"You headed to the Jays game?"
It was a stranger on the subway talking to me. An older man, bearded, carrying one of those shabby Blue Jays giveaway bags from Mr. Sub that looked like it was won back in the Juan Guzman era. I was alone on the subway, headed to the Rogers Centre. I was probably around 17, which would put this squarely in the year 2004. You remember the summer of 2004: the Expos were bidding a final adieu, Paul Martin was forming an ill-fated government, your crappy local Canadian mall had a MusicWorld between the Randy River and the Stitches - and a tall redheaded man named Harry Leroy Halladay III was the reigning Cy Young winner after an otherworldly workhorse season, one where he faced 1,071 batters over 260 innings pitched.
Of those 1,071 batters he faced in 2003, only 253 collected a hit, a paltry 39 got walked or wild-pitched, nine were foolish enough to crowd his sinker and got plunked, and the rest--all seven-hundred-and-seventy of them--trotted right back to the dugout as failures.
"Yeah," I answered to the old-timer. It was pretty obvious where I was headed. As a high school kid with nothing to do on a muggy summer weekday, I'd catch a bus from the boonies of suburban North York, hop on the subway, find the scalper who looked least likely to murder me for meth money, palm him some cash I'd earned at my summer job mopping puke at Rainbow Cinemas, stroll into the Rogers Centre-née-SkyDome and plunk down in my seat to watch that season's 67 W - 94 L Blue Jays.
"Yeah, I saw you've got the new jersey," the old-timer said. Damn right I was wearing my spiffy new Jays jersey on the subway - the black alternate, natch, courtesy of Santa Claus. In retrospect, those 2004-2011 duds will probably mark a forgotten era of Toronto Blue Jays history, duds in both a performance-wise and sartorial sense. As hard as it is to believe, I used to like that logo. We all kinda did. One day in the distant future the idea of the Blue Jays switching to silver-and-black uniforms with a sharper, meaner, over-stylized Terminator-lookin' logo, complete with our formerly passive blue jay now seeming to be full of Nu-Metal rage, will scream "that's SO '00s", the same way we now get a knee-jerk so '80s! reaction from this, or this. But at the time, those new Jays duds looked fresh.
Image from Carrie Hunt and the Spoonerisms
The stranger and I talked about the team the whole ride, since my parents apparently never taught me not to talk to weirdos on the subway. Boy, that Rios sure can hit. I hope the rumours about Delgado leaving aren't true. He asked me who was pitching today, and I said I thought it was Halladay.
That's when I saw it. He had a wistful look in his eyes the moment Halladay was mentioned. "I tell ya, that Halladay, he's something special." It was like he was talking about a beloved childhood pet, not a local baseball player.
I said something to the effect of "Yeah, he's really good". The old-timer, smelling of Labatt Ice and a half-pack of smokes, leaned in and told me something that struck me: "Naw, he ain't just good, he's once-in-a-lifetime. Just watch."
I don't know why I remember talking to a grizzled eccentric on the subway about Roy Halladay nearly a decade ago, but I think from that point forward, it gave me some perspective. Here was a guy who'd probably seen four decades of mostly-heartbreaking Toronto sports--he knew the bad from the good, plus a crapload of the plain old mediocre. He knew how to tell a flash-in-the-pan success story from a bona fide star in the making. I guess to that point I'd been taking Roy Halladay for granted. He was our best pitcher, but ultimately, just another one of our five starters. And those five starters were just part of the 25 guys on the team, all with their own roles and personalities and stats to memorize. I was a greenhorn teenage baseball fan, after all – maybe I just thought having a Cy Young winner on your team was normal. Maybe I figured every team had a guy who'd go eight or nine innings every single night, pitching like he'd unlocked a cheat code, frustrating a new batch of baffled batters night in and night out with a slew of weak grounders to the shortstop and devastating, knee-buckling curveball strikeouts.
It turns out that no other team had a Roy Halladay. For a decade of dominance, he was ours and ours alone.
We didn't have five starters. We had four starters and one Doc Halladay.
The Doctor Is In
Nothing about Roy Halladay's demeanor screams "fun". From his granite-faced expression to his reputation for military-like focus and seriousness, he was no one's idea of a barrel of laughs. His retirement press conference may have been the most he's smiled in public in the past 10 years, his playoff no-hitter excluded. But one thing was undoubtedly fun: watching Roy pitch.
It didn't matter whether it was against the dynasty-era Yankees or the dumpster-fire-era Devil Rays, he'd approach every game like it was the deciding World Series game he would ultimately never get to play in.
Roy's tall, imposing body would stand astride the mound like a Colossus, still like a statue, burning a hole through the opponent's bat with his unblinking gaze. It must have been terrifying to face Roy Halladay in his prime. I can just imagine stepping up to the plate, looking into his fiery orange beard and coal-black pupils staring back at you, knees trembling over what might be coming. For one, Halladay's just a huge human being. Batters who've faced him have said it felt like he was on top of you, like the ball was coming down at you from the heavens, able to dart in on your hands with his sinker or slip away off the plate with his cutter. He'd uncork his body in a flash of speed and his signature cutter would whiz by at 92 MPH, first feeling like it was coming right in on your delicate little hands, breezing your knuckle hair, then zipping back to catch the inside corner of the plate.
Spitting on the AstroTurf and readjusting, you'd cock your bat and get ready--alright, here comes that cutter again, time to take a King Kong swing and unleash hell on this freaky ginger Mormon. The windup is the same, it's a buckle-high fastball right down Main Street, you're thinking cutter right out of his hand--only this time instead of zipping away, it darts in on you. You've swung right into Halladay's sinker, catching the handle of your bat and slashing it harmlessly foul, leaving your hands ringing like a jackhammer.
He knew you'd swing. Roy Halladay was five steps ahead of you on this entire at-bat. He'd been thinking about you since 8 AM this morning, you poor little Devil Rays batter. He's been sitting alone and going through this exact at-bat in his head over and over again.
He's playing chess, and all you brought was a checkers set.
On the third pitch you're tied up in a pretzel as a looping curveball comes in on you, dropping away and catching the corner of the plate. The ump rings you up with a bellow that echoes through the mostly-empty blue plastic of SkyDome. Radios across Ontario crackle with Tom Cheek howling "Got him!"
You retreat to the dugout, defeated, knowing what it feels like to be humbled by the best pitcher in baseball.
Back in the primordial soup that was mid-2000s internet sports discussion, there was no Twitter for teenagers to voice their dumb Vernon Wells opinions, so I'd frequent blogs like Drunk Jays Fans in its primitive Blogspot form. In any game thread before a Halladay start, Stoeten would post his crudely-Photoshopped picture of Roy Halladay as Terminator--half his face burned off over T-800 exoskeleton. It was a fitting image for Roy. For one, his pitching seemed so effortlessly dominant, so automatic, that we truly believed for a while that he must have been part cyborg. But on a deeper level, there was something about Roy Halladay's personality that seemed robotic. His focus and determination seemed superhuman. On TV you'd see him on the bench, just sitting alone with his jacket on, staring dead ahead with a grim, almost frightening level of focus in his eyes. No one dared speak to Roy while he was in the groove. Robo-Doc had taken over, and unnecessary conversation would just confuse his programming.
You can just imagine that when he stepped on the mound Roy saw everything in Terminator-vision, stats and figures and diagrams calculating everywhere. An infrared target would focus on the catcher's glove with blinking red text: "TARGET: ACQUIRED. CALCULATING PITCH SELECTION... PITCH SELECTED: CUTTER, OUTSIDE CORNER. PROJECTED OUTCOME: SWINGING STRIKE."
How did Roy become half-man/half-machine, the RoboCop of Major League Baseball? The conventional wisdom is that it must have happened back in 2001. Now part of the familiar Roy Halladay mythos, Roy made his Major League debut in '98, pitched a near no-hitter in his second MLB start (broken up by a pinch-hit homerun with two out in the ninth, in a game that lasted only 1 hour, 45 minutes), completely fell apart in 2000 to the tune of a historically-bad 10.64 ERA, and got sent all the way down to single-A ball in 2001. Not just rehabbing in AAA, or AA--crashing down in a freefall all the way south to sleepy Dunedin, Florida with the single-A Dunedin Blue Jays.
The late Mel Queen was brought out of retirement just to fix Halladay. It's almost as if he reported back to the brass in Toronto: "We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world's first bionic pitcher." In Dunedin, Halladay was completely dismantled by Queen. Not only were his pitching mechanics completely rebuilt from the ground up, Roy's entire way of thinking and pitching was stripped to the bone, leaving nothing but a shell of pure, raw talent. All the way from the bottom of the barrel, rescued from the brink of career disaster, Roy Halladay the Machine was born.
Armed with a new pitch repertoire, new throwing grips and a new mental outlook after the gruelling bootcamp in Dunedin, Roy Halladay returned to Toronto a new man. Just over a year later, Roy would throw four consecutive complete games, rack up 22 wins, and pitch 266 innings (no pitcher has thrown 260+ IP since) on the road to the Cy Young award. For Jays fans he had become more myth than man, a towering figure whose intensity would strike fear into the hearts of opponents (and, occasionally, teammates who would dare talk to him on start days.)
A Halladay to Remember
We tend to focus so much on his cyborg half, we forget his human half. Roy Halladay would step off the mound after a gruellingly intense outing, and he'd go back to being a mild-mannered citizen, with a wife and kids and a keen sense of humour. Maybe that dichotomy was what drew us to Roy. Maybe as a city, we've got a bit of that ying and yang--that business-like scowl mixed with that vulnerable humanity.
Sometimes you'd hear an anecdote about Roy just being the most down-to-earth, fun-loving goofball, and you'd wonder if they were talking about the same warrior-like Roy Halladay who'd fight through a shredded shoulder if it meant giving his team another strikeout. It's hard to parse the vision of the intense, glowering Roy punching into his mitt after giving up a hit, and the Roy who was the most warm-hearted, generous guy in Toronto during his decade of dominance. After Spring Training night games in Dunedin he'd kick back in a tent behind the stadium bullpen, just having a beer with fans and shooting the breeze about baseball. He genuinely loved the city of Toronto, too--unlike a lot of local athletes, he actually lived in the city and became part of the local community, attending charity events and raising his children here. (His son Braden, now 13, was born in Toronto.) With his wife Brandy he started the Doc's Box program, partnering with Sick Kids Hospital to let hospitalized kids and their families enjoy Jays games. He always had time for children, and would take the time to chat up a group of kids for up to an hour just signing autographs.
Ultimately, that love of kids and family was in a way what led him to an early retirement. Here was a man who loved baseball more than you or I will ever love anything--but even then, he somehow found a way to love his family even more. He wanted to spend time with his kids, and avoid a of back surgery that might have squeaked out a couple more playing seasons at the expense of his quality of life. Not to mention that as a genuinely upstanding man, he had a hard time accepting another year of the Phillies' money if he didn't feel he could compete at the level he was being paid. He accepted his retirement the same way he accepted his 2001 demotion, and his 2009 trade: with humility and class.
A lot has been written about that dark day in December of 2009 when the Jays traded Halladay. We all huddled around blogs like families huddled around a wartime radio broadcast, waiting for the grim news. We swallowed hard and accepted our fate, and asked each other how the name "Drabek" was pronounced. The greatest player Toronto sports fans had seen in a generation was gone--but in a way, it's like he never left. We all knew that Roy was going to leave, but what we didn't expect was the full-page newspaper ad he took out the next day to thank Toronto fans. The overwhelming sentiment from Toronto sports fans, a group known for being burnt-out and bitter? "No, Roy: thank you."
Photo Credit: Abelimages
Although his initial homecoming as a member of the Phillies was delayed by a bunch of idiots setting fire to police cars up and down Queen West, I was at the game where Roy finally came home. I joined 50,000 other Jays fans, players, and staff members in a standing ovation. We all clapped until our palms hurt.
* * *
A Canadian woman named Joni Mitchell used to busk in downtown Toronto in the 1960s not far from where Roy Halladay lived, and she once wrote a lyric that rings true:
"Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."
We couldn't truly appreciate Roy Halladay while he was in Toronto, because we were too caught up in the moment. Now that we can step back and have some perspective on his career as a whole, it's only now that we can see him for what he was.
He was exactly what the old man on the subway told me: "once-in-a-lifetime."
This piece is an edited version of the original, which was posted on Carrie Hunt and the Spoonerisms on December 17. Reprinted with permission of the author.