Roy Halladay was the reason Toronto Blue Jays fans watched the team for the better part of a decade, and even so, he always strived to be a better person.
The 2000s were a sad, sordid affair for Toronto sports fans. After the 2004 NHL lockout, the Toronto Maple Leafs did not make the playoffs again. The Toronto Raptors squandered bona fide talents such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh while not even making the Eastern Conference Finals. The Toronto Blue Jays finished second in the AL East just once, with no front office vision whatsoever that would paint a path to the postseason.
Everything, at all times, was chaos. Roy Halladay, on every fifth game for the Toronto Blue Jays, was order.
Roy “Doc” Halladay died suddenly in a plane crash on Nov. 7, 2017, way too suddenly for the Toronto sports world to come to grips with. For the better part of a decade, when all of the Toronto sports teams scuttled about in mediocrity, he was the shining beacon of light that gave the city all the hope it needed.
Roy Halladay, when on the mound, became appointment television; he gave a clinic of pitching excellence each time out. A man of few words, he went about his business with a workmanlike attitude rare among even the most devout to the craft of pitching. Even on his off days, he was always working on ways to improve his command, watching game tape to prepare pitching sequences for his next game, working hard in the gym or imparting wisdom to anyone who would talk shop about pitching with him.
As players reflect back upon their time with Roy on social media following his passing, one constant remains: how hard he worked on his game. When he was in work mode, he was an impenetrable wall of stoicism — a poker face that stared you down, giving you nothing to read. He prepared for every outing like it was his last, perfecting his mechanics down to machine-like tendencies. Every pitch of his had sharp movement, every pitch came from the same arm slot, and every pitch could land right at the bottom of the strike zone with ease.
The strive to always do better made Halladay a stalwart pitcher throughout the 2000s, the glue that held the Blue Jays together. Of all the ridiculous stats one could bring up about his illustrious career, the most impressive often speak to the testament of his efficiency. Rarely did he pitch fewer than seven innings in a game, and he still holds the record for most complete games in baseball since 2009 despite retiring from the game in 2013.
Why Toronto sports fans gravitated towards him was due to just how well he stood his ground against better teams. For a decade, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox always took first and second in the division, yet when Roy Halladay stepped up to the rubber, Blue Jays fans knew they had a strong chance to win. The way he carved up David Ortiz, Alex Rodriquez, Adam Jones or Evan Longoria gave fans something to cheer for, even if they knew it was a joyous occasion that came around just once every five games.
To be a Toronto Blue Jays fan in the 2000s was to hold onto Roy Halladay as a life preserver and hope things would get better.
While he had built up his body to withstand an average of 230-plus innings of regular season work year in and year out, for the Toronto Blue Jays fan, it felt like he was compelled to. From 2002 to 2010, the identity of the team was propped up by his pitching and Vernon Wells’ offense, with the both of them leaned on heavily by the front office to field a team that would be haphazardly thrown together each offseason.
Guys like Russ Adams, Alex Rios, Eric Hinske, Reed Johnson and Frank Catalanotto played 130 games in a season, while pitchers like Josh Towers, Ted Lilly, Shaun Marcum, Miguel Batista and Mark Hendrickson started more games than one would ever want. To be a Toronto Blue Jays fan in the 2000s was to hold onto Roy Halladay as a life preserver and hope things would get better.
Despite those difficulties, knowing that his prime years were being wasted on a team that wouldn’t make the playoffs, Halladay never complained. Not once.
When Ted Lilly, his pitching teammate, got into a physical altercation with manager John Gibbons in the clubhouse, he didn’t have a comment to share. When Shea Hillenbrand wrote, “this ship is sinking” and “play for yourself” on a whiteboard, he led by example. Halladay carried himself with strict professionalism, with his teammates emulating him in an effort to share his same results.
As a Blue Jays fan who grew up with the team in the 2000s, what kept me going was knowing that an ace among aces was there, year in and year out, to give me hope that the team could make it to the playoffs once more. No matter how many terrible lineup cards could be submitted in a given season, knowing that Toronto had a dominant pitcher that could take down any team at will gave us fans hope.
Many fans wanted a Blue Jays playoff appearance not just because it would finally end the city’s playoff drought, but because it would finally reward a patient, understanding man with his chance at winning a championship trophy. To this day, the fact that the team couldn’t get things working once in a decade for a once-in-a-generation talent remains one of the franchise’s biggest disappointments.
What amazes me most about how dominant Halladay would be in the 2000s is that the decade began with him at his worst. At 23 years old, he started the 2000 season pitching 67.2 innings of 10.64 ERA baseball, a historical low in MLB history for anybody that pitched 60+ innings in a season. He was sent down to Double-A Tennessee in 2001 by GM Gord Ash in order to fix his mechanics, with one of the organization’s pitching instructors, Mel Queen, given just one task: “You’ve got to fix Halladay.”
It took days of throwing phantom pitches to hone his form and two fastball grips that changed Roy’s life forever. All he needed to do was throw a pitch down the middle of the plate, using a running fastball that would dive into lefties’ hands and a sinker that would float back into righties’ hands. Roy went on to return to the major leagues in 2001 to pitch 105.1 innings of 3.16 ERA ball with a 1.15 WHIP, and he never looked back.
Better than Halladay, the pitcher, was Halladay, the human. He rarely, if ever, mentioned his charitable efforts, including a dedicated private box at the Skydome (later, Rogers Centre) for inviting children and families from Sick Kids (a local children’s hospital) to enjoy Blue Jays baseball games. He even had a $100,000/year donation to the Jays Care Foundation written into his final contract with the team, emboldening his charitable efforts.
Even after he walked away from the game, he contnued to be a goodwill ambassador for baseball. Countless young pitchers reached out to him to ask for advice, and he poured hours of time into helping them out. He had a bright future ahead of him if baseball asked him to come back in a leadership role, and no team in their right mind would turn him down.
At the end of the day, not a single Toronto Blue Jays fan had anything unkind to say about Roy Halladay. Many superstars have come to play for the city’s numerous teams, but few have left (or returned) on good terms. So much pressure was put on each of them in the 2000s, with every team wading in mediocrity and the fandom expecting the very best to keep them afloat in playoff contention. Halladay felt those pressures and pushed through as best he could.
From 2001 to 2009, there was no other player that the Toronto Blue Jays put on the field that carried themselves with as much excellence, class, character and perseverance as Roy Halladay. He was the bedrock of a franchise that, during his time here, failed to pick up the slack.
Roy Halladay wasn’t just the face of the Blue Jays; he was the Blue Jays. His impact on the team will never be forgotten, and his loss will stay heavy in the hearts of fans for years to come.