Zolecki. “Not that you don’t want to remember, but I want to remember the funny stories and the conversations. Not ‘How are you doing? Are your boys okay?’ ‘Yes, we’re fine. Yes, we’re fine.’ Everybody assumes how you’re going to feel, ‘Well, I know this is a tough time of the year for you.’ Why would it be? I know what I’m missing . . . But I’ve made it clear that anything I do, it has to be on the positive side. Because I can’t keep dragging my kids through sadness. I can’t.”
It’s a testament Zolecki’s interviewing and writing skills that he’s able to share Brandy’s heartbreak and strength with such sensitivity and eloquence. And his candid conversations with Brandy are one of the major highlights of this comprehensive and compelling page-turner that provides an honest and exhaustive look into this very private pitching legend.
Through Zolecki’s superb book, we learn that Halladay was not only a dominant athlete, but an anxious father and husband and a complex man who fought hard against his mental and physical demons. The stories Zolecki shares are both heroic and heartbreaking, but they give us the full story of an imperfect man who, as Brandy has said in her Cooperstown speech, had some “perfect moments.”
You can purchase the “Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay” in Canada here.