TORONTO – The first faux pas I committed covering the Toronto Blue Jays came during spring training in 2003, leading into my first full season on the beat. My plan for the day was to write about Roy Halladay, who just happened to be pitching that afternoon in Dunedin, Fla., and I was sadly unaware that even during the pre-season, starting pitchers are to be left alone before they take the mound.
Still, I asked someone whether it would be OK to approach Halladay and that person, perhaps having some fun with the new guy, replied, "it’s only spring training, go for it." Encouraged, I approached his locker, introduced myself and asked if we could chat for a few minutes. He tore himself from his pre-game prep, stared daggers at me, said curtly, "I’m pitching today," and turned away.
Pissing off the ace isn’t a great way to start the gig.
After he had pitched, I sought him out in the clubhouse and explained that I was still learning the protocol and wouldn’t make the mistake again. Halladay said it was fine, invited me to sit with him outside and we had the first of many great chats over the course of the past 15 years.
Like his teammates, I came to understand that it was never personal with Halladay, but that on game-days especially, he was of a singular focus, and he’d let nothing interrupt his process. The tunnel-vision preparation was never an act, it was an integral component of a regimented routine that was the foundation of a career that will earn him a place in the Hall of Fame.
I heeded the lesson of that day and learned when to approach Halladay, who when not in game-mode I found to be thoughtful, engaging and, on rare occasions when he chose to be, funny. As he became more settled in retirement, he allowed more of that side of him to emerge publicly.
We spoke for nearly two hours in October 2015 while I was writing The Big 50: Toronto Blue Jays and I remember being struck by his openness and candour. He thanked me for still wanting to write about him, which made me laugh.
Beyond his greatness on the mound that was such a joy to document, it’s the way he handled himself that made Halladay the most professional athlete I’ve had the privilege of covering on a regular basis. And while I rarely get personal in this space, it’s why like many fans I was gutted by news of his death Tuesday in a plane crash at age 40.
A former baseball executive wrote in an email to me that, "People will think everything said and written is hyperbole – it won’t be." That’s spot on. Rather than simply recount his accomplishments, here are a few personal memories from covering Halladay that struck me after his death.
The fist pump
On Sept. 27, 2003, Halladay closed out what turned out to be his first Cy Young Award campaign by throwing a 122-pitch complete game against Cleveland for win No. 22 of the season, still a club record. Up 5-4 in the ninth, the tying run reached second with one out but Halladay bore down to close out his ninth complete game of the year, striking out Chris Magruder before Jhonny Peralta grounded to second.
As the final out was made, Halladay broke from the almost robotic stoicism that became his trademark and wildly pumped his fist on the mound—an exceedingly rare outburst of emotion from him. In contrast, when he threw his perfect game with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2010, he simply smiled and hugged catcher Carlos Ruiz.
"I think for me it was kind of the culmination of the whole season and I had spent a lot of time talking to Harvey (Dorfman) that year," Halladay said of his fist pump during our 2015 chat. "We talked so much about consistency of outings, consistency of approach, and there was a lot of stuff going on with the Cy Young stuff that I had never had to deal with before. So for me it was such an absolute mental grind just to keep myself from getting out of my approach, from changing the way I was thinking and doing things. I didn’t want to go out and all of a sudden become a different pitcher. So I was really trying to focus on what my strengths were and how I was having success, and I think at the end of that game it was almost like being let out of church. You know you’ve been good for so long and so patient, that you could finally let things go. You knew you were done for the year so that’s exactly what it felt like. After sitting through a really long sermon, you finally get out and you can kind of go nuts."
Finish what you start
Among the many reasons Halladay was so revered was his determination to finish any game he started, and a long-running joke was how his managers feared walking to the mound to pull him from a game. I’m not sure about the date or year – a 4-1 win over Tampa Bay on May 23, 2006 sure matches the circumstance – but I remember John Gibbons giving Halladay the hook one night with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Afterwards, as media entered the clubhouse, the door to Gibbons’ office was unusually closed and a few minutes later, Halladay emerged, made no eye-contact with anyone and stormed off.
Angry at the hook?
"I don’t think Roy ever came on his own to talk to me about anything," said Gibbons, who doesn’t specifically recall the incident. "Maybe I brought him in, but that happened very rarely. One thing about him, I can never remember him complaining about a time when you’d take him out of the game when he thought he should have stayed in. I’m sure there were times he disagreed with it, but he always had great respect."
One hook Gibbons does remember vividly was on July 3, 2005, when with Halladay cruising and a 5-1 lead over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, he decided to pitch closer Miguel Batista in the ninth because, "he needed some work, he really did."
"So I said, ‘Doc, I’m going to give Batista the ninth inning,’ and he said, ‘fine,’" said Gibbons. "The next thing you know, they’ve got the winning run at the plate. We ended up winning the game (Batista popped up Mark Bellhorn before Scott Schoeneweis popped up Johnny Damon) and I can remember telling Doc, ‘Hey man, never again. I don’t care who needs work, if you can finish it, you’ll finish it.’ He just gave me a big old grin."
One spring, I believe it was 2007 or 2008, Frank Gunn, one of the fantastic photographers at The Canadian Press, called me over to show me an old photo of Halladay he’d found while clearing out some files on his laptop. The shot featured the right-hander changing his son Braden’s diaper on the clubhouse floor in Dunedin.
— Frank Gunn (@frankgunnphoto) November 7, 2017
I asked him to send it to me and I took it to Halladay, whose eyes lit up at the memory. We ended up having a long chat about his growth with the Blue Jays, how far he’d come since his demotion all the way down to single-A Dunedin in the spring of 2001 and what the organization meant to him in a conversation I felt pierced his armour.
A string of injuries
In May 2007, Halladay came to the ballpark feeling ill and soon after was in the hospital undergoing an emergency appendectomy. Four days later when he returned to the clubhouse, I remember sensing that he had let his guard down a little bit when discussing a string of injuries. In 2004, his season was truncated by shoulder soreness, the next year a comebacker broke his leg to prematurely end his year, and in 2006, forearm tightness cost him a couple of weeks.
"I’m due for a couple of years of not having to deal with this," he said, perhaps the only time I heard him utter anything resembling a complaint.
Twenty days after the surgery he was back on the mound, throwing seven shutout innings in a 2-0 win against Mark Buehrle and the Chicago White Sox. The game lasted an hour 50 minutes.
The trade auction
At the 2009 all-star game in St. Louis, Halladay was the centre of a circus. The Blue Jays were headed toward a crossroads with a flawed roster and a weak farm system and their ace righty was the only chip they had. So then-GM J.P. Ricciardi decided to suggest publicly that he would listen to offers before the non-waiver trade deadline and Halladay became the focus of the summer’s trade speculation.
Amid the media hordes covering the all-star game, Halladay answered question after question after question about his future, despite his obvious discomfort discussing his own auction, all the while prepping to start for the American League.
In the clubhouse after he allowed three runs, two earned, in two innings, I somehow caught him alone by his locker and asked him whether the constant focus had totally marred his experience. He smiled and said the intense media focus had been exhausting but it didn’t spoil the moment for him. Still, he made clear that he was relieved it was over. Every trade deadline I think of what Halladay went through and hope no player has to endure the same thing.
The Blue Jays didn’t end up trading him until December of 2009.
Words of wisdom
Late in the spring of 2012, Ricky Romero, who had emerged as the Blue Jays’ ace, gave voice to a developing core’s brash aspirations, saying, "I feel like we’re bringing a little different attitude, in a good way. We’re arrogant, we know we can win, and those are good qualities to have when you’re out there playing."
Given that Romero happened to make the comments at the Clearwater home of the Phillies, I went over to ask Halladay about them, because they struck at the heart something he had concluded needed to change for the Blue Jays. "There were years when we went in and we were going to try and improve on the year before. You don’t want to hear that as a player, you want to go in there and try to win," he said. "Everybody here (with the Phillies) expected to be there, and I think in Toronto we wanted to be there, but we just weren’t sure. And you have to have that. You have to know you’re going to be there, you really do."
Injuries destroyed the Blue Jays in 2012. It took until 2015 for them to break through.
Forever a Blue Jay
At the winter meetings in 2013, I got a call early in the morning on the first day of baseball’s annual swapfest offering a heads-up – Halladay, a free agent, was re-signing with Toronto so he could retire as a Blue Jay. A couple of hours later, Halladay was up on the workroom podium talking about his decision, explaining how his body had given up on him and that in his heart, he was always a Blue Jay.
Afterwards, I pulled him aside for a couple minutes and asked him to revisit the meeting he had with then-GM Alex Anthopoulos and team president Paul Beeston when he finalized his trade request. Was there any chance the relationship could be salvaged?
"We had really decided, and really we had decided where we wanted to go," Halladay replied. "It was a very tough decision but I felt like you never know how long you’re going to be able to play, and I really wanted to give myself a chance (to play in the post-season) at that point. They were so great to allow me to go out and have those experiences. And that meant so much to me."
A couple of years later, during the interview for The Big 50: Toronto Blue Jays, I asked him about the retirement and how it came about. His answer is a big part of why he’ll always hold a place among the most beloved Blue Jays players.
"Honestly it wasn’t so much a decision, it’s kind of the way that I looked at myself, that’s just how I considered myself," he said. "I always felt like I was a Blue Jay, I just felt that I had this unique opportunity for a couple years to have a chance to chase a dream. But I felt my roots, and everything else, and everything I had become and everybody that helped me become that were all in Toronto. So it wasn’t like I had to sit down and make a decision. It was honestly the way I thought of myself."