WASHINGTON – The Toronto Blue Jays all-star stood there amid the revelry and answered wave after wave of questions about the speculation that surrounded him as the trade deadline approached.
Are you looking forward to playing for a contender? Who would you rather pitch for? Any concerns about handling a major media market like New York? How are you handling all the uncertainty?
Roy Halladay stood there answering question after question with his typical grace and class, the fact that moments earlier he’d been named the American League’s starting pitcher for the 2009 all-star game rendered a mere footnote within the frenzy around him.
“I’m trying to keep my head out of it either way, as opposed to trying to think of where you would want to go and all that stuff,” Halladay said at the time. “That gets complicated, so I’m trying to keep emotions out of it, as much as I can.”
J.A. Happ, the sole Blue Jays all-star in this summer of mess and misery, found himself in a similar spot Monday during the media availabilities ahead of Tuesday’s all-star game at Nationals Park. Baseball (like life) coming full circle, as it so often does.
The left-hander was among the players the Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies, Halladay’s prime suitor in 2009, discussed during the ultimately unsuccessful negotiations that summer for the ace righty. Nine years later, he’s the prime trade asset general manager Ross Atkins has to peddle as the franchise once again looks to reset its core.
And just like Halladay, Happ handled the rote line of questions with the same poise he carries on the mound, finding a way to smile through the agonizing exercise as he seeks to make the most of his first all-star selection.
He wisely skirted questions about which teams he’d rather pitch for, made clear his priority is to win with the Blue Jays rather than somewhere else and continually emphasized how he’s trying to control the “anxiety” inherent to the situation.
“The biggest thing is the stuff people don’t see,” said Happ. “I’ve been in Toronto for three years, physically I have a lot of things there, my wife and kids are there, the whole process of having to potentially uproot that is some of the anxiety that’s involved, rather than the playing part. The playing part I can take care of.
“But again, these are all ifs, this could not happen also. That’s part of it.”
Toward that end, one of his American League teammates came over to Happ and told him how he spent all of last July surrounded by trade speculation but ultimately didn’t go anywhere.
“You can imagine going through a month of that anxiety and then nothing does happen,” said Happ. “Either way I’ll be prepared but it’s not something I focus on.”
Unlike both that AL teammate and Halladay, the strong expectation is that Happ will be traded between now and July 31 as the Blue Jays look to add pieces for their reset.
The Brewers, Cubs, Yankees and Mariners are among the teams to have shown some interest, per industry sources, and with Josh Donaldson’s status uncertain, Atkins needs to make the return for Happ count.
Over the last couple of weeks Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has had Happ into his office to discuss the current stresses while Atkins reached out to see “how I’m feeling mentally and stuff,” the 35-year-old said. “It was nice to have that conversation.”
The GM isn’t keeping Happ abreast of discussions as they go along – “How much information can you give until something is done and how much would you want?” said Happ – but a trade is the front office’s clear first option.
Asked if at any point talk of an extension has come up, an approach some in the organization have advocated for, Happ replied simply: “No.”
For now, Happ intends to make the most of an all-star selection that has been a long time coming.
His career started fast with the Phillies, got sidetracked after a trade to Houston, looked to have reset toward the end of his first stint with the Blue Jays, slid backwards again after a trade to Seattle, stabilized in Pittsburgh and flourished in a second tenure in Toronto.
Along the way he learned to cope with the doubts that followed him early on, find the right motivations and reach the potential he’s always had.
“Early in my career that stuff fuelled me, maybe some of the negativity, feeling like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder,” said Happ. “I started to understand the best way to be constantly motivated is the inner drive which I’ve always had, so I’ve used that more than trying to get back at people, trying to remember who wrote this about me. It’s all nonsense, right? That’s all noise that doesn’t matter. It certainly feels good to do things people didn’t think you could when you first started out, so I’m certainly happy to be at this point and still doing it.”
Also making him happy was needing to cancel his family’s plan to spend the all-star break in Cape Cod, which would have been his first time back there since pitching in its summer league 15 years ago.
“This is a lot better,” said a smiling Happ, who planned to bring his son J.J. out to the field with him for the home run derby. “It’s just exciting. It’s fun to be in that room, go through, walk around and meet everybody and just sense the excitement of it. It’s a cool feeling right now. I’m trying to enjoy it. The one thing I heard from everybody is take it all in. I’m really going to try to do that. It’s just going to be really fun.”