Behind his steely glare and determined professionalism, Roy Halladay kept a soft spot for the place it all began.
The Big Smoke can be a funny place in the way it identifies its sporting heroes.
Part of that, of course, comes from a well-documented championship deficit in all games other than football, which serves as a continual source of merriment in those parts of the country that are not Toronto.
If you’re regularly raising trophies, it’s pretty easy to anoint icons, but when that doesn’t happen for decades at a stretch, the process naturally becomes more nuanced, and considerably more idiosyncratic.
For instance, the ambivalence in Toronto toward the great Mats Sundin suggests that it’s not just about talent. Meanwhile, the wholehearted embrace of Wendel Clark, the most beloved of the post-1967 Maple Leafs (with a nod to Doug Gilmour and the other heroes of 1993), speaks to the appreciation of a player who was a hard-working, hard-punching, plain-talking, injury-diminished beacon, especially during some of the darker days of the late Ballard era.
Plucky, Toronto likes. Scrappy overachievers. Little guys who play big.
Truly sublime talents, on the other hand, tend to be viewed hereabouts with suspicion, as with an ordinary schlub dating a supermodel, ever afraid of being dumped.
Think of that as Vince Carter syndrome, including the chilly post-rejection homecoming.
An outsider might add up all of that and surmise that for a populous, cosmopolitan, world-class city, Toronto seems a touch insecure, and in surmising that, they would be correct.
Into this context tumbled Roy Halladay’s retirement announcement during baseball’s Winter Meetings, which included his signing of a symbolic one-day Blue Jays contract just so everyone understood where his heart lay.
Anyone who watched Halladay struggle with the Philadelphia Phillies last season saw that there wasn’t much left in the tank, so it wasn’t a huge shock that he had declined to pitch on. But making a point of exiting the game as a Blue Jay, rather than with the team that gave him the chance to play into October—that was a surprise.
Halladay was a player Toronto fans respected, absolutely, for his talent, his dedication and his bulldog competitiveness. He was a homegrown product of the organization who came onto the scene with a flourish, throwing a near no-hitter, and then was forced to retreat all the way to single-A to rebuild his delivery and his confidence before fighting his way back to the big leagues.
That’s a wonderful, sentimental sports narrative, but Halladay didn’t really have the personality to fully exploit the part. Instead, the lasting image of his time here was one of chilly, determined professionalism, of the hardest-working man in baseball, a guy more admired than beloved.
And then there was the manner of his exit, the first big deal of the Alex Anthopoulos era, when, entering a phase of stripping down and rebuilding, the Blue Jays were forced to surrender a player they were no longer going to be able to afford—a big-market team acting like a small-market team. That didn’t exactly inspire the warm-and-fuzzies.
Wasn’t it nice for Halladay that he at least got a taste of the post-season with the Phillies? Wasn’t it something when he threw that playoff no-hitter?
Yeah… nice… amazing… for him.
Now he has returned to the Blue Jays fold by choice, and though the opportunity to move into a front-office job and prepare for a post-pitching life might have had something to do with that decision, the truth is, Halladay could probably have also found opportunity elsewhere. And if the day arrives when the baseball writers grant him Hall of Fame entry—by then, you’d have to think that the 300 wins normally required of starters will have been replaced by a more realistic metric—guess which cap he’ll be wearing to Cooperstown.
Between now and then there is a whole lot of catching up, and warming up, to do, recasting Halladay as “Our Roy,” one of the bluest Blue Jays of them all, a guy who left town only when offered no real alternative, who enjoyed many of his greatest moments in a different uniform, but who in the end, behind that steely glare, maintained a real soft spot for the place where it all began, where he always belonged.
Remember, Clark played in Quebec City for a little while. Now, that’s nothing but an asterisk.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.