TORONTO – Long before the pre-game ceremony officially began Thursday, there were reminders of Roy Halladay everywhere you looked.
A banner bearing his nickname, Doc, and his number, 32, covered the facing of the 400 level along the right field line. Dozens if not hundreds of fans wore Halladay’s jersey, while more still brought signs commemorating his life and career. “RIP #32,” read one prominently-displayed sign in left-centre.
Even behind the scenes, the tributes were evident. There’s a pitching rubber with Halladay’s No. 32 on it mounted on a wall within the Blue Jays’ clubhouse. The jerseys hanging in each player’s locker featured a No. 32 patch on the left sleeve to commemorate the pitcher who died tragically in a plane crash last November.
The atmosphere at Rogers Centre was already charged with emotion, then, when Halladay’s number retirement officially began before the Blue Jays’ season opener. By the time it had concluded, Halladay’s wife, sons, teammates and fans had all contributed to a memorable ceremony that ensured no Blue Jays player will ever again wear No. 32.
“He was a special guy, and I’m not just talking about what he did on the field,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, who managed Halladay from 2004-08. “He didn’t say a whole lot. He kept to himself. You’re not going to find a harder worker.
Evidently many others in the Blue Jays organization felt the same way. Standing alongside Halladay’s wife Brandy and sons Ryan and Braden was a collection of his teammates and coaches including Cito Gaston, Brad Arnsberg, Scott Rolen, Jose Cruz Jr., Paul Spoljaric, Paul Quantrill, Jason Frasor, Chris Carpenter and Pat Hentgen. From the third base dugout, the current edition of the Blue Jays watched as a video tribute commemorated his legacy.
“Every fifth day as a baseball fan, you couldn’t wait for Roy Halladay,” fellow Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen said in the video.
Over the course of 12 seasons with the Blue Jays, Halladay went 148-76, posted a 3.43 ERA, made six all-star teams and won the first of his two Cy Young Awards. A likely Hall of Famer, he becomes just the second Blue Jays player ever to have his number retired, joining Roberto Alomar.
Not only was Halladay effective, he was durable. He led the American League in innings three times as a member of the Blue Jays, topping out at 266 innings in 2003. Part of the reason he’d pitch so deep into games was his efficiency, but there was another factor in play, too.
“One thing about Roy,” Gibbons recalled. “He was elite in the game when he was pitching here, so from a manager’s standpoint, the biggest decision that you’d make is whether you take him out or not.”
Some days that call was easier than others. Gibbons recalls one game at Fenway Park where he pulled Halladay after eight innings only to see closer Miguel Batista allow the Red Sox to rally in the ninth. After the Blue Jays escaped with the win, Gibbons approached his ace.
“Roy, hey, I’ll never do that again,” Gibbons said. “Trust me.”
“He said ‘don’t worry about it,’” Gibbons added. “But I learned my lesson.”
After the video tribute played, the Blue Jays unfurled a No. 32 banner in centre field, officially retiring his number and ensuring that there will be a visual reminder of Halladay’s excellence from now on.
Normally, a ceremonial first pitch would follow. But under these circumstances, that wouldn’t have felt quite right, so Braden and Ryan Halladay walked to the mound their father starred on and placed a baseball there instead.