COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – In the bottom right-hand corner of the glass display housing some Roy Halladay artifacts in the Hall of Fame, there’s a baseball with the blue pen tracelines of two fingers cutting diagonally across the horseshoe part of the seams.
It’s a memento from the 2008 all-star game, but the significance is in its backstory. During an outfield conversation before the Midsummer Classic, Halladay asked Mariano Rivera how he threw his legendary cutter. The New York Yankees closer gladly obliged, sharing with the Toronto Blue Jays ace the secret behind his bat-shredding weapon.
Eleven years later, Rivera recounted the exchange in Cooperstown ahead of Sunday’s induction ceremonies for the two pitching giants part of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019. Although the Hall’s placard says Rivera traced his fingers on the ball for Halladay, Rivera remembers it differently, saying, “I didn’t trace it. He did that.”
But the rest of the story, complete with Derek Jeter and the rest of the Yankees fining Rivera in Kangaroo Court for helping an ace opponent, is on the money.
“When you have all-star games, you always chit-chat with the guys, exchanging success (stories), just talking,” Rivera said Saturday. “I was talking with Halladay and he asked me how I throw the cutter and I taught him. He did good and my guys got mad at me because I taught him. But it’s all right. That’s part of me.”
Their conversation is reflective of both men, Halladay always seeking ways to improve, even as he was dominating the majors, Rivera always generous, even it meant helping an opponent.
The latter belies the competitiveness of baseball’s all-time saves leader, whose ruthlessness in closing out opponents on the mound stood in such stark contrast to his joy in helping others when off it.
“I’ll tell you what, I’m going to put it like this: If I was going to charge the guys that I gave advice, I would have made a lot more money. That’s how many players, hitters and pitchers, I spoke to and I gave them advice,” he said of the dichotomy between trying to both help and defeat rivals.
“It’s a part of me. I always want people to do good and to have success. If I had to do something for them to be successful, I would do it.”
Of course, copying Rivera’s grip was far easier than actually executing the pitch the way he did, which is why he’s very much one of a kind.
Halladay, in his own way, was a unicorn as well, and interestingly, the cutter became an important pitch for him in the latter part of his career. According to Brooks Baseball, his cutter usage went from 33.77 per cent in 2007 to 41.66 in 2008 and up to a peak of 49.62 in 2009.
During his second Cy Young season in 2010, Halladay threw the cutter 41.70 per cent of the time, opponents batting a paltry .254 against the pitch, compared to .289 against his legendary sinker.
Halladay would have revelled in the opportunity to interact with Rivera and fellow 2019 inductees Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Lee Smith and Harold Baines. His determination to excel at his craft was universally respected, and his absence is being felt.
“I wish he could be here,” said Rivera.
“He earned it, he deserved it and he gave us a lot of great memories. A guy that was always giving his best and didn’t give up.”
Fittingly, the two hitters being inducted this year both had success against Halladay. Baines, in a limited sample, was 3-for-10 against Halladay, while Martinez went 8-for-18 with a homer, four RBIs and a walk.
“The fact that he could throw a sinker, cutter, two directions move the ball around with the speed – he used to throw hard – and then he had the breaking ball and an occasional changeup, it made him very difficult,” said Martinez. “He was very tough and then he was a fighter, and he could compete.”
Not having Halladay around for induction “is going to be tough,” said Martinez.
“We feel for his family. But hopefully being inducted into the Hall of Fame is something that can be helpful to his family.”
That has added somewhat of a somber tone to the weekend, although Smith has enjoyed getting to know Halladay’s wife Brandy, who will deliver the induction speech Sunday.
“I love Brandy, she is unbelievable. She’s funny,” said Smith. “I think she’s a smaller, better-looking version of Lee Smith. … And she’s country, she’s got horseshoes and all that kind of stuff.
“I don’t think she’s going to have any problems (delivering the speech). The only problem she might have is going too long, because like me, she gets a little long-winded sometimes. But her personality is unbelievable.”
Sunday will be her opportunity to show everyone that, and celebrate by the legions of fans who so came to admire her late husband.