Like, I’m sure, many of you, I’ve been finding it a bit of a struggle to be in public over the past few days. I’m torn between wanting to hide my sadness, and badly wanting to talk about it. But how do you talk about it? How do you say “Hello, I’m really upset today because a retired baseball player died suddenly, please excuse me if I seem distracted and my eyes start watering”?
More than once, someone has approached me with “Did you hear about Roy Halladay?” as though it’s a casual piece of gossip. Then they’ve been stunned when my voice cracks in response.
I haven’t always watched baseball. I became a fan of the Blue Jays because my dad took me to my first game when I was six, they were the ‘local’ team, and I played softball, so I understood it better than other sports. I didn’t become a Jays fan by choice. I remain one by choice, but I became a Jays fan thanks to geography.
I didn’t become a Roy Halladay fan by choice, either. Just by coincidence. One Saturday in April 2005, I was flipping through my local newspaper and found the ‘Big Picture’ they always featured in the weekend edition – a full-page photo on the back of a section, of whatever celebrity was popular at the time. My childhood bedroom was decorated with these – everyone from Hilary Duff to Shania Twain and the cast of Harry Potter. One weekend, that celebrity was Roy. It was a powerful landscape image, shot from the waist up, of him standing mid-windup, about to deliver a pitch. He was dressed in the road greys, from those years when the lettering was silver and the bird was angry.
Had this photo (or a very similar one) on the back of my bedroom door for nearly a decade. He’s one of the first ballplayers I really loved pic.twitter.com/49XrKlLuBJ
— Emily- Thank you Doc (@JaysGirlEmily) November 7, 2017
My dad was confused when I asked permission to cut it out.
“But you don’t follow baseball”
“Yeah, but I like the Blue Jays”
So I cut Roy out, carefully following the fold of the page to make a straight line, and taped him up on my door.
At the time I found that photo in the paper, I was still an awkward, sensitive, smart, grade six kid. I spent my summers playing softball, and my school year wanting to stay home every day, because school was where the bullies were.
I got teased for reading books and not liking sports. My classmates were obsessed with hockey, but I didn’t care (except for the Olympics), which made me stand out more. If I ever said “but I like the Blue Jays”, it didn’t matter that I’d played since I was five, or that what I really liked was baseball. In the days before I could memorize players’ names and stats lines, I could still follow a game, but that didn’t matter. They would still pull the age-old trick of gatekeeping male sports fans and say “Oh yeah? Name one Jays player”. If I couldn’t pass their test, I was clearly an imposter. The few times post-2004 that I slipped up and said “Carlos Delgado”, they would get a triumphant glint in their eye before laughing at how stupid I was.
Roy changed that.
I grew up in the time when the Yankees were a powerhouse, and Alex Rodriguez was tearing up the planet. Most of the kids in my class preferred the Yankees just for the sake of dominance. Like any Yankee fan worth their salt, they made fun of the Jays every chance they got. One day, that’s exactly what happened – I dared to suggest the Blue Jays were my favourite sports team, and one of them got a familiar sneer. “Oh yeah? Who’s your favourite player?”
Before I even knew what I was doing, I blurted “Roy Halladay.”
His eyes widened for a second, shocked that I’d actually risen to meet the challenge. Then he nodded, mumbled something about “Yeah, he’s pretty good” and turned back to his buddies. I was stunned.
That’s what Doc became to me: an invincible giant, those two magical words I could say that would make those boys shut up and leave me alone. Long before I could keep up with every game, before I found a niche for my own unique brand of baseball fandom, Roy made me feel like I wasn’t an imposter. He protected me – or more accurately, he helped me protect myself.
He looked the part, too. Long before I became accustomed to pitching mechanics, I marvelled at the unnatural way his throwing hand was twisted behind him, the way his arms looked so big and strong. I learned recently that he was one of five Phillies players to take part in an anti-homophobia campaign, and that warmed my heart. It meshes perfectly with that idea I had of him, as someone who would stand up for the ostracized and wouldn’t let anyone be picked on, not on his watch.
For years, I constantly asked my dad for updates about him. I was crushed when he got traded to Philadelphia, although looking back now I know he deserved the chance to shine on a bigger stage. I was thrilled when he threw a perfect game, and then a no-hitter in the playoffs, proving to everyone what Torontonians already knew – he was the best of the very best.
Twitter was full of statistics on Tuesday, full of things that showed he was one of a kind, and the last of his breed. That breed, of course, was a starter with endurance. As Jake Diekman beautifully put it, “He was his own closer”. Everybody knew he was intense, focused, a workhorse. He was legendary for being unapproachable on his start days, for arriving at ungodly hours to run the stairs.
On the other hand, my favourite stories are about the kind of person he was off the field. Buck Martinez’s voice broke as he spoke about Roy being the only player to come to his office on the day he was fired as the Blue Jays’ manager. Roy’s philanthropy was legendary. He started ‘Doc’s Box’ at the SkyDome (now the JaysCare Community Clubhouse) to bring children from Sick Kids Hospital to watch games. He was beloved for his wit, his beaming smile, the impact he had on every team just by being present. After he threw his perfect game, he gave out 60 commemorative watches to Phillies players and staff. The boxes read “We did it together. Thanks”. He made a lasting impact on young up-and-coming Jays pitchers, even those who – despite all outward bravado – couldn’t help but be in awe of him.
When I first got Twitter and discovered his account, I was overjoyed. He seemed so happy, so enthusiastic, so – it hurts to write this phrase now – full of life. While it’s sad his career ended when it did, I couldn’t help feeling genuinely happy for a guy who was clearly enjoying himself so much in retirement. Yet among all the photos of him in planes, and his excitement about his new toys, it never occurred to me how dangerous a hobby flying is.
Life is all about perspective and how you choose to see things and your attitude toward them! Broke down on the Hwy or a day at the beach? pic.twitter.com/J4ifpTbXPv
— Roy Halladay (@RoyHalladay) September 22, 2017
None of this is new to most of you. If you’re here, you likely know all this, but I can’t help repeating it. Whenever someone dies I feel this compulsion to list all the reasons it’s sad. Like if I talk enough, and make it obvious to everyone just how much a tragedy this is, I’ll be able to convince someone or some higher power that this isn’t fair, that he deserves to stay. Am I justifying my own sadness? I don’t know. It’s a fact of life that things which make us happy also have the ability to devastate us. Despite knowing that, we go on loving them because that happiness is so crucial. We continued to love Jose Bautista this year, all the while knowing his time with the team was drawing to an end. It hurt, but it was worth it.
So we can mourn. It doesn’t matter that we didn’t know Doc personally. We can mourn for his family, his widow and two teen boys now without their father. We can mourn for ourselves, for not getting to welcome him back to Toronto and appreciate him one more time. And we can mourn for him, for the heartbreaking fact that
if/when he gets inducted into the Hall of Fame – he’s eligible as of next year – he won’t be there to see it.
We have a bit of an inferiority complex in Toronto, which sometimes is rightfully earned. Whether it’s an appropriate, grief-filled reaction or not, I know many of us felt a little hurt that so much of the sports media showed him in Phillies gear in their obituaries. With all due respect to Phillies fans (who I know are mourning him in their own way right now), I don’t think anybody else could possibly understand what he was, and still is, to Toronto.
Despite the tragedy, despite how brutally unfair this all feels, we can still know that our connection to him mattered. He loved Toronto when nobody else would touch the team with a ten-foot pole. He signed two contract extensions on teams that were going nowhere. He got suited up in ugly uniforms every day for twelve years, and he wore them with pride.
— Toronto Sun (@TheTorontoSun) November 7, 2017
After he got traded, he took out a full-page ad in the Sun to thank the fans. J.P. Arencibia revealed on the radio that Doc, while with Philadelphia, sent the Jays scouting reports on National League teams. He started for the Phillies in Toronto on July 2nd, 2011, and got a bigger standing ovation than any opponent I’ve ever seen.
And then he signed that symbolic one-day contract in 2013 so he could retire as a Blue Jay. That was just the best day. Nobody else has done that for us. Like no pitcher before or since, he put a terrible team on his back and never complained once. He was so happy for us when the Jays finally made it back to the playoffs in 2015, but also said he was “so jealous” because he’d always wanted to see the Dome packed for a pennant race. That broke my heart at the time. He more than deserved it.
The night he died, I flipped on Sportsnet in the middle of an old interview. Stephen Brunt asked him what it felt like after being traded from the only team he’d ever played for. I’ll never forget his response. “I felt like a Blue Jay in a Phillies uniform. I felt like a Philly toward the end of my time there, but for the longest time, I still felt like a Blue Jay. That’s when I knew that I was a Blue Jay and I always would be.”
Nobody ever talks about our team like that. This city absolutely adored him, and he loved us right back. He was special, and he was ours. No trade, no early retirement, and no awful plane crash can ever take that away from us. He had his biggest accomplishments – the playoffs, the perfect game, the NLDS no-hitter – in Philadelphia, but just last year he told reporters that
if he were to get to Cooperstown, he’d want a Jays cap on his plaque.
Knowing that he felt that way is enough for me.
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