He gets the game. All of Scott Boras' clients do. Holliday is a free agent in 3½ months. He already has lost tens of millions from his asking price because of a poor season – "just a terrible struggle," Holliday admits. And now, faced with a question to which there's no right answer publicly – does he have a preference for how the Oakland Athletics handle the next two weeks, keeping him or trading him? – Holliday suppresses any invective that may be tempted to escape, lest he get some sort of reputation and fritter away millions more.
"I do," Holliday said, "but I'm not going to say."
Holliday wants to. Any athlete stuck on a last-place team with playoff contenders still coveting him in spite of his problems would. And that message is: S.O.S. Rescue me, oh, good team, from the clutches of .431 baseball and spirit me away from the purgatory that is the Oakland Coliseum.
He doesn't. Just isn't Holliday's thing. He's too polite, too professional, too well-trained. He leaves those things to inference, because he has plenty more to worry about.
Like his swing. It's the reason Holliday continues to wear an A's uniform. Had he performed to his usual All-Star level, teams would gladly give up two prospects and perhaps more for the privilege of renting Holliday. Instead, he's stuck with a mediocre batting average (.276), a piddling home run tally (nine) and a slugging percentage 112 points below his career average (.539 to .427).
Holliday considers such numbers and cringes. He sees his low line-drive rate and high infield-pop-up issues and wonders what happened. This is not him. He is the 6-foot-4, 235-pound monster who hit 95 home runs the last three seasons. Forty-two of them went to the opposite field. Holliday hasn't hit one oppo this year, not even a fence kisser, and every game he goes without a hit or an RBI or a homer, this new emotion – "anxiety," he calls it – bites like a piranha.
"To a degree, we all deal with that," said Holliday, 29. "I've felt it a lot. It's like, man, I've pulled all my tricks. I've done everything I know to do. It's hard."
It all came so easy. Holliday blossomed with the Colorado Rockies and led them to a World Series, his chin-first dive into a playoff spot still the greatest moment in the team's history. The Rockies traded Holliday to Oakland this offseason after he turned down a four-year, $72 million deal, and he readied himself by tweaking his swing on the advice of an old friend.
Holliday started working with Mark McGwire, baseball's J.D. Salinger, during the 2006 season. They have formed a bond based around the efficacy of Holliday's swing, and McGwire this offseason suggested he try striding with his left leg instead of the trademark leg kick Holliday employs.
At first, Holliday blanched. McGwire, after all, was the one who originally suggested the leg kick. McGwire figured Holliday had matured past it, and after an offseason of training and a spring of adjusting to the stride, he unveiled it in major league games, with a new team, to little success.
"When you actually have to compete and mechanics have to be second nature … when you're thinking about them, your brain can't do all that at one time," Holliday said. "As much failure as we deal with, that's something we struggle with. If you don't get a hit one game, you're looking to fix it. I had started thinking too much. It was a vicious cycle. When you get stuck in it, it's hard to get out."
Holliday's felt like quicksand.
"When you get in a game against pitchers throwing in the mid-90s with great breaking balls, you need a timing mechanism," he said. "Some guys, the stride works. For me, it didn't. So I had to go back to the kick. Then there's an adjustment period. And it's hard in the major leagues to get hits when you're fiddling with your mechanics.
"I had a lot of trouble with my timing. I thought I could work through it. Once you do something and it becomes part of your swing and who you are, it's hard to go away from it."
So for the past two months, Holliday has relearned his swing through long hours of video analysis. He watched his old swing, then his new one, old, then new. He spotted the necessary adjustments. He tried not to think. He often failed at that, too.
All of this leaves Holliday in a fragile place: experiencing failure after having never done so in the major leagues. Holliday empathizes better ("I understand why other guys have these anxiety issues," he said) and frets at asking McGwire for more help ("I don't want him to feel like he has to hold my hand," he said). Holliday scoffs at skeptics ("People are saying, 'Oh, it was Coors Field,' and that's just not true," he said) and thinks he found his swing ("Finally," he said).
On the latter part especially, Holliday may be correct. In the first game out of the All-Star break, he yanked a line-drive home run to center field. It's the sort of display that if repeated over the next two weeks could get Holliday traded, even if he is owed $4.5 million for the remainder of the season.
"I don't know," A's manager Bob Geren said. "That's not my job. He's doing well. He's playing for me every day. Nothing to say on that. It's one of those … I can't give you the answer."
Geren hemmed and hawed because not even he knows how Oakland general manager Billy Beane and assistant GM David Forst will handle Holliday. If the A's keep him, they would likely offer arbitration to reap the two compensatory draft picks when he signs elsewhere. And so comes the starting price for a trade: at least two high-quality prospects.
Whether a team antes up for a sub-.800 OPS player depends on the market Beane and Forst can scare up. Though Oakland's performance has lagged significantly in recent years, the A's brain trust majors in extracting value – even in this buyers' time, where San Francisco, Atlanta and St. Louis, among others, could use a left fielder.
Holliday's availability depends, of course, on his rebirth. Is he a Coors Field mirage or a legitimate bopper? Can the new version of his old swing match the old version's might? And, biggest of all, will he or won't he get traded?
Fourteen days to keep biting that tongue.