CLEARWATER, Fla. - Roy Halladay sat on a counter in the back of the press box at Bright House Field, the backs of his knees draped across the edge of the formica, his legs dangling below. He wore a T-shirt and a hat and he rested his sun-tanned forearms on his thighs. The national anthem played and the crowd cheered and a slender lefthanded pitcher strode to the mound. All of this occurred with a two-tiered terrace of working media standing, blocking Halladay's view of the windows that looked out onto the field. He could not see. He did not need to.
"It's an absolute grind," the former Phillies great said. "You're pitching for your team, you're pitching for yourself, you're pitching for the rest of your career - but you're not pitching for anything."
As Halladay talked, the Orioles' lineup churned through Cole Hamels' offerings. A walk, a single, a home run, another walk, another single. Finally, with two outs and a 3-0 deficit on the scoreboard, Jonathan Schoop cracked a low line drive at Hamels' ankles. In a sharp reflexive motion, the lefty dropped his glove hand to the surface of the mound and snapped it closed around the ball. He paused for a split second, then straightened himself, flipped the ball to the dirt, and strode to the dugout in the same manner in which he arrived.
After one more inning and two more runs, Hamels retired to the clubhouse, where he later spoke about the outing in the casual, disinterested lexicon of a veteran who has seen too many springs to worry about results. He is 31 years old, still in his physical prime, still possessed with the graceful mechanics and easy arm speed that have made him one of the most sought-after commodities on the trade market for much of the past year. But he is also increasingly alone on a team that was short on talent from the start. After the Phillies' 16-4 loss to the Orioles, the club announced that it was shutting down Cliff Lee and placing the veteran ace on the 60-day disabled list in a last-ditch effort to save his season, and, perhaps, his career. Ryan Howard started at first and drove in a run and Chase Utley served as DH and tallied a hit, but the rest of the defense behind Hamels was a collection of prospects and journeymen and reclamation projects who were somewhere far from Philadelphia the last time the Phillies entered a season that figured to matter.
By nature, the mound is a vulnerable place, the one spot on the field where the closest human being is your opponent, a strip of rubber in the center of 8,100 square feet of grass in the center of a stadium full of eyeballs studying your every move. Halladay turned himself into a Hall of Famer by turning that strip into a sanctuary, a mountaintop impervious to the fans, to the batter, to the vastness of the physical space, and, most of all, to the chaos of the human mind.
Halladay accomplished all of this with the help of legendary sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, a man whose memory he one day hopes to honor by spreading the lessons he learned. Halladay is planning to enroll at the University of South Florida to study psychology in order to supplement his life experience with clinical knowledge. Listen to him talk, and you wonder whether the life experience alone might suffice.
On Lee: "Any time you can't go out and do what you've done your whole life, it's a challenge, you know? It's a major adjustment in your life and even if you're still playing it's something you have to overcome and learn how to deal with it."
On retirement: "As a player, I spent 80, 90 percent of my time studying hitters and getting myself ready the night before. That's the toughest part for me the first year of being retired. You really are redefining yourself. What's your new purpose, what's your new goal in life?"
Six years ago, Halladay was that pitcher on a foreign mound. The Blue Jays had made it clear they did not expect to contend, and the righthander found himself torn between duty to his teammates and duty to himself. Yes, he wanted to leave, but there is a reason we so rarely hear the words, "It's not me, it's you."
"For me the hardest thing was answering the questions about do you really want to leave, do you want to go somewhere else, what's it going to be like to leave," Halladay said. "That was hard to answer those questions after every start. That was difficult. It's something you have to do, but it was difficult.
"I had a lot of emotions. I felt like I had a few years left to try to accomplish things that I wanted to accomplish, and in Toronto they were going in a different direction then where I needed to go. That was very difficult. The front office was great with me. It was a distraction, it was a struggle. That first year going through the trade deadline and everything. I was very fortunate that when I left I was still well-received in Toronto. It just doesn't happen very often as a player. You expect to leave and be hated. I don't know how, but I was very fortunate to not have that happen. I wish I could give Cole advice, but I don't know how to do it, especially in Philly."
Perhaps the best advice Halladay could have offered Hamels was to look at him now, 2 years removed from his last spring training, studying psychology and flying planes and coaching youth baseball, at ease in a stadium but oblivious to the field, a valued alumnus of a second organization, two playoff berths achieved largely on the strength of his right arm. The hardest part of the future is trusting that it will happen regardless of the process in your brain that yearns for control. Control what you can; fulfillment exists therein. The mound is a sanctuary from the noise. It is your mountaintop until the next one arrives.