There’s a special relationship between Canadian baseball and Toronto Blue Jays baseball. No matter which team you cheer for, if you follow baseball in Canada, you end up having to follow the Blue Jays too. Part of it is that the team plays out of the nation’s largest city, part of it is that the team is owned by the largest broadcasting company in the country, and that company beams 162 games a season into living rooms from Salmon Arm to Corner Brook. Following the Blue Jays this way as a young, Canadian Yankees fan is how I fell in love with Roy Halladay.
In a lot of ways, Roy Halladay personified baseball as I was growing up. Every year in March, when my family would sit down and plot out which Jays games we would buy tickets for, I’d be tasked with mapping out the potential starters for each home game. If there wasn’t a chance Halladay was pitching in a given series, good luck convincing my parents it was worth the 90 minute drive to the Rogers Centre with two kids in tow.
Doc’s influence trickled all the way down to my travel baseball teams, where the best pitcher from any city would be assured of getting the number 32 jersey at the start of the year, and he would inevitably try, and fail, to mimic that famous palmball when delivering to a 10-year-old at the plate.
Of course, Toronto has had a rocky relationship with its sports stars. Title-starved for a quarter century, the greats on the city’s teams have either been hugely overrated (Joe Carter), criminally underappreciated (Mats Sundin), ran clear out of town (Vince Carter), or existed in a state of relative anonymity (Jozy Altidore). Roy was different. He’s the only Toronto athlete in my lifetime to be simultaneously beloved and properly rated among the game’s best by his own fans, and afforded the privacy he so desperately sought away from the field.
So deep was the city and its fans’ love for Doc that, when he requested a trade after the 2009 season, Toronto had no trouble agreeing. He deserved better than to be the elite of the Black Jays, because he gave his best to the team, and the city.
Halladay’s best was as good, or better, than just about anyone’s. He came an out shy of a no-hitter in just his second career start. He one-hit the freakin’ 2009 New York Yankees. He spent three-quarters of his career navigating through Hall of Famers in the AL East, facing lineups full of names like David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez. Doc carved up those great offensive sides so cleanly, he came through a surefire Hall of Famer himself. But Doc’s best was so, so much better than just his pitching ability.
The best of Roy Halladay came through after signing his first major extension with the Blue Jays, ahead of the 2004 season. Included in the contract was a clause that reserved Halladay’s right to purchase a luxury box at Rogers Centre for all 81 home games in a season. This luxury box became Doc’s Box, which he and his wife Brandy used to give children from the nearby SickKids Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House charity network an up-close and personal experience with the game we all love. The best of Halladay shone through as the most “wished for” athlete in Canada for groups like the Children’s Miracle Network, and through the litany of abandoned or abused animals he and his family have rescued through his playing days and beyond.
Sports fans often project positive personal attributes onto their favourite players, using athletic performance for a barometer of what that athlete is like in real life. Usually this is a futile exercise, but Roy Halladay was the exception. He was everything you would want a player to be; he worked quickly, had an insatiable drive to be the best, was an incredible mentor to younger players, like AJ Burnett, and was gracious in victory. If you were a Yankees fan, you saw that “winning with grace” attitude a lot, because Roy was hell on the Bronx Bombers during his career.
Finally, Roy had a unique ability to bridge gaps. Jays and Phillies fans have been at one another’s throats for two decades, but are able to put aside most of their differences when Doc is brought up. Yankees fans, and any fan of an AL East team, probably tried really hard to hate Halladay for what he did to their teams, but I’m confident in saying he was among the hardest players to root against. And, of course, Roy brought a laser focus on baseball in Canada the likes of which are rarely seen. His highs were never as high as Jose Bautista’s bat flip, or Carter’s home run, but he was the brightest light the Black Jays could have asked for.
The last time I saw Roy Halladay in person was this summer, at his induction to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St Mary’s, Ontario. Unlike Cooperstown, St Mary’s doesn’t have a sprawling campus of baseball. The museum itself is an average sized house chock full of baseball history, surrounded by a half dozen baseball diamonds. The induction ceremony is held on the infield of one of those diamonds, under a tent, with guests seated in those cheap, white plastic lawn chairs you buy at the Labour Day sale at Home Depot . For a player—and a person—with Halladay’s disposition, it was perfect.
His induction speech was just like his pitching: quick, deliberate, understated. Afterward he joked about his love of flying and his thoughts on the “juiced” baseball rumors in MLB. Most of all, though, he talked about his family, and the sacrifices Brandy made during his 16-year career, and his hopes and concerns for his sons’ travel teams. It’s important to remember that, as much as Roy’s passing hurts all of us, Brandy, Braden, and Ryan are feeling an incalculable level of pain, and deserve our deepest, most heartfelt condolences.
Harry Leroy Halladay should go into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I have no doubt the Toronto Blue Jays will retire his iconic no. 32, and place his name on the Level of Excellence on the fourth deck at Rogers Centre. The team will probably even do so on Opening Day, against the Yankees, which is fitting given the torment Halladay wrecked on the Bronx Bombers in his playing career. I’ll be at that game, and I’m sure it will be one of those times it’s worth the 90 minute drive to Rogers Centre.
Rest in peace, Roy.