TORONTO – On the days Roy Halladay pitched, his legendary cone of silence extended even to his catcher, which meant the game-planning discussion battery-mates typically share in the leadup to an outing had to take place the previous night. Ken Huckaby, the ace right-hander’s primary catcher during his breakthrough 2002 season, hadn’t experienced anything like it with a starter before and wouldn’t again afterwards, learning to adjust to the most unique routine he’d ever encountered. Every pitcher was a little bit different – and no one more so than Doc.
"Just before warmups I would just walk by him and ask, ‘Anything changed?’ He would shake his head no and I would walk away," recalls Huckaby, who caught Halladay 30 times during the 2002, ’03 and ’05 seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays. "Then we’d start our pre-game together and as we were walking in from the bullpen, I’d whisper in his ear, ‘I’ve got your back.’ He wouldn’t say a word and then we’d go to work.
"With the talks we had, I always asked him why he didn’t talk on game days and he always said he didn’t believe he could live up to the hype he was getting – it was actually nervous energy. So, he stayed super-focused because he wasn’t sure he could live up to the hype around him."
Over the course of 416 big-league games across parts of 16 seasons, Halladay more than lived up to the hype, surviving an early career demotion from the majors to A-ball to rebuild himself physically and mentally into one of the most universally respected pitchers of his generation.
Word of his election to the Hall of Fame on Tuesday – along with Mariano Rivera, the first player voted in unanimously by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina – came as little surprise to those touched by his greatness, his place among the best to play the game wholly deserved. Still, melancholy tinged the due recognition given that Cooperstown’s call came just 13-and-half months after he died in a plane crash at age 40.
"I feel excitement for him, excitement that it’s happening, humbled by the knowledge that I was able to be a part of it in some small way, and obviously sad and disappointed that he’s not here to experience it, even though he’d probably be quiet and not really know what to say about the acknowledgement of who he was and what he did for the game," says Huckaby. "I’m proud of the friendship we were able to build in the three years I was with him in Toronto, and the friendship we were able to continue after we were done playing.
"He was extremely special."
While Halladay is expected to become the second player enshrined in the Hall as a member of the Blue Jays – during an Aug. 14, 2016 visit to Toronto, he said, "I’d go as a Blue Jay," without hesitation when asked which logo he’d want on his plaque – he’s the first player drafted and developed by the organization to be so honoured.
Such a trajectory seemed unlikely when in the spring of 2001 he was sent all the way down to single-A Dunedin, a decision he told me in a November 2015 interview completely blinsided him.
"I had no idea, absolutely no idea," he said then. "You know, the year before (2000) was horrid, but to my recollection, that spring training wasn’t awful. I mean I had a few bad games, or a bad game or two, but I don’t remember it being extremely bad that I was really worried about something happening. So I was completely shocked, and I really didn’t know what to say to them, I honestly didn’t… The whole time I felt I was hovering above myself, looking at myself in that chair. That feeling. Once we got out of that meeting, I went and sat in one of the bathroom toilet stalls and shut the door, and I waited for everybody to leave the clubhouse that day before I came out to change. I was just… I was so embarrassed and I think a lot that was extremely motivating for me later in my career. Going through that experience was – I mean honestly for the first few months it gave me nightmares. And it was something that for the rest of my career I would avoid at all costs."
Halladay said his wife, Brandy, stumbled upon Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental Game of Baseball in a bookstore soon after the demotion and once he started reading it, immediately felt as if it had been written for him. He completely bought into the need to remake his approach to the game and under the guidance of Mel Queen, adjusted his arm slot to create the vicious downward movement on a sinker that caused nightmares for big-league hitters.
"The mental stuff made an instant impact, but to learn how to apply it and to use it constantly and where to use it, that took… well it took another 15 years and it still wasn’t perfect," said Halladay. "But it took me to where I really believed it, it took me a good two months. And you know it’s funny, it kind of all came together. I had been talking to Harvey on the phone, and I had been studying the book and doing some work stuff he had me doing, and I got up there and saw Mel Queen, and he motivated me some more. But once he made those mechanical changes, we threw nine bullpens in 10 days, and I saw the movement and where the ball was going, and that combined with the new mental approach that I had been working on was like supreme confidence. And the first time I went out and threw like that, it was just a completely different feeling."
A 3.16 ERA in 17 games, 16 of them starts, to finish out the 2001 season set Halladay up for his 239.1-innings, 2.93-ERA breakthough in 2002, when Huckaby first encountered him.
Aside from needing to do his pre-game planning with Halladay a day early, Huckaby also had to get used to not talking during the warm-up in the bullpen. With virtually all other pitchers, he’d discuss "which pitch looks good, which pitch doesn’t look good, which pitch we need to stick with if it shows up during a game, maybe go through a sequence to the three-hitter one time, a bunch of different scenarios."
Often, game-plans would be tweaked based on what was happening in the bullpen, but not with Halladay. "That’s just a tribute to who Roy was," says Huckaby. "His stuff was just that good."
"There are usually one or two guys per staff at the big-league level that can locate the way Doc did," adds Huckaby. "But the one thing Doc mastered that in my opinion every pitcher should master is a pitch he could throw with his eyes closed whenever he wanted to, so he could be as creative as he wanted to in all counts because he could get back in the count with that pitch. That changes the whole dynamic of the count and that’s what made him so tough to hit."
For Halladay, that pitch was his sinker in to righties and away from lefties, which when not taken for a strike, usually caused hitters to weakly drive the ball directly into the ground.
On rare occasions, when Halladay was off a tick, Huckaby would "muster up the courage" to make a mound visit, and silence was mostly the norm at those times, too.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I would literally just stand there and not say a word while I was there, he would take advantage of that time, gather himself, reset the wheel of thinking he would talk about," says Huckaby. "Then he’d look at me with a few choice words, ask me what I was still doing there and then I’d run back."
Over time, as their rapport both on and off the field grew – they’d sit together on the plane, eat dinner on the road and pal around with Pete Walker, then a right-hander who’d go on to become the team’s pitching coach – they ended up with a deeper understanding of how to work together. Halladay’s ERA of 2.51 with Huckaby behind the plate is the best among the 12 catchers to have handled him for more than five times (Carlos Ruiz was his most frequent catcher at 80 games, while Gregg Zaun was second at 75).
"We always had communication in-game but it was through his stuff during the games," says Huckaby. "We didn’t really have to verbalize it because we did talk a lot during the other four days that he wasn’t pitching. I knew him from the way he talked about how he felt when his stuff was doing certain things. And he wasn’t above screaming at me during games from the mound. I found out after he retired that one of the reasons he liked throwing to me was because I would laugh at him when he was yelling at me, which actually relaxed him.
"If he threw a bad pitch, he’d be screaming at me not to call that pitch again. And I would just laugh because I couldn’t hear him 90 per cent of the time – I could just see the look on his face and that he was screaming. But evidently me laughing and not getting defensive relaxed him, it showed him I wasn’t worried about what’s going on, so he shouldn’t worry."
Really, it was opposing hitters who had cause to worry. Halladay became an all-star for the first time in 2002 while leading the league in innings for the first time. In 2003, he won the American League Cy Young award while winning a career-best 22 games and logging a league-high 266 innings in the Steroid-Era American League East meat-grinder.
A decade of unrivalled dominance was on and that the Blue Jays didn’t do more with one of if not the best pitcher of his generation is among the most significant missed opportunities in franchise history. By the time he forced a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2009 season, it was impossible to fault him for wanting to be part of a winner before the inevitable decline each athlete faces set in.
In Philadelphia, he finally made the post-season appearances he so wanted – "I would have given my left arm to have the team we have now, it would have been a dream come true," he said during that 2016 visit to Toronto – and once his body gave out, he signed a one-day contract so he could retire with the Blue Jays.
"Honestly it wasn’t so much a decision, it’s kind of the way that I looked at myself, I felt like I was a Blue Jay," said Halladay. "I just felt that I had this unique opportunity for a couple years to have a chance to chase a dream. But you knew I felt my roots, and everything else, and everything I had become and everybody that helped me become, that was 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."
And now Halladay is what so many thought of him as – a Hall of Famer.