This story was originally published in 2018.
It was late May and Jonathan Fisher was thrust into circumstances he had never imagined back in the fall: He had been handed the ball for the finale of the Florida high-school season — the state-championship game. A right-handed senior and Calvary Christian High School’s No. 2 starter, he didn’t have “big velo” — a fastball he could blow by batters, even at the bottom of the order. He threw a sinker, a change and maybe a curve, and pitched to contact. Somehow, he had made it through the season without a nervous moment he couldn’t overcome, but still, this last start was a game of another scale.
In quick succession in the first inning, he gave up a walk and a single and then hit a batter. Bases loaded, one out. Fisher hung his head. Doubts he had been able to suspend in the weeks before cast their huge shadows over him. He looked over to the dugout. Are they pulling me? The last game of the season was no time for indecision. He had seen four batters and already one swing of an opposing bat could put the game out of reach.
Fisher saw the coaches talk and then one walked out of the dugout. He swallowed hard. Don’t let it end here. Maybe in some other situation or with some other team he could plead his case, but not with the Calvary Christian pitching coach, who happened to own two Cy Young Awards. If Roy says it’s over, it’s over.
Roy Halladay reached the mound and stood facing Fisher. He drew a breath and started to speak. Fisher strained to hear him over the bench-jockeying from the opponents’ dugout. Fisher’s mind was racing. “No tomorrow” always sounds so melodramatic, but this one time it applied — both in the way Fisher knew going in and in another way no one could have suspected.
I reached out to the Philadelphia Phillies during spring training last year to try to set up an interview with Roy Halladay for a retrospective about the greatest Blue Jays of all time. Halladay would have to sit at or very near the top of any list of the team’s best-ever. After all, he won a Cy Young in Toronto and finished in the top five of the voting four other times over a seven-year stretch during which he was often the Jays’ solitary bright spot. Further, Halladay was arguably the most respected player across the franchise’s four decades. No one begrudged him his request for a trade to a contender so that he’d finally have a chance to pitch in the post-season. He couldn’t wait out another attempted rebuild, given that he had been an ironman on the mound, three times leading the American League in innings pitched; he knew best of all that his work ethic would likely cut his career short.
During his playing days, Halladay mostly avoided the media spotlight and fiercely defended his privacy. I was heartened when it looked like the Phillies had an interview lined up. Then a team rep told me it had fallen through with no hope of rebooking. Halladay had “other commitments.” No doubt he had many commitments, but, as it turned out, the most immediate and the most pressing last spring was a high-school baseball team, a team that his older son Braden pitched for. When I first heard the reports of Roy Halladay’s death in the crash of a light aircraft last November, I thought immediately about the interview that fell through. And then I thought about that high-school team.
At the age of 36, Roy Halladay announced his retirement at MLB’s winter meetings. It was December 2013, and though he had been the game’s best pitcher in his prime, his last two seasons with the Phillies had been a struggle with back and shoulder injuries that required surgery. Halladay had listened to his body: It was time. He could live without pain and maybe he could even throw without pain, but he couldn’t pitch like his former self.
“It’s so much fun to play the game and go out and compete,” Halladay said at the press conference. “I looked forward to that fifth day more than anything. To go out there and know it’s not going to feel good and I wasn’t going to do it the way I wanted was frustrating. I tried to give everything I can but something was holding me back. I felt I couldn’t give them what I wanted to. As a baseball player, you realize that’s something you can’t do the rest of your life. There are always going to be things that I miss. As much as I worked out, I’m not going to miss it. I’m not going to miss the cuffed weights and running poles. I really don’t have any regrets.”
Halladay didn’t make a clean break from MLB. Sure, he didn’t take a full-time job in the game, but in the next few years, come spring training, he checked in at the Phillies’ and Jays’ camps. Eventually, he spent all of his time with the Phillies in Clearwater, working informally with pitchers — if you can call hours in the bullpen “informal.” Halladay might not have missed the sweat and hard toil but it did seem like he missed the company of players. He could offer the next generation a lot of the wisdom that he had worked 20 years to gain, wisdom that was of no use to him away from the diamond. He thrived in the role of mentor — if he could no longer win Cy Youngs, then touching the career of someone who might was the next best thing. As Halladay told a Florida cable-news network last spring: “I’ve been fortunate to spend so much time with so many great baseball people. I feel like it is a responsibility to give some of that knowledge back.”
With the 162-game grind behind him, Halladay spent the balance of the year at home with his wife, Brandy, and his sons, Braden and Ryan. But surrounded by major-leaguers for those few weeks every spring, he sought out the rhythms of his glory years, a stay-cation in the game, a fantasy camp for an All-Star. That was Roy “Doc” Halladay in Retirement, as the public saw him from afar. The Roy Halladay that people knew around Clearwater was somewhat different, however.
When he announced his retirement, Halladay said that he wanted to watch his sons grow up, and that’s what he went on to do during their middle-school years — often from the aluminum benches at local diamonds. Braden and Ryan played for youth league teams, Little League and the Florida Burn, a travel team. Halladay taught his sons the fundamentals, but didn’t force-feed them the game. If he had any inclination to stay in the background and leave coaching to others, he put that aside, knowing that keeping his distance might come off as selfish or standoffish, which in turn might impact his sons. He was careful not to give his boys special attention, a tough and often thankless balancing act, especially with a lot of parents deeply invested in their own sons’ nascent careers.
By the accounts of the young men who played for Halladay, he was only initially an intimidating presence. “Roy was the biggest thing ever, the biggest thing of anyone you’d ever meet, and he carried himself like he was nothing special, just another guy,” says Nolan Hudi, who was playing on a Little League team with Braden when he first met Roy. “He didn’t make a big deal of himself at all. He showed everyone what it looks like to be humble. I think there was some part of him that wanted to disappear after his playing days, to be around his family, fly his planes and lead a normal life. Those of us around him every day understood that.”
Coming out of Little League, Braden evoked his father in mechanics and even channeled Doc on the mound. Yeah, Braden was all arms, legs and braces, not a powerhouse like his father, but then again, we only saw Roy Halladay when he hit Toronto, six-foot-six and more than 220 pounds. People who knew Roy going back to when he was drafted out of high school in Colorado said that he had been similarly lanky as a freshman. Though Braden was an adolescent in body, he was an old soul on the mound, gaining from his father an understanding of the art and science of pitching that you’d expect of a prospect in A-ball.
At one of Braden’s games in middle school, Greg Olsen walked up to Halladay and introduced himself. Olsen had been the baseball coach at Seminole, a powerhouse public high school in the Clearwater area, before walking away to a position at Calvary Christian, a private school that didn’t have a ballpark to call its own and little baseball history. Olsen didn’t think approaching Halladay would amount to much more than a handshake but it turned into a long conversation. “He’s a Hall of Famer and I’m just a high-school coach he didn’t know at all, but he actually took the time to talk to me about the game and our team,” Olsen says. “He seemed so down to earth. He just had an uncanny ability to make you feel comfortable talking to him. If you didn’t know his background, you wouldn’t guess it from meeting him for the first time.”
When Braden graduated from middle school, the Halladays looked at several options before settling on Calvary Christian. CCHS is affiliated with Calvary Church, which sits just across six lanes of traffic from the school on McMullen Booth Road in Clearwater. On the Calvary Church lawn, the sign reads: “Listen so ye can hear God whisper.” The school’s Christian values were only one of many factors in the family’s decision. And while education loomed large to make sure Braden was going to be set up for success in college, the decision hinged on baseball. Roy had connected with Olsen, and Braden had pitched at camps run by Calvary’s pitching coach, Mike White.
In Braden’s freshman year, he played for the junior varsity squad and his father stayed on the sidelines, volunteering to work the scoreboard and audio at games. “Roy was hesitant to get too involved [with the team] and just wanted Braden to earn his spot,” Olsen says. “But when Braden was called up to the varsity towards the end of his freshman season, Roy and I talked and he was more comfortable with idea of helping out.”
Olsen, now in his sixth season as coach of the Calvary Christian Warriors, wasn’t sure exactly how involved Halladay was planning to get when invited onto the staff. Olsen already had a full complement of coaches, including another former major-leaguer, Miguel Cairo, whose son Christian was the team’s shortstop. But even before the autumn baseball season started in November 2016, Olsen’s conversations with Halladay were daily and in depth, more detailed than the coach had expected. Halladay wound up calling every pitch thrown by a Calvary hurler, from the opening game through the final strike at season’s end. On a Venn diagram, Halladay the high-school baseball coach overlapped significantly with the Cy Young winner. It was a chance to be on the field every day with his son, but that was only a part of it. “He wanted to gather as much information as he could about our players,” Olsen says. “You could see just the idea of coaching got the wheels turning. You could see his excitement and passion.”
First baseman Cavan Ingram, a junior last season, says that Olsen and others on his coaching staff are “pretty intense” and Halladay provided “a calming influence” during tough game situations. “Coach Halladay would just tell us, ‘OK, just calm down … we’ve got this,’” Ingram says. Added second baseman Justin Bench, also a junior last season: “He was a mix of being a holler guy and doing things quietly, maybe more of the quiet side. Still, he wanted energy. When we weren’t in the field or at bat, he wanted us up on the fence and into the game. He wanted us yelling, but to be respectful.”
Halladay didn’t just parachute in for games. He invited Hudi to his house to discuss opposing teams’ lineups. “Braden wasn’t even home but Roy and I sat in the batting cage for over an hour just breaking down the batters in the next game — way above and beyond,” Hudi says. The open-door policy extended beyond the pitchers he worked with. When Ingram broke his wrist, he told his parents that he wanted hyperbaric treatment to speed the healing process. When they told him the treatments were expensive and involved long wait times, he said that Halladay had offered to let him use his hyperbaric chamber. “Roy told me, ‘You can use it any time … my home is your home,’” Ingram says.
Halladay’s presence in the dugout made Calvary Christian a human-interest story during spring training last year as he divided his time between working with the Phillies in the morning and Braden and his high-school teammates after class. “To be around [Braden], to watch him go through this experience, knowing how much I enjoyed it when I was his age, it’s definitely a special time,” he told Bay News 9, a local cable-news network. “He’s always loved playing so much. I really felt like it was my responsibility to help him to where he could enjoy playing and be competitive.”
Though a small school with just 500 students, Calvary Christian was considered one of the stronger teams in Pinellas County going into the 2017 season. The Warriors were coming off an 18-8 season with a healthy bunch of returning players. They had reason to think they could come out of their district, maybe even take a run at a top-10 ranking in Florida, arguably the state richest in high-school baseball talent. “When we were freshman, we knew that if we were going to make a run at getting to the state tournament, it was going to be in my junior year, the way that senior class [of 2017] was set up,” says catcher Mathieu Nelson.
On the scouting report, checkmarks stood beside hitting for average, hitting for power and fielding, but beside pitching there was a question mark — or at least an asterisk. Hudi, a lefty who twisted batters in knots, was the ace, though just a sophomore. Graham Hoffman, a senior, was that high-school star athlete straight from Central Casting: Standing six-foot-four and weighing around 220 pounds, he started at shortstop but, coming in as a closer, he could stand on the mound and run the count to 0-and-1 with just a hard stare at a weak-kneed sophomore — word around the team was that one MLB scout had measured his fastball as high as 97 on the radar gun. What the Warriors lacked was a No. 2 starter. It was too big of an ask for Braden, just a sophomore. Enter Jonathan Fisher, whose good stuff in the bullpen hadn’t really translated to success in games. As a junior in the spring of ’16, Fisher had thrown 26 innings, just a couple of starts in games that didn’t count in the conference standings, and his stats didn’t offer much hope: a 5.05 ERA and 22 walks.
After two seasons with the Warriors — seasons he considered disappointing — Fisher wasn’t even sold on playing his senior year. “I hadn’t pitched as much and as well as I hoped to,” Fisher says. “I was thinking that maybe I should just focus on school and get my applications out. I wanted to take architecture and get into a good school. I was a little burned out. I knew my ceiling … I wasn’t going to be a college player.”
Coach Olsen had told him that he had a shot at being the No. 2 starter, but Fisher wasn’t really buying it. Then Halladay sat him down for a long chat. “I didn’t know what to expect. I knew Braden and I had seen Roy around but never talked to him. I’ll admit that I was a little star-struck — I mean, c’mon, a Cy Young winner talking to me. Roy believed in me more than I believed in myself. It was Roy who really convinced me to pitch my senior year.”
During long sessions in the bullpen between starts, Halladay tweaked Fisher’s delivery — a smoother leg kick, a shorter stride coming to the plate. Halladay showed Fisher a one-seam sinker that he’d add to the tool kit — he had thrown a four-seamer as a sophomore and junior. That helped, but nothing in mechanics or repertoire constituted a silver bullet. There was no eureka moment, just steady progress over the course of months. “The biggest change was mindset,” Fisher says. “It cut both ways. On the one hand, he had me focus and work like I hadn’t before. On the other, he told me to go have fun … to enjoy myself.”
Calvary Christian punches above its weight, playing against 4A schools with much larger enrolments. Then again, going into the 2017 season, very few 4A and 5A schools could boast six juniors and seniors with scholarships to NCAA D-1 powerhouse programs waiting for them. Despite many nervous moments, including seven one-run victories, the Warriors rolled undefeated through their local conference and non-conference games in the spring of ’17, then through regional qualifying to make it all the way to the state tournament with a 28-0 record. The team’s ace was Hudi, who posted a 10-0 record with a 0.54 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings for Calvary, earning him All-American Sophomore honors from MaxPreps.
Olsen couldn’t save his ace for the state championship game — there was no holding back in the four-team tournament. Hudi got the start and the win in the semi against Delray Beach. So, in the title game against Pensacola Catholic the next night, the Warriors handed the ball to Fisher, a senior, but one who had only started a couple of non-league games as an underclassman. The team’s charmed season seemed like it might have run its full course in that first inning when Fisher loaded the bases with one out, the situation that prompted Halladay’s appearance on the mound.
Fisher was in something near a dead panic while his coach spoke steadying words. “Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what he said to me,” Fisher says. “This was the biggest moment of my career, the biggest game. Whatever Roy said to me must have worked.”
Fisher struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning unscathed. In fact, he wound up going five innings, getting the W and flirting with what could have been a complete-game victory: Calvary Christian won in the most emphatic fashion, beating Pensacola 11-1 in just six innings — an undefeated season punctuated with a title game called on the mercy rule. It was also the last game that Jonathan Fisher will ever pitch. “I knew that going in,” Fisher says. “It was something I had talked about with Roy. He said he understood. It was the perfect way for it to end and I told him that it wouldn’t have been possible without him.”
After the game, Halladay and another coach hoisted Olsen onto their shoulders for a victory lap around the infield. “It meant as much to him as it did to us — and you know for most of us, that’s the biggest game we’ll ever play,” Ingram says. When they put Olsen down, a reporter asked the coach where his team should rank. “This team is No. 1 in the nation,” Olsen answered.
The actual number would fall somewhat short of that — MaxPreps had Calvary Christian No. 4 in its national top 10. No matter, if you looked at the expression on Halladay’s face in the photos taken that evening. Whether he was carrying Olsen or standing out in front of the team taking a selfie, it looked like he had won the biggest game of his life. He was utterly in the moment, his broad smile a stark contrast to the Roy Halladay the public saw in Toronto and Philadelphia.
Everyone on the Warriors knew about Roy’s love of planes. His obsession with flight was hardly a secret; the son of a pilot, Halladay had posted YouTube videos of the light aircraft he flew. Still, the players knew better than most just how deeply this thread ran through his daily life. When they arrived for practice at Victory Field after school, they’d often find him flying one of his drones high above the ballpark. In fact, at the state championship tournament, Halladay got some grief from officials who thought he was flying drones around the practice fields, spying on Calvary Christian’s opponents. (Don’t let anyone tell you high-school baseball isn’t taken seriously in Florida.) Olsen convinced them it was just Halladay’s hobby; that he just liked to play with his toys.
On the first weekend of November, Nelson and Hudi swung by Braden’s house to hang out, throwing and taking a few cuts in the backyard batting cage. At some point, Halladay came by the cage to tell Braden he was going up in his light aircraft, an ICON 15. “I said, ‘Really, from your backyard?’” Nelson says. “He said, ‘Yeah, c’mon up.’”
Thus did Nelson, having never before flown in a plane of any description, sit in the passenger side of a two-seat aircraft with Roy Halladay at the controls. What’s more: When the plane reached an altitude of 3,000 feet, Halladay told Nelson to take the controls for a bit — there were sticks on both sides of the cockpit. “Roy explained the basics and said, ‘Just be gentle with it,’” Nelson says. “I’ll admit my heart was in my throat when we took off, but he really put me at ease up there. It was sort of peaceful and awesome at the same time.”
Not long after they landed, Halladay took Hudi up. “Roy had just been up with Matt but he went through all the safety checks again after he had me buckle up,” Hudi says. “We went to gas the plane up and, same thing, all the safety checks again. I thought, ‘He really has this all under control, like his pitching, all about details and preparation. I got a selfie with Roy up there. It was an amazing experience.” That image from a few thousand feet above the Gulf of Mexico would come hauntingly back to everyone in Roy Halladay’s life just two days later.
On Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, Calvary Christian had an autumn exhibition game at Countryside High School, the largest school in the county. Roy thought it was a full-dress day for the coaches and arrived at the ballpark only to find Olsen and the rest in t-shirts and shorts. It was sort of like wearing a suit and tie to a bowling alley. Halladay caught some ribbing about overdressing from coaches and players alike. “Thanks for the memo,” he said to Olsen and everyone in the dugout burst into laughter.
It turned out to be the last time Roy Halladay was ever in full uniform.
The following day, Hudi’s phone started vibrating constantly in the late afternoon. He looked for notifications: It was his Twitter account. The photo he had taken with Halladay in the plane, one that had been retweeted by Halladay on the weekend, had been retweeted and liked hundreds of times within the past hour as the school day wound down. Hudi couldn’t process the comments on his tweet. “They said, ‘R.I.P. Roy’ or ‘This is the last picture of Roy ever’ or stuff like that,” Hudi says. “I thought, ‘Where’s this coming from? It’s garbage, fake. I just saw Roy not 24 hours ago.’ I called Braden and said, ‘Do you know if your dad was flying today?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him today. My mom called me out of school 10 minutes early to pick up Ryan.’ I thought that was weird because [Braden] never does that. So, I told him, ‘Call your mom. Call your dad. Get in touch and let me know.’”
At this point, Hudi was rattled. He took a screenshot of the comments on his tweet from the weekend and sent it in a text to Halladay along with a brief message: “Are you okay? Are you there?” Hudi waited a few minutes. No reply. He sent one final text: “Roy?” Dread finally overrode denial. “I called Braden,” Hudi says. “I asked him, ‘Are you with someone? Are you home? If you’re not come over to my house or I’ll come over to your house.’ He was home, so I drove over there.”
It was on the drive to the Halladays’ when media reports confirmed that a plane that had gone down over the Gulf of Mexico near New Port Richie, Florida was the same one Roy had taken Nelson and Hudi up in on Saturday. At the top of the street, Hudi saw TV crews at the gate of the Halladay home and then he got a text from his mom confirming that it was Roy piloting the plane.
The reality — the death of a hero, a coach and a friend — still hadn’t sunk in when Hudi came into the house where Brandy’s family and friends were gathered in grief and disbelief. Only later did Hudi realize that he was the first to break the news to his friend. “It was totally accidental,” he says. “It’s still so hard to talk about.”
The players from the championship team and the coaches were spread far and wide, but all found out about the crash within seconds of each other: a family member or friend had seen a news report on CNN or Fox News or heard it on the radio. Texts and phone calls soon followed.
Hoffman, the Central Casting closer, was on campus at the University of South Florida, just finishing up a gym session with the varsity team, when he got a call and the awful news from his mother. “It hit hard,” he says. “I had only really spent a year working with Roy but I considered him a friend, someone I was going to stay in touch with for as long as I played baseball and after that. After a while, I thought about all the conversations we would have had and how they’re just gone.”
Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.
Fisher was coming out of class at the University of Miami. Again, the news was delivered in a text from home. “My classes were done for the day when I heard,” he says. “I couldn’t have gone back. I was too shaken up at that point. I couldn’t process it. He made me a better pitcher and I think he made me a better person.”
Hudi stayed at the Halladays’ that night. The next day, after school, Christian Cairo and Mathieu Nelson also went by the house and slept over. While Braden stayed at home that Wednesday, the entire student body at Calvary Christian attended a special chapel service. “It was awfully quiet there,” Ingram says. “It hit everyone hard, not just the players. We couldn’t imagine what Braden and his family were going through.”
After school, Olsen gathered the team in the clubhouse for a prayer and a talk that was raw with emotion. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a coach, to talk to young men about the death of a friend,” Olsen says. The coach gave each player the choice of working out or going home. Cavan Ingram took a few cuts in batting practice but only lasted a few minutes. Justin Bench didn’t even try, he just went home. “I was numb,” Bench says.
Hudi, Nelson and Christian Cairo wound up being the first wave of teammates who showed up to support the Halladays, knocking on the door or by dialing Braden’s number or texting. “I just wanted to be the best friend I could to Braden, just what I would have wanted a friend to do for me,” Hudi says. “Let him know that we love and care for him and whatever he’s going through other people are with him. He’s not going through it alone. I was hurting for a while — I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose my father. If I can help him a little or a lot, I would. It’s a tragic thing but it brought us closer. We were teammates. Now we’re brothers, forever. We all lost Roy. Whenever I pitch from here on, I’m writing ‘Roy’ in the dirt behind the rubber.”
On the first Friday night of the season a few weeks ago in February, the Warriors hosted the varsity team from Clearwater Countryside. The artificial turf of Victory Field looked like it was just laid down yesterday; the basepaths were flawlessly groomed. Stadium seating rose up from the diamond, something close to major-league quality behind the backstop. Parents seemed to command those choice seats, while the benches were taken over by CCHS students. Music pumped through a concert-quality sound system.
At 6:30, the music faded out and the sun was nearly set. The tykes running around behind the backstop — the kid brothers and sisters of some of the ballplayers — were rounded up and hushed by their parents. Those older ones playing touch football out near the parking lot stopped their game. In other, better circumstances, this would have been the occasion for the unfurling of a championship banner, the introduction of returning players or some such. On this Friday night, though, there was a different ceremony. The Countryside players stood quietly and the whole Calvary Christian team came out of the dugout. The players from Ryan’s Florida Burn team stood by in uniform as well, beside the dugout down the third-base line.
“A major contributor to the success of the 2017 team was pitching coach Roy Halladay,” the announcer said. “Roy was a man who had achieved at the highest levels on the national stage, but to our players they called him ‘Coach.’ They saw a man who was helpful, genuine, consistent and willing to spend as much time as necessary with any player, regardless of his position. To our pitchers he made a special connection. Coach Olsen and the 2018 team have dedicated this season to the memory of Roy Halladay. Roy’s commitment to Calvary was not just his time. He and his wife Brandy gave the resources to support Calvary athletics. Tonight, we all enjoy the completion of this beautiful stadium, the stadium seating, the plaza, the press box and a new bullpen just to name a few of the things that were done. Please join us in showing your appreciation to Brandy, Braden and Ryan for all they’ve done for Calvary.”
Brandy and Ryan waved to the crowd but Braden’s mind was elsewhere, less than five minutes in the future: On the first pitch, which he was going to throw in his first start of the season. He walked his mom and brother to the foul line and turned back to the mound. He threw a few more pitches to his catcher, Nelson, in the warm-up while his infielders tossed the ball around behind him. “A couple of days before, Braden told me, ‘I don’t know if I can handle this,’” Nelson says. “All I could tell him was that we’d get through this, all of us together.”
The sun was almost down when the umpire said “play ball.” Braden’s first pitch was a fastball strike on the corner.
Braden Halladay has had stronger outings and he’ll have more. There was nothing wrong with his line, mind you: Across five innings against Countryside he’d give up five hits and two runs, one of them earned. He’d give up a walk and hit two batters, and seem to walk a tightrope all night — especially in the first inning, when the first run crossed the plate. In the son at that point, though, you could see hints of the father. Braden bore down, mad at himself rather than in meltdown mode, and stranded runners on the corners, much like Fisher had in the state championship game. “It’s understandable that he was anxious at the start,” Nelson says. “No one can ever know exactly what it was like for him to stand out there, with the ceremony for his father, and then to pitch.”
The Warriors rallied behind Braden, scoring five runs in the bottom of the first. They helped him out in the field as well, including throwing a runner out at the plate. And with his team building a big lead in the early innings, Braden got better as he went along and Countryside’s swings got a little weaker. He’d wind up striking out four and throwing 60 pitches, just five of them needed to get out of the fifth, his last inning of work.
At six-foot-one and maybe 160 pounds, Braden Halladay is not an intimidating sight on the mound like his father had been. Maybe that will come with growth. Still, there were moments, in the way he set himself, in his windup, in his stride and deliver, when the influence of his father was plain. Greg Olsen suggests it goes a long way beyond Braden’s genetics and physics. “His demeanour is just like his dad’s,” Olsen says. “He can step into any situation and handle it. Any player owns his own game and everyone who works with a player over the years can take a little bit of ownership, but it’d be naïve to think Braden didn’t watch his dad in games he pitched and come away with an understanding of the mental aspect of the game from one of the most intense competitors ever.”
By the end of the night, Cavalry would come away with a 9-2 rout. All the names and numbers in the box score would matter less than the single line: Halladay W (1-0). The Warriors had extended their undefeated streak to 33 games. But, at least momentarily this night, many at the ballpark were haunted by the one unimaginable loss.
After the game, after the handshakes, after a team prayer in the outfield, while the seniors met with family and friends outside the clubhouse, while underclassmen gathered up the bats and detritus in the home team’s dugout, I sought out Braden Halladay.
I found him joking around with his teammates, looking pretty much like any other teenage pitcher coming off a good performance and a win in his first start of the season. He smiled broadly when I asked him what this victory meant to him. “Everything,” he said. “This game was everything.”
These were words that I had expected; and I’d expected them to be followed by tears. I thought that the solemnity of the ceremony before the game was going to catch up to Braden, but his smile didn’t shrink and his eyes never reddened. He dwelled not on the ceremony but on the routine, not on the tragic loss but on the victory. “This win is big,” he continued. “It just sets a tone, as a team, at the beginning of the year. After last season, we’re not just thinking that we’re better than everybody. We want to be laser-focused on winning and being there for one another. I want to be there for my team because they were there for me.”
That answer seemed strange to me in the moment, but thinking on it later, it made sense. That “laser focus” was a tribute paid to his late father; Braden following in the footsteps of the man who caught the first ball he ever threw. Seeing that win for the team instead of the W beside his name was Braden living up to his father’s example, as a major leaguer and in the season he spent with Calvary Christian. Roy Halladay coached at C.C. but it was never about him at all. He wanted the spotlight on the kids during that undefeated campaign and even with his passing, it should remain there, with this team MaxPreps again rates as one of the top 10 in the U.S. this spring. Braden could best honour his father by carrying himself in a way that would make him proud: Team comes first.
Braden continued: “For me, on a sentimental level, it’s hard because he’s always been there, but just getting out here tonight just reassures me that everything is always going to be alright. And it’s not like he’s not still with me. I can still hear him while I pitch.”
When I asked Braden why Roy wanted to coach and why he gave so generously to the Calvary Christian program, his smile mirrored his father’s in the selfie after the championship game. “It was because it was my team,” he said. “Yeah, it’s also because of the other kids … I’ve known and grown up with so many of them and he was always around them. It’s like a big family that has been together for years, all through school. And he was like a big kid when he was with this team. It’s hard to go from playing baseball your whole life to being done. This was the thing that got him excited. There were parts of last season when he was more excited than I was. He was just that into it.
“Giving to the program, that’s just the way he is,” Braden continued. “He’s always been the most giving person I know. He was always trying to give back. He would take what he had been given and try to find a way to give it to someone else.”
Roy Halladay gave the Warriors the funds for a beautiful stadium, but he also gave something intangible and invaluable in that one season in the Calvary Christian dugout. I told Braden that I had spoken to Jonathan Fisher about Roy convincing him to believe in himself and settling him down in the first inning of the championship game, though Fisher couldn’t remember a word of the talk. I asked Braden how his father would have calmed down Fisher when things were threatening to go sideways.
“It was like when you’re a kid and you’re lost in a store,” Braden began. “You’re scared until your mom comes and then you’re all right. That’s how it was with my dad. If you’re on the mound or even in the bullpen and you pull off a little bit, don’t know what you’re doing wrong, he would come over and fix one little thing and then the next pitch is like five miles an hour harder on the corner. It wasn’t just that he knew what he was doing; just his presence made it so much better. We’re just kids, so with some coaches we’re going to think we know best. But with my dad, if he told you something you didn’t even question it. And he never gave up on anybody. He was the ultimate moral support.”
Roy Halladay didn’t give his son special attention in games and practices on Victory Field, unless you picked up on teasing and wisecracks. “He could be harder on me, I guess,” Braden says. “When I started to push rather than throw, when I’d get out in front of the ball, like this …” he says, putting his elbow too far out in front of his shoulder and torso, “… he’d say, ‘Don’t be afraid. Don’t be a little baby.’ Then, if I fixed it the next pitch, he’d say, ‘Wow, it’s almost like you know what you’re doing.’ He might not say it that way with someone else, but I got it and I gave it back to him as much as he ever gave it to me. We traded.”
I told Braden that’s exactly what I had heard from his teammates — every time one of them made hard contact when Roy would pitch them, Halladay’s ears would burn with a shot from his son shagging balls in the outfield. Braden laughed at the memory. “One time I almost hit a double off him in practice and one of our seniors made a diving catch,” Braden said. “I said, ‘Hey, I hit that off you.’ He bumped me around later. He said, ‘I got you out. You still can’t hit me.’ I never did get a hit off him.”
The father-and-son ribbing crossed over from the dugout into the Warriors’ online chatroom and maybe because he was stepping into his son’s world rather than his own, Roy Halladay was less a venerated former major-leaguer there and more so one of the guys. He would get busted by the team just like anyone else if he made a spelling mistake. When Halladay spent some time last summer with the Kansas Stars, an independent semi-pro team that draws a bunch of former major-leaguers for a throwback to the good old days, he was probably just asking for grief when he stepped on the mound. He knew it was coming when he found out the radar gun clocked him at 78 mph. Braden: “78, nice.” Roy countered: “Still throw harder than you.”
Olsen walked over to where Braden and I were talking. The coach was holding a jersey the team had given Brandy, Braden and Ryan in the pre-game ceremony: Though Calvary Christian rolls old school — just numbers, no names — this one had “HALLADAY” above the No. 32. That day the team had unveiled murals on a wall in the stadium’s courtyard: one featured the lineup of the championship team; the other, this jersey.
“I’ll put this is in your locker, okay?” Olsen said.
“Yeah, sure,” Braden answered, seeming utterly self-possessed, in command of the moment.
That’s how he still seemed in December, six weeks after his father’s death, when Penn State announced that he had accepted a baseball scholarship. Early in the fall, he had visited Happy Valley and hashed out all his options with his father. When I asked him about Penn State, Braden seemed confident and resolute about the decision. “It was the only visit I made and I told my dad how much I loved the atmosphere and the feeling around the team,” he said.
Braden didn’t entertain any thought about delaying or deferring his commitment because of his father’s death. It’s not what Roy Halladay would have wanted. It wasn’t too soon. It had to get done. It was baseball.
And so was this game against Countryside. The Calvary uniforms didn’t feature black armbands or any other symbol memorializing Roy Halladay’s passing, which you’d imagine is just the way he would have wanted it. Still, Braden wasn’t going to claim that, once he looked in for a sign from his catcher, it was just another game. “This is the first time that I ever pitched and he wasn’t there,” he said. “But he’s still there. He’s still there all the time. When I’m driving here or in the neighbourhood, I can still hear him telling stupid jokes. I hear him all the time. And on the mound, I could hear him tonight. When I was getting out in front …”
Braden closed his eyes and again pantomimed a throwing motion, awkward, his elbow out in front of his shoulder.
“… he was saying to me, ‘Don’t be afraid. Don’t be a little baby.’”
From the opening pitch to the last in the first game he threw without his father, Braden Halladay didn’t look afraid for one second. At some point between his last pitch of that undefeated season and his first in defence of the championship, the boy became a man. Everything is always going to be all right.
In Braden Halladay’s junior year, Calvary Christian Clearwater held down the No. 1 slot in USA Today’s national rankings but fell one game short of a second Florida 4A high-school title, losing in the final to Calvary Christian Fort Lauderdale. That loss ended CCC’s 60-game win streak over two seasons. In Braden’s senior year, CCC won its second title, avenging the loss to Fort Lauderdale in the semi-final.
Last June, the Blue Jays selected Braden in the 32nd round of the MLB draft, even though he had committed to a scholarship to Penn State University. In his first two games with the Nittany Lions — before the balance of the schedule was suspended — Halladay threw four innings, allowing no runs and giving up one hit.
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