Elliott: Recalling Roy Halladay

 Roy Halladay gets the call that he is drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the 1995 draft. Photo: John Leyba, Denver Post.

Roy Halladay gets the call that he is drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the 1995 draft. Photo: John Leyba, Denver Post.

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

Charlie Hayes, Roly de Armas and Homer Bush were sitting in the coach’s room at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Tuesday at noon hour during a break in the action at the New York Yankees annual Fantasy Camp.   

“Charlie and Roly had seen Roy at the Philadelphia Phillies complex (in Clearwater) literally three days before,” Bush said from Tampa. "They were talking about Roy, how he was helping out with the young pitchers and his new plane.”

Bush and others headed to the field and later returned to the clubhouse. Suddenly there in the door stood Tanyon Sturtze. 

Sturtze: “Dude, you’re not going to believe it, Doc Halladay just crashed his plane.”

Bush: “That’s not funny.”

Sturtze: “I wouldn’t joke around about something like that.” 

The words sank in around the room. Former Jays Jesse Barfield, Julio Mosquera and Gil Paterson were there. Plus other fantasy instructors former Yankees Jim Leyritz and Mickey Rivers.

“I cried,” Bush said. “Such a young life, such a beautiful family. You hurt for the loss. The kids won’t have a father. His wife won’t have a husband. The parents have lost a son. That’s tough, real tough.”

Bush made his first start behind Halladay April 7, 1999 in Minneapolis. He had three hits against the Twins and Halladay worked the final three innings for the save in a 9-3 win over the Twins. They had been together earlier that year with class-A Dunedin. And Bush’s final start behind Halladay was April 20, at Yankee Stadium as Eric Hinske hit a pinch hit homer in the 10th for a 5-4 Jays win. A month later Bush was dealt to the Florida Marlins.  

“Roy never talked a lot, for such a tall physical specimen he could get lost in the room, it was amazing,” Bush said. “I was telling my wife with all my (health) issues and Roy having his (performance) issues most of our attention was spent getting our careers on track. He was trying to figure everything out He was trying to put it together.”

* * *
John Axford (Port Dover, Ont.) was on a flight Tuesday from San Francisco to Toronto when he received a text from his sister Marsha midway asking “if I saw what happened to Roy?” He had three hours left in the flight and WiFi was not available on the plane. 

For three straight hours Axford was continually searching Halladay’s name in hopes of getting some service, but nothing. When the plane landed at Pearson he saw the news and immediately broke down seated in 2-F.

Welcome to Toronto!

And the thing is, Axford had never even met Halladay.

As he posted on Twitter:

I never met Roy Halladay, but yesterday, I cried when I first read the news of his passing. You see, I actually owe a lot of my career to him.

Now this is a story that has been heard before, but needs a different light today! In April of 2009, while playing in A Ball, I was taken to a bullpen mound in Dunedin to have my mechanics overhauled. Very similar to something Roy went through early in his career. On this date, in April, I was told to try and “pitch like Roy Halladay!”

I loved him because I was a fan. He was the best pitcher in the league for a decade. I loved him because I was a Blue Jays fan growing up. His work ethic and character made me want to be like him. And that day, when my pitching coaches said “do it ... be like Roy Halladay ... try to pitch like him!” Of course I did. He was respected immensely throughout the game. There was no one better to emulate in my eyes. With it, I gained velocity and confidence. I was in the big leagues four months later!

We never got to meet in person, so I never got to say thank you! From the deepest depths of my heart Roy, thank you for your talents, your work ethic and for being an inspiration to so many. You will be greatly missed. Today, I am certain we haven’t heard the last of someone saying “be like Roy Halladay!”

The reason Axford was in Dunedin was because he was pitching for the class-A Brevard County Manatees. The Brevard pitching coach was Fred Dabney, while the Brewers pitching coordinator at the time Lee Tunnell (now the Brewers bullpen coach).

* * *
Former Baseball Canada president Ray Carter was inducted to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame along with Vladimir Guerrero, the 2015 gold-winning Pan Am Team Canada squad and Halladay in July.

“I was so fortunate to spend time with him over three days at the ceremonies,” said Carter. “I knew before what a great pitcher and athlete he was, but it was in St. Marys I soon learned what a fine and caring person he was. There was absolutely no ego with him. I feel privileged to have met Roy.

“What a loss. What a sad time for baseball.”

* * *
Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, former general manager of the Blue Jays, and who helped Ruben Amaro engineer the Phillies acquiring Halladay from the Blue Jays has a grand total of two autographed baseballs in his Michigan den.

The two names written on each are Don Larsen and Halladay. Larsen pitched a perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series for the New York Yankees against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Halladay pitched his no hitter in his post-season debut in the 2010 NLDS against the Reds.

* * *
If you are a Blue Jays fan and have ventured either into the Twitter world or Facebook you probably have come across Matt David Harvey (Halldayfan32). Being on the autism spectrum hasn’t prevented him from being a big-time Blue Jays fan and a Halladay worshipper, like so many other Jays fans.

He pushes carts at the Loblaws Superstore In St. Catharines. Harvey was at work on Tuesday and does not have access to computers when at work. His buddy Ryan had finished his shift but came running to him outside to give him the news about the plane and about Halladay. 

“Thankfully, my buddy came to me, I knew something was up,” said Harvey. “It was one of those ‘what is going on moments,’ then he told me -- which is better than finding out when going on my Twitter. I am still stunned.”

* * *
In 2001 Halladay was starting over again in Dunedin just as he was in 1996 for his first full pro season.

This time general manager Gord Ash, manager Buck Martinez and pitching coach Mark Connor, who all had raved about his bullpen sessions. Yet, one and all saw him falter mightily on the mound. The group decided to send him to Dunedin in the care of pitching coach Scott Breeden.

RHP Travis Hubbel (Edmonton, Alta.) and Halladay were in the training room as the Jays charter flew to Puerto Rico to open the 2001 season against the Rangers. Hubbel was dealing with anxiety and stress from “putting too much pressure” on himself. The medications were such a bad mix and he was ill at the George Strait concert at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.  

Halladay: “What’s wrong with you?”

Hubbel: “I’m sick.”

Halladay jokingly: “Stay away from me.”

Hubbel: “It’s not contagious.”

That year Hubbel joined Dunedin after Halladay was promoted to double-A Tennessee and he followed Halladay to Knoxville as Halladay jumped to triple-A Syracuse. 

Hubbel retired after the 2003 season and now coaches his sons Chase and Chance who play for Niagara Falls. He now lives in Welland, Ont. He was signed by Bill Byckowski (Georgetown, Ont.) in 1999 was assigned to St. Catharines fell in love and stayed there.  

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* * *
Joel Lustig (Markham, Ont.) took his 10-year-old son Aubrey to the final game of the 1998 season on Sept. 27. They sat in first row above the Jays bullpen in left field as Halladay stood on the mound -- one out away from a no hitter.

It was also Dave Stieb’s last with the Jays. Stieb was watching Halladay, now an out away from a no-hitter. Pinch hitter Bobby Higginson hit a drive to left -- “I told Aubrey the ball was coming and he tried to duck under his seat on Halladay’s first pitch. The ball cleared the fence and now the score was 2-1. At the 29 second mark father and son can be spotted in the first row (left, first two seats).

Halladay’s 95th and final pitch was a Frank Catalanotto liner speared by shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Halladay had a complete game one hitter in his second start. Lustig said he saw Stieb retrieve Higginson’s home run ball. 

During the Jays 40th anniversary this season Halladay was one of the alumni at the Rogers Centre for a post-game autograph session. The Lustigs were fortunate to be two of the 300 in line to receive wristbands.

"I asked Halladay to include his Cy Young award year on the ball he not only wrote AL CY ‘03 but also NL CY ‘10," said Lustig.

And father and son made the trip to St. Marys where they also received Halladay's autograph.

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* * *
The 55 best 15-year-old and 16-year-olds from across the country representing every province were invited to the 2010 Mizuno Junior Elite Camp at Rogers Centre camp.

We talked to 15 including Brett Siddall (Windsor, Ont.) now in the Oakland A’s organization, Owen Spiwak (Mississauga, Ont.), a Blue Jays farmhand, and Bryan Saucedo (Toronto, Ont.) with the Chicago White Sox. We asked all 15 who was their favourite player.

Two answered Halladay. RHP Alec Clavet (St-Nicholas, Que.) who said: “Because he’s simply the best. I learned a lot from him. His poker face. He’s cold blood,” and RHP Payton Hillsdon (Moose Jaw, Sask.) “Roy Halladay because he’s a great pitcher, he’s someone to look up to due to his work ethic.”

* * *
Gil Patterson was the pitching coach of the 2004 Blue Jays. 

In his final start before the break Halladay threw 97 pitches allowing 12 hits in six innings against the Anaheim Angels. Not a typical Halladay outing. David Eckstein, Chone Figgins, Garret Anderson, Jose Guillen and Darin Erstad all singled in the three-run first. After Alex Rios hit a two-run triple and an error tied the score, Adam Kennedy, Eckstein, Vladimir Guerrero all singled and the Angels were up 5-3.

Halladay’s ERA climbed to 4.03 and he said he did not have a tired arm. 

Halladay made his first start after the break at Arlington, Tex. facing the Texas Rangers. It did not go well. Mark Teixeira homered in the second, Hank Blalock, Alfonso Soriano, Teixeira, David Dellucci and Gary Matthews each knocked in runs. Halladay maintained he did not have a tired arm.

I asked Patterson where his prized pupil stood on with it came to pitching with pain on a 1-to-10 scale ... one beating a stubbed toe preventing him from suiting up for the game; a 10 being going out for the ninth with an aching shoulder, elbow and left knee?

“Roy would be the type with bone sticking out of his shin to say ... ‘I’m OK, skip,’” said Patterson.

A few days later Halladay was shut down with a sore arm. He missed 67 days and then took his regular turn for the final three starts of the season. 

* * *
When he was on, which was often, Halladay was tough.

He competed on every pitch:

Up by four, or down by four,

Healthy as a horse or so sore he could not lift his arm to brush his hair.

He had prepared four days for this ...

Never did we ever see him implode like closers do when they are sent out to “just get some work in,” with a five-run difference.

And when he was really on? Well we think back to an off day in the 2010 National League Division Series between Halladay’s Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds before Game 3. The Reds and Aroldis Chapman had lost Game 2, 7-4, and Game 1 on Halladay’s no hitter.    

We asked Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) how good Halladay had been in his post-season debut?

“Twice I stepped out, called time on him,” Votto said of his at-bats during the no-no.

“The next day we had a workout day, I saw him on the field, congratulated him and apologized for stepping out. Then I added ‘sorry, but that’s the best I got.’ He laughed at that.”

Votto agreed with others that Halladay could have pitched a perfect game, saying Halladay “just missed with the 3-2 pitch ... a cutter that sunk too low” so Jay Bruce walked on with two out in the fifth.

Discussing Halladay’s pitches, Votto asked for my notebook.

No, I told him I’m not giving you my note book. It will look like I am asking for an autograph. 

He asked me to draw home plate, with the black border.

Two pitches into the description Votto grabbed the notebook and pen.

“To right-handed hitters he threw a cutter which starts at your right hip and catches the back corner, a sinker which catches the front portion, a back-door cutter which catches the corner and a slider on the corner,” Votto said. “That’s not even mentioning his curve or his splitter. He doesn’t throw a fastball.”

The four lines crossing the 17-inch plate barely touched the black.

Two on each side, one front, one back.

Shown Votto’s handiwork, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro said, “He never throws a pitch over the front of the plate. Least he didn’t that night.”

Halladay was unhittable that day. 

Memories of Halladay are unforgettable.

And will be as long as we have our memories for he was one special pitcher.

* * *

A celebration of life for Halladay will be held Tuesday afternoon at Spectrum Field the spring-training home of the Phillies in Clearwater.