CLEARWATER, Fla. - Wednesday, the most important man on the Phillies' roster will sit behind a microphone and answer questions for the first time since the regular season ended 5 months ago. He will be asked about his shoulder, about his latissimus dorsi, about his offseason routine, about the bullpen sessions he has thrown thus far, about whether he thinks he can still perform at a level befitting his perennial status as a Cy Young Award contender.
Chances are, Roy Halladay will answer with a mixture of stoicism and confidence, the way he always answers questions, the way most elite athletes answer them. He will label himself a stronger, healthier, smarter pitcher than he was 1 year ago, when the man who took the mound every 5 days looked nothing like the man who did so in his first two seasons with the Phillies.
Chances are that after the news conference the fan base will feel reassured, and the media will feel convinced that 2012 was an anomaly instead of the inevitable changing of inertia in a 35-year-old pitcher's career. Halladay has that ability, a fatherly presence that exudes a reassuring sense that everything is going to be all right.
Yet, one need only look to last year for a reminder that words do not always predict actions, particularly when those words are uttered in a news conference during the first week of major league spring training. Last February, Chase Utley expressed confidence that he would be healthy enough to perform at a level that was his norm before the knee condition that had afflicted him throughout 2011.
"It's something I'm always going to have to monitor, forever, to be honest," Utley said. "But I think I have a game plan put together that I'm able to overcome it. But again, it's something I'm going to have to deal with on a daily basis, and I'm willing to put the effort into making sure it's OK."
Last February, Charlie Manuel refused to rule Ryan Howard out for Opening Day. Jim Thome prepared to play first base once or twice a week. Placido Polanco told reporters, "I'm going to stay healthy."
Suffice it to say, the 2012 Phillies did not win any awards from the American Federation of Astrologers. Yet we need to be careful about placing blame when an athlete fails to live up to the promises of spring.
Last year, a segment of fans and talking heads espoused a disconcerting school of thought during Utley's eventual 3-month absence from the active roster. Utley, the suggestion went, was not honest with himself or the organization about his knees, and because of that, he hindered the Phillies' ability to replace him. My response to anybody who asked my opinion on the matter was that it was nonsense, and my explanation went something like this:
The ability to lie to oneself, and to believe those lies, is a fundamental requirement for an elite-level athlete. The measure of an athlete's psychology is his ability to convince himself that the impossible can be attained. That psychology extends to his physical health, which, at most points during a season, is somewhere less than 100 percent. An athlete's job is to convince himself that he is not in pain, and, failing that, that the pain is not strong enough to hinder his performance, and, failing that, that the pain that is hindering his performance is within his control, that it can be overcome with the proper adjustments, be they mental or mechanical.
A major league pitcher must convince himself that he is capable of performing a task that the human body was not meant to do. This season, Roy Halladay's mission is to convince himself of the irrelevance of the fact that his body turns 36 years old on May 14. Perhaps he will find inspiration in Chris Carpenter, his friend and former teammate who as a 36-year-old in 2011 logged 237 1/3 innings before pitching the Cardinals to a World Series title.
Of course, Carpenter can also be viewed as a cautionary tale. Last week, news broke that the veteran righthander likely would not pitch in 2013, and that he could end up retiring, because of a nerve problem that limited him to six starts, including playoffs, last year. It was a stark reminder of just how suddenly the end can arrive.
Halladay, like Utley, has earned the benefit of the doubt. But regardless of how 2013 unfolds, the words he speaks on Wednesday should not be held against him.