Doc Comes Home at Last
Photo by SD Dirk
It doesn’t rank remotely among the most offensive violations suffered by the people of Toronto at this same time last year, but Blue Jays fans will probably tell you that they had an additional important reason to be upset about the G20.
“Security concerns” related to the world leaders’ summit led the Jays to choose to relocate their weekend series at home against the Phillies to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia in late June 2010.
No ordinary three-game set, it was a series that was supposed to have brought Roy Halladay back to Toronto.
Now, one year later, the beloved, departed Halladay will finally make his return to the Rogers Centre—though it was still called SkyDome when he first took its hill. On that day back in 1998, Halladay, all of 21 years old, one-hit the Tigers to close out the 1998 season, a two-out ninth-inning pinch-hit homer by Bobby Higginson his only mistake. If Jays fans are anticipating the chance to watch him pitch again, it is with good reason. After his stunning home debut, Halladay struggled through the next three seasons, often in the bullpen or the minor leagues, before breaking out in 2002. From that point on, he was the undisputed ace of seven consecutive Blue Jays pitching staffs, which ranged from dreadful to sublime.
Pitching is a funny thing, unique in sport. There is likely no athletic motion more demanding of a single part of the body than the pitching of a baseball is of the arm. Only the lucky few that can master it and endure the necessary, taxing repetition, demonstrating that tossing a good ballgame can be as artful and elegant as anything in sport.
Halladay’s career with the Blue Jays was a fine example of this. Other guys on other staffs had better stuff. Even former teammate A.J. Burnett had a livelier fastball and a more devastating curve. But no one had Halladay’s astonishing command, induced as many ground-ball outs, issued free passes so rarely, sweated tirelessly through as many innings, shared his ability to think his way through a game.
Seemingly unconcerned with padding his strikeout totals, Halladay’s every pitch was designed to result in an out. He threw strikes, worked quickly and with the constant awareness that a one- or two-pitch groundout was more efficient than a strikeout, and became a master of the two-hour complete game. His teammates marveled at, and tried to emulate, his well-documented work ethic in the gym.
Besides the aesthetic appeal, the joy Jays fans derived from watching Halladay pitch for the better part of the last decade came from the sharing of a secret, known only to the rest of the team’s fanbase and to those in the dugouts and clubhouses of the league’s other 29 clubs: Halladay was flat-out better than everyone else in the game.
And he was ours.
Always stoic and professional, Halladay didn’t seem to mind toiling away in Toronto, a mid-size market, playing for a team that never once reached the playoffs during his time here. At least—unlike one of his Toronto-franchise-player counterparts, the Raptors’ Chris Bosh—if Halladay longed for the exposure a move to a bigger market would have garnered, we never knew it.
But he did want to win, and when it became apparent that that wasn’t going to happen in Toronto, he waived his no-trade clause in order to approve a deal to send him to the powerhouse Phillies.
Again, unlike Bosh—who in future would be well-advised to be more careful what he wishes for—Halladay did not discover that the brighter, harsher spotlight in his new home city shone on previously hidden flaws in his game. When Halladay arrived in town, some Phillies fans questioned whether he would really prove an upgrade over their previous ace, lefty Cliff Lee. After Halladay’s first year on the job produced a perfect game, a Cy Young award, and just the second no-hitter in playoff history, those questions were quickly silenced.
The man we used to call “Doc” is slated to throw his next pitch in the bottom of the first inning on Saturday afternoon in Toronto, presumably after a lengthy standing ovation. But the fans in attendance won’t be there simply to show Halladay their appreciation for all his years of service. Neither will they be there only to see if the Jays can stick it to their old teammate. Chances are, the fact that he now plays for the other side probably won’t matter too much to too many.
They will be there, primarily, to watch him go to work, just like they used to do. After all, nobody else does it quite as well.