Lott: Catching up with Roy Halladay

Roy Halladay
Roy Halladay says he’s “jealous” of the current Blue Jays after spending the prime of his career pitching for mediocre Toronto teams.

Photo credit: John Lott

Sure, Roy (Doc) Halladay would have come back to Toronto on Sunday anyway. After all, the Blue Jays were honouring the top pitchers of their first 40 years, and many fans would argue that he was the best of the lot.

But Sunday was also a special day for a Canadian in the family – a young Halladay who already envisions pitching for the country of his birth.

“It’s his birthday and that was part of the reason why we decided to come,” Halladay said of his older son, Braden. “It’s his birthday today and he was born here in Canada 16 years ago, so it’s kind of cool.”

Braden is a very good pitcher for his age, and his mound mechanics remind many observers of his father, who spent eight years (2002-2009) as the luminous ace of the Toronto staff before finishing his career with the Phillies. Now Braden is pestering his dad about pitching in a jersey emblazoned with a maple leaf.

“He was begging me,” Halladay said. “He said, ‘Hey, who do we talk to about playing for Team Canada?’ I said I don’t know. So he wants to.”

The old man – Halladay turned 39 in May – desperately wants to believe what he thinks he sees in his son, whom he has coached from the beginning. He’s also smart enough to acknowledge his paternal bias.

“It’s hard to give your son an honest evaluation,” he said before Sunday’s pre-game ceremony. “You really want to project out what he’s going to be – ‘Oh, yeah, he’s so good.’ It’s so hard to evaluate him fairly. But he has picked up more by watching and just listening to conversations and seeing people. He does so many things well, and he’s got the body. I’m excited for him. I’m really excited for him.”

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Roy Halladay is relishing retirement: flying his airplanes, doing a lot of fishing, coaching his kids. And he can look back with pride: he won 203 games, posted a 3.38 ERA and made roughly $150-million, which comes in handy when your longtime hobby is aviation and your latest toy is a small amphibious aircraft called the Icon A5.

He first coached Braden, and now has formed a 12-and-under elite team near his Florida home. His other son, Ryan, plays on that team.

“I’m coaching my youngest son,” he said. “We just started a new team down there, and I’m working with the pitchers at my oldest son’s high school. I got my instrument (flying) rating. I’m working on my commercial. Yeah, I’m having fun.”

He also remains plugged in to the Blue Jays. And after all of those years of aching for his mediocre Toronto teams to spend money to make money, and use it to acquire the quality players needed to contend, he is filled with envy. It happened too late for him.

“I’ve been a bit jealous for the past two years,” he said. “This is what we always wanted. I think what really turned the corner was going after the guys they went after at the trade deadline last year. Before, we never had that ability to go get those guys in the second half. Last year they go get some big players, and all of a sudden it turns around the whole feeling of the city and everything. And that allows them to bring some more (players)  in to start out the season and keep it going.

Buck, Doc, Timlin
Buck Martinez, Roy Halladay and Mike Timlin chat in the dugout before Sunday’s 40th-season ceremonies. Photo credit: John Lott

“It’s funny how, with a good team going after it in one trade deadline, it really seemed to really turn them all around. Then you have excitement coming into the next spring, and the extra income you got from the playoffs to go out and get better players. It’s been awesome.”

His observations on that topic seem both eminently logical and just a tad ironic, given this year’s prevalent complaints about ownership’s alleged unwillingness to open the vault and resign Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

More than 46,000 fans showed up Sunday, many happily collecting the bobbleheads bearing the likenesses of three Jays’ pitching legends – Halladay, Dave Stieb and Pat Hentgen. All three threw strikes with their ceremonial pitches, with Stieb reprising his trademark grimace as he delivered from atop the mound.

Hentgen, Stieb, and Doc
Pat Hentgen, Dave Stieb and Roy Halladay threw out the ceremonial first pitches on Sunday. Photo credit: John Lott

It was the Jays’ 28th sellout of the season. The Jays are raking in the cash with crowds unseen since the World Series years of 1992-1993. What goes around comes around, and Halladay has seen that from both sides now.

“There’s always a team around the American League that you always want to be a part of their pitching staff, and now it’s the Blue Jays,” he said, “but I’m watching the Blue Jays. So I’m definitely jealous.”

Now, as hard as it is for Blue Jays’ fans to acknowledge, Halladay is as much a Phillies’ icon as a Blue Jays’ icon. In Philadelphia, he finally reached the post-season. In Philadelphia, he pitched two no-hitters, one a perfecto, the other in the playoffs. On his Twitter avatar, he wears a Phillies uniform.

He became a great pitcher in Toronto, but by the end, he made it clear he wanted out. He had accomplished all he could for perennial third-place teams. He grew weary of the Groundhog Day routine, and said so publicly.

“We were in first one year and we were going into the break and we didn’t get anybody,” he said. “I don’t think we got anybody that year. And I remember we were all kind of really dejected when we came back, because the Yankees got two or three guys, the Red Sox got two or three guys, and that pretty much was the end of us.”

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But with due respect to the fans of Philadelphia, Halladay is forever a Blue Jay. The Blue Jays drafted and developed him, and taught him a harsh lesson by exiling him to A-ball at 23 to get his mechanics and mind right when his ERA reached 10.64 in 2000. After pitching guru Mel Queen kicked his ass in Dunedin, Halladay became a star.

And so, if Halladay makes it into the hall of fame – it says here that he should – he knows which cap will be on his plaque.

“I’d go as a Blue Jay,” he said. “I wanted to retire here, too, just because I felt like, this is the bulk of my career. I would have given my left arm to have the team we have now.”

He doesn’t have the 300 wins that some writers set as the threshold in the highly political voting for hall of fame pitchers. He says he gets “lost” when he contemplates what it would take for him to make it.

“I think there’s a certain part of the media that probably likes me,” he said, “and another part that probably hated dealing with me.”

Day in and out, Halladay was notoriously focused on his preparation routine. Wearing a stoic expression, he often walked past teammates and writers he’d known for years and acted as if they were invisible. They were. He was that obsessed with his job. But one on one, especially later in his career, he could be remarkably accommodating, expansive and analytical.

Does he think he’s a hall of famer?

“I don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully whatever I did is enough. It would definitely be an honor, but if I’m not, I’m still happy with the career I had. I really enjoyed playing. To me that’s the whole deal.”

And now, his sons are learning about that from a master.