VIERA, Fla. - Upon hearing the news of Harvey Dorfman's death, Mike Pelfrey recalled a conversation he had with the renowned sports psychologist a little more than a year ago. Pelfrey was spending a couple of days at Dorfman's home in North Carolina, and the two were talking out on the porch.
"When he was born, they told him he'd never live to see 20 because of the lung condition that he had," Pelfrey said. "He told me that night, 'I'm going to go out on my terms. Nobody's going to tell me when I'm going to go.' He made it to 75 - 55 years after what they told him. That's amazing in itself."
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Dorfman died Monday after having been in and out of the hospital for what Pelfrey thought were complications from his lifelong asthmatic condition. The Mets pitcher last spoke to Dorfman shortly after Christmas, and he had been so sick that the two could no longer talk on the phone, severing a connection that Pelfrey had treasured since his days at Wichita State.
What did Dorfman mean to Pelfrey? You can point to his breakthrough season in 2010, when he went 10-4 with a 3.58 ERA in the first half and narrowly missed an All-Star invitation. He finished with career bests in wins (15) and ERA (3.66). But it's much, much bigger than that. The two dissected his performances after every start, and Pelfrey always looked forward to Dorfman's no-holds-barred analysis.
"I think everybody at this level obviously is very talented," Pelfrey said. "What takes you to the next step is the mental side of it, and I think Harvey really allowed me to take that next step. There's still more steps I need to take. But mentally, I feel like I'm a lot better than when I came in. The game used to be so fast for me."
Dorfman wasn't a coddler. Pelfrey knew better than to dial him up to make excuses or look for some ego stroking. Pitching coach Dan Warthen also was close with Dorfman and remembered his help in trying to rebound from the "devastation" of being fired for the first time.
"He was straightforward, eyeball to eyeball, belly button to belly button," Warthen said. "He wasn't a 'pat you on the back, go get 'em kid' type of guy. He made you stand up for yourself."
Often, those confrontations were part of the Dorfman method. Pelfrey's best memories involved being challenged by him, like the time he made the mistake of telling Dorfman how locked in he was for that night's start.
"You were focused?" Dorfman asked Pelfrey. "Then what did the catcher's glove look like? What kind of glove does he have?"
When Pelfrey stammered, "I don't know," the message was delivered. "Then you weren't -- paying attention!" Dorfman shot back. "You're just feeding me full of BS right now."
At 6-7, Pelfrey isn't used to people getting in his face. But that approach seems to be the most effective, especially for pitchers, who most of the time are alone, inside their own heads, when standing on the mound. Dorfman always stressed the importance of the next pitch - as well as the need to forget the one that preceded it.
It's a mantra that Pelfrey will take into this season, just as he has every year since he was first introduced to Dorfman. Only this time, there will be no more phone calls, no postgame analysis and none of Dorfman's tough love coming from the other end of the line.
"I'm definitely going to miss him," Pelfrey said. "When there were times of struggle and adversity, he helped you get through those. I think last year, I took a huge step, especially after how crazy I was the year before, and I owe him for that. He helped me change.
"What I don't get is the perception that if you talk to somebody, that you're messed up, that something is wrong with you. Tell that to Al Leiter. Tell that to Roy Halladay. Tell it to Greg Maddux. By talking to Harvey, these guys all understood how valuable the mental side of the game is. He simplified the game, slowed it down for you. And you can't put a value on that."