Unanswered questions linger over Roy Halladay’s Cooperstown celebration

Blue Jays radio analyst Mike Wilner joins the Blair Show, says Roy Halladay entering the Hall without a Blue Jays or any logo is disappointing, but nobody knew Roy better than his wife Brandy, and you have to respect her tough decision.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – There’s an incongruity to the Hall of Fame’s induction weekend that’s going to be difficult to reconcile for fans of the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies.

Roy Halladay was the impossible ideal, someone who embodied every little detail coaches preach and that players strive for; the scarcest of athletes to blend talent, intelligence, work ethic, discipline, drive and motivation in equal parts, each at uber-levels.

A pitcher of his ilk isn’t likely to grace a big-league mound again.

Yet, as the masses start gathering in Cooperstown to fete the spectacular Class of 2019, his absence is jarring. The still devastating news from Nov. 7, 2017 hovers in the background, as do the unanswered questions about the crash of his Icon A5 amphibious, light sport aircraft into the Gulf of Mexico near New Port Richey, Fla. Even 20 months later, grief, hurt and anger threaten to encroach upon the festivities, as Doc takes his rightful place among the very best to ever play, becoming the 108th player inducted to Cooperstown posthumously.

All of it makes for uncomfortable ground to be walked between commemoration and celebration, surrounded by the enduring memories of a truncated life.

“You know, it never seemed to stop,” Halladay said of his pursuit of success during a lengthy interview for my 2016 book, The Big 50: Toronto Blue Jays. “For me, once I got back after that first year of winning 19 games (in 2002), I felt like that was kind of the pitcher I could be and should be if I continued to work hard and do things the right way. And I always felt this driving force to continue to prove myself and show that’s what I was about and do it consistently. … One of my lesser favourite managers actually made a great point, ‘You should never expect to make a team out of spring training, until you have at least five years in the big-leagues.’ The rest of my career I felt like every year I had to make the team and that’s the way I tried to prepare myself, and that kind of became my mantra.

“I was always going to prepare as well as I could,” he continued, “I was going to give everything I have and I honestly believed that if I did things the right way, prepared that way, even though I had no control over the end result, for the most part they would be favourable if I continued to take the right steps.”

Memories of Halladay the student, teammate and pitcher

There are so many little stories that demonstrate Halladay’s attention to detail, his single-minded determination.

Blue Jays second baseman Orlando Hudson, on having his eating habits critiqued when they were coming up through the minors together:
“When my parents weren’t in town and my wife wasn’t in town to cook for me, I would go buy Popeyes chicken and Doc used to hate me eating Popeyes chicken, like ‘O, man, you’re going to kill yourself eating all this fried food.’ I was like, ‘Man, I’m just a little black guy from the south, I need my fried chicken.’ So, I’d sit there eating my chicken right in front of his face and he’d stare right in my face, hating it.”

Long-time Blue Jays bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos, on catching Halladay’s side sessions: “Even his bullpens were game-like. Focused. No kidding around. Just total pro. Never changed. He’s the only guy I’ve caught in sides that I didn’t have to move. We even joked one day I should close my eyes and let him try to hit the glove. Most of the time I would just sit there, put my glove up and every pitch, fastball, curveball, sinker, changeup, right in the glove. Up, down, in, out. Every time. It was unbelievable.”

Former Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby, remembering how Halladay never took his success for granted: “There’s a time we went fishing and he was building his house where (Halladay’s wife) Brandy still lives and he didn’t think he was going to be able to afford it. He was like, ‘I’m so nervous I’m getting in over my head,’ and I’m sitting there, journeyman catcher making the minimum, like, ‘Dude, you’re fine.’”

Long-time Blue Jays video man Robert Baumander, on Halladay’s 2-3 pre-start video sessions: “What he would do most of the time was watch the hitters on the other team and watch how the pitchers pitched those hitters and then he’d also watch how he got them out in the past and compare how he did it and how other guys did it. If he saw that other guys did something he didn’t do, he’d adapt. It was just one of his tools. He could have been just as good whether he watched video or not, but he used every tool in the arsenal to get guys out.”

Former Blue Jays pitcher Casey Janssen, on the remarkable consistency of Halladay’s pitching mechanics: “The way he repeated his delivery, he had it so perfect. He did the same exact thing every time. He’d have one shoeprint on the rubber and another where he landed and if you looked at the mound, it looked like he threw one pitch instead of 100. You’d see other guys around the game, they’ve got shoeprints everywhere, up and down the rubber, all over the landing spots but he was so good and polished at repeating his delivery.”

Former Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill, on asking Halladay if he could work out with him after his rookie season in 2005: “I thought he was going to tell me to get lost rookie, whatever, but he said, ‘Yeah. We meet at Bob Evans at 4:30 next week.’ I chuckled, I thought he was going to say just kidding, but he was serious. So, I said, ‘OK, I’ll be there.’ The season just ended, we met at Bob Evans, I went thinking he might not show up, he was just playing a joke on me, but I showed up early and he was there early, at 4:15. I remember thinking, ‘OK, he’s here, it’s not a joke, he’s ready to go. Now, what do I talk to Doc about at Bob Evans?’”

A passion for the skies

Word started filtering out in the early afternoon on Nov. 7, 2017 – the wreckage of a plane registered to Roy Halladay was being recovered from the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast. There was a victim, although the Pasco Sheriff’s Office didn’t immediately identify who it was. At 4:16 p.m. ET, the worst fears were confirmed.

Once back issues had forced his retirement after the 2013 season, Halladay had fulfilled a childhood dream to become a pilot like his dad. He heralded the purchase of his Icon A5 on his Twitter account, frequently sending out pictures from his trips. He seemed to enjoy testing the aircraft’s limits.

That was a week before the crash. From the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary aviation accident report issued two weeks later:

“The data track from the accident flight showed that the airplane departed from a private lakeside home north of Lake Keystone in Odessa about 1147 and climbed to a GPS altitude of 1,909 ft and tracked north for 4 miles before turning to the west toward the coastline. The airplane then flew for 10 miles and crossed over US Highway 19 about 600 ft GPS altitude, then descended to 36 ft over the water before turning south. The airplane then flew on southerly track past Green Key Beach at 11 ft GPS altitude and 92 knots. The airplane then performed a right 360° turn while climbing to about 100 ft. The airplane continued on a southerly track, flying as close as 75 ft to the Gulf Harbor South Beach houses. The last data point recovered indicated the airplane at an altitude of 200 ft, a speed of 87 knots, and tracking 196°. Video footage taken of the airplane before the accident, shows the airplane in a descending left 45° banked turn and then maneuvering about 10 ft above the water. A witness to the accident stated, during an interview with a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator, that he saw the airplane perform a climb to between 300 and 500 ft on a southerly heading and then turn and descend on an easterly heading about a 45° nose-down attitude. He then saw the airplane impact the water and nose over.”

A commitment to excellence and consistency

On the mound, Halladay was a savage competitor, but not in the frothing-at-the-mouth, let’s-throw-down manner of a Nolan Ryan. Rather, he operated with the efficiency of a profit-seeking investor, seeking a maximal return on every investment of effort he made. The way teams use advanced data today would have been a boon to him. The way swing-and-miss is emphasized would have infuriated him.

“One of the biggest things that helped my career was learning how to pitch to contact,” he told me. “There are so many guys that come up and they’re trying to strike guys out right from the first pitch, and they’re afraid to have the ball put in play. I started to realize that not only did it help me if they put the ball in play, but the sooner they put the ball in play, even better. And usually, the worse of a swing it was. So, I really tried to establish myself to where they knew I was going to go after them, and they had to get something early. And I tried to do it as much as possible. I wanted to force it down their throat where they had no choice but to swing.”

As a result, hitters didn’t necessarily dread standing in against him the way they did when facing a fire-breathing dragon like Ryan, or Randy Johnson. Because Halladay was around the zone so often, they tended to think they could get him. Shelley Duncan learned how foolish it was to think that way on Aug. 8, 2007, when New York Yankees right-fielder Bobby Abreu led off the fourth inning, took a called third strike from Halladay he didn’t like, argued with home umpire Derryl Cousins and was promptly ejected.

“That’s how I got my one at-bat against Roy Halladay,” says Duncan, now a Blue Jays coach. “I had this idea since he had pinpoint control that if I thought right, I could hit anything. So, I go up there and you see the ball extremely well, it’s like, awesome, I can really see it. But then he threw a couple of pitches I couldn’t hit right on the corner and then with two strikes, he threw this curveball I thought I saw really well but it was a lot slower than I thought and I swung right through it. That’s when I realized, man, he can just pinpoint every single pitch he throws, exactly where he wants it. That’s one of the things that makes him better than anybody.”

Another was a sinker routinely described as bowling-ball heavy that plummeted sharply out of the zone at the last moment. The ability to dot it wherever he liked allowed him to blunt whatever game-plan the opposition threw at him.

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, left, congratulates starter Roy Halladay after pitching a complete game to defeat the Kansas City Royals on May 23, 2008. (J.P. Moczulski/CP)

“He had plus-plus everything,” says Casey Janssen. “The thing I noticed watching was different teams had different approaches. There were teams that would try to wait him out and take a lot of pitches and hope to get his pitch count up, and then all of a sudden it would be 0-2 on the guy and he’s like, oh crap, now what? Then there were other teams who would try to, quote-unquote, get to him early and then, next thing you know, he’s in the fifth inning with 45 pitches, and they’re going, well, that didn’t work either. Whatever plan a team had for him, he was one step ahead, or he beat that strategy. It was impressive.”

Pete Walker used to join Halladay for 25-minute stadium runs three times a week as part of a running group that included Ted Lilly and manager John Gibbons. On flights, he’d sit with Halladay and Ken Huckaby, the trio often doing dinners on the road, as well. What he came to appreciate most was “the demeanour.”

“He was just so consistent with his focus, his mood, on game day, attacking hitters,” continues Walker, now the Blue Jays’ pitching coach. “Even in between innings, he stayed the same, extremely consistent in a locked-in mode. And he never swayed, never deviated from that. Some guys, on some days they have it, some days they don’t. It fluctuates. He had it every time.”

New revelations emerge

An autopsy on Halladay’s body was conducted the day after his death by the Pasco and Pinellas Counties Medical Examiner’s Office. Details of the report emerged Jan. 19, 2018, and they were grim.

Cause of Death: Blunt Trauma
Contributory condition: Drowning

The trauma to his body is documented in meticulous detail. It is what you would expect given the crash details documented by the National Transportation Safety Board. More troubling, though, was the report’s toxicology section, which found evidence of amphetamines, morphine and zolpidem, a sleep medication more commonly known as Ambien, in his blood. The same drugs were in his urine, as was fluoxetine, an anti-depressant better known as Prozac, among others.

Their role in the crash is still being determined by the NTSB.

Ongoing back problems forced Halladay into retirement. He had shoulder surgery in May 2013 but the real issue were two pars fractures, an eroded disk between the L 4, and L 5, and a pinched nerve. That didn’t explain why he had a cocktail of drugs in his system, but physical pain had been a constant in his life for a long time.

Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated, in an excellent and thoroughly reported piece, delved into his relationship with his father and flying, and in it Halladay’s sister Heather revealed that he’d struggled with addiction issues and fought depression. There are difficult questions that follow, ones that will never be fully answered.

Brandy Halladay becomes emotional as she talks about her late husband Roy Halladay, during a public memorial service Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Clearwater, Fla. Roy Halladay was killed when the plane he was piloting crashing into the Gulf of Mexico last week. (Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times via AP)
Brandy Halladay becomes emotional as she talks about her late husband Roy Halladay, during a public memorial service Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, in Clearwater, Fla. Roy Halladay was killed when the plane he was piloting crashing into the Gulf of Mexico last week. (Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

In the days after the Blue Jays demoted Halladay from the big-leagues to single-A Dunedin in the spring of 2001, he made a quip to his wife Brandy that now in hindsight has more of a macabre feel to it.

“We lived on the second floor of a townhouse,” he said. “And I made a joke to her that if we were higher up I would jump, but if I jumped off the second floor I’d break my leg and have to go to the field anyway. I thought it was pretty funny. But she didn’t think it was very funny.”

Brandy left the house, and ended up at a bookstore, grabbing books on a variety of subjects for her husband to read. Randomly, she ended up down an aisle and facing her was a single copy of Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental Game of Baseball. She added it to her pile and brought it home.

“Within the first day of reading it, I felt like the book was written about me,” said Halladay. “It started to make things sound so simple, and I started to realize how powerful a positive approach is, and how powerful a work ethic is where you’re not just doing things so other people will say, ‘Wow, look at the work he does,’ but you’re actually doing it with a purpose, to get better. That to me was eye opening.

“One of the biggest things that I found in that book that helped me, was making the decision that good or bad, whatever happens from that point on, I was going to work as hard as I could and I was going to do it for myself. Up until that point, I was always very concerned with what parents thought, what coaches thought, what scouts thought, and was always kind of seeking that approval. And you know, when you don’t get it from (former Blue Jays manager) Jim Fregosi, you aren’t going to get it period,” he said laughing. “Once I decided was going to do this for myself, pour everything into it, if I end up walking away, knowing that I did it for myself and put everything into it, I could do that and walk out of there with my head high. I felt like if I cashed it in and moped and didn’t give everything I had to try and make a better situation out of it, then I felt like it was a complete waste and something I would regret for a long time.”

In every way possible, Halladay put all he had into his career. The resulting performance was spectacular, at a level of brilliance few have ever matched. He more than earned the right to walk away with his head held high.

A plaque in the Hall of Fame is richly deserved. The only shame is that he’s not alive to be part of it, a regret others will now carry for a long time.

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