ESPN's John Barr on the Making of 'Imperfect: The Roy Halladay Story'

Liam McKeone
Roy Halladay
Roy Halladay / Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images
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On July 21, 2019, Roy "Doc" Halladay was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Brandy Halladay, Roy's widow, gave the induction speech in honor of her husband. The central theme to her speech was simple, but powerful: Roy Halladay was not a perfect man, but he found perfection at points in his life. Even if he threw a perfect game, even if he enters the Hall of Fame as one of the greatest pitchers of the 21st century, Halladay was, like all of us, imperfect.

It was Brandy's speech that inspired the central theme of ESPN's upcoming E:60 documentary, Imperfect: The Roy Halladay Story. The project documents Halladay's rise through the baseball ranks and subsequent struggle with addiction and mental health issues before his tragic death in a plane crash in November of 2017.

ESPN reporter and correspondent John Barr headed the documentary along with producers Mike Farrell and Brian Rivera.

Barr told The Big Lead that Farrell approached him about a potential documentary on Halladay's life ahead of his Hall of Fame ceremony. There had been one feature on Halladay's struggles published around the time of the induction, but Brandy hadn't been interviewed for it. Barr felt that if they were going to tell Halladay's story, his widow had to be included. Barr and his producers reached out to Brandy and flew down to Florida to meet her for a preliminary meeting when everything really took off.

"It took a lot for Brandy to get to the point where she was comfortable speaking with us," Barr said to The Big Lead. "There was a meeting we had in Florida before she conducted her first interview where Mike Farrell and I flew down with no expectation at all that she would do an interview. We said, look, we just want to talk to you about what a project might look like.

"We agreed to meet for lunch and we wound up meeting for five hours. The lunch crowd cleared out and the dinner crowd came in and we were still going. I think she realized that day she had a lot to say. There’s a purpose behind what she has to say. We’re just really grateful she trusted us enough to be the vehicle to do that."

Barr said Brandy agreed to a "candid and far-reaching interview" in December of 2019. The documentary also includes interviews with former Philadelphia Phillies teammate Kyle Kendricks, as well as Halladay's son and his father. For a public figure, however, Halladay was very private, and there was some difficulty finding people who knew Halladay as he truly was.

"The reality of the situation is there was a side of Roy he didn’t let the public see, and there was a side of Roy that he didn’t let many of the teammates, who we all thought he was really close to, see," Barr said. "But some of them did get a look at it. They saw it up close."

Barr did get to know the public side of Halladay while he was at ESPN. Unlike other projects he worked on for ESPN, which include award-winning chronicles of the NFL's concussion crisis and the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal at Michigan State, Barr came into this project with a preconceived notion of who Halladay was. He explained Halladay had a way about him that made you want to break reporter protocol. Barr covered Halladay's no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in his first postseason appearance in 2010, and after the game Halladay agreed to talk to Barr's seven-year-old son on the phone after hours of post-game coverage.

"He inspired that kind of stuff from us," said Barr. "There’s no cheering in the press box, you’re not supposed to seek autographs as reporters, you’re just not supposed to do those things. And yet somehow he made us do them. He was really gracious that night and kind and gave us a great family memory."

Thus, this story had a bit of a personal touch for Barr. While he was sure to say his notion of who Halladay was didn't come from someone who knew him personally, Halladay's death in 2017 hit him hard; Barr cried upon hearing the news.

"I think a lot of people had that reaction. Look, that’s not coming from a place of someone who personally knew Roy Halladay. I didn’t. It was the idea of the guy, it was what he represented. He represented sort of this ideal," Barr said. "I guess, if nothing else, we discovered he was human. And this just in: athletes are human. Even Hall of Famers like Roy Halladay struggle.

"That’s the real point that Brandy wanted to try and drive home, that she hoped by putting herself out there she could drive home: Even people like Roy Halladay, who project this confidence and this stoic work ethic to the world, even people like that struggle. They need help. And they need to be able to ask for help."

Brandy's message given during her Hall of Fame speech was the same that she wanted to convey in this documentary, despite the painful and extremely personal memories of her late husband that it brought up: through hard work, dedication, and humility, imperfect people can have perfect moments. Barr and his producers wanted to help deliver that message in a way they felt was respectful and not in a manner that could be conceived as "grief porn." Even though the project is missing some elements Barr wanted to include -- the global pandemic brought travel restrictions that made on-camera interviews very difficult to execute -- he hopes it achieves what Brandy wanted it to.

"We weren’t interested in doing something that came off as exploitative. We wanted to do something that was honest, we wanted to do something that had integrity, and we wanted to do something that had a purpose," said Barr. "I hope we were able to accomplish all three of those things. That’s certainly what we strive to do."

Imperfect: The Roy Halladay Story will premiere on ESPN on Friday at 7 PM ET.

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