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Roy Halladay was a pitching ace, an intense competitor and a ruthlessly good man: Arthur

Being a legend is about more than what you do; it’s about how you carry yourself. The former Blue Jay was, for a time, the best pitcher in the world, but his legacy goes beyond baseball.

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Roy Halladay talks with son Braden between innings in the dugout.

Metroland Media

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Roy Halladay talks with son Braden between innings in the dugout.

I saw Roy Halladay tell a joke once. His Toronto Blue Jays teammates were marvelling at an electric guitar he had brought to the clubhouse, and as he walked by one cracked derisively, “Do you play?” Halladay, quick as a cat, shot back, “Are you married?” The answer to both questions, of course, was not really, no. His other teammates howled; the guy who asked the question was slack-jawed until he grinned. He had no comeback. Halladay never broke stride, and he was gone.

Roy Halladay died on Tuesday when the plane he was flying alone crashed in the Gulf of Mexico. Halladay was an accomplished and eager pilot in his retirement; he had said that one day he wanted to teach his boys, Ryan and Braden, how to fly. Roy Halladay was only 40 years old, and an icon.

Roy Halladay often seemed to be a baseball machine. But he wasn’t a robot, writes Bruce Arthur, he was a man who worried about doing things right.

Torstar File Photo

Roy Halladay often seemed to be a baseball machine. But he wasn’t a robot, writes Bruce Arthur, he was a man who worried about doing things right.

Every tribute to Halladay talks about how he worked. And lord, how he worked. His teammates spoke in awe about his early-morning routines, the late-night runs, the self-inflicted torture chambers. Once in a while teammates would try to do the same workouts, and they couldn’t. Halladay seemed to be something more than human: he seemed to be a baseball machine. He wouldn’t tell you how to be Roy Halladay, how to be the best pitcher in baseball, but if you watched, you could learn how to try.

“There’s only one Doc Halladay, and I don’t think you can compare him to anyone,” said Gord Ash, his Jays general manager, back before Halladay was great.

Being an icon is about more than what you do; it’s about how you carry yourself. Halladay wouldn’t talk at all on game days. He intimidated teammates. He competed so hard on every pitch, every single pitch. He recorded more complete games than entire teams, as complete-game pitchers vanished from the landscape. He was relentlessly humble. He was great with kids.

That’s why you see all the tributes from players who wanted to be like him, wanted to be him. Baseball players looked at Roy Halladay and saw a kind of purity. That, they would think, that’s how you do it. When A.J. Burnett came to Toronto he was a lazy kid with an electric arm. When he left he said he believed he was meant to come to Toronto, if only to sit next to Roy Halladay and learn how to do it right. He told this paper’s Richard Griffin, “I had never done it the right way before.”

The sad truth of Halladay’s Jays career, of course, is that not a single one of those starts truly mattered; the Jays were never in a real playoff chase, never in the post-season. Halladay went 18-6 against the Yankees for Toronto, with a 2.84 ERA. It didn’t matter in the big picture, but if you loved the Blue Jays despite everything, it probably mattered to you. Nobody will remember those teams fondly, if at all. But they’ll remember Doc.

So when he left nobody was angry, because they understood: Roy Halladay deserved better. In 2009 everyone knew he might get dealt, and he ate up the Tampa Bay Rays on a Friday night before the deadline. He left the mound to a standing ovation in the ninth with the game still tied, but didn’t tip his cap. He was asked why not, and he said he was counting his pitches, and wanted to keep going. Halladay didn’t want to signal he was done.

Yeah. When then-new GM Alex Anthopoulos called players after the 2009 season ended with Halladay still a Jay, the calls were usually 20 minutes, as long as an hour. Halladay talked for 45 minutes about what he saw, what could be better, how to bring more out of his teammates. Anthopoulos considered it a gift.

And that winter, Halladay left. His career accomplishments start with the perfect game and the playoff no-hitter, and they both happened in Philadelphia. He got to start five playoff games in his life, all for the Phillies. He went 3-2, with a 2.37 ERA. Good for him.

And then came the end. In his second-to-last start he somehow managed six innings against a lousy Marlins team despite a fastball that clocked 82; in the final start of his life Halladay threw 16 pitches and not one was listed in the game book as a fastball; they are all changeups, because his fastball was gone. Classic dead arm, they called it. He threw until he couldn’t anymore.

And it all came from somewhere. In his second full season Halladay famously blew up and was sent to Class-A as a reclamation project, and Mel Queen had to tell him to throw sidearm just to try something different. It worked. Roy Halladay, the best pitcher in baseball, came from that place. As Ash puts it: “I think it was in him, but I think it gave him permission to expose it, to dig down and say this is who I am, and this is who I’m going to be. He was a guy who early in his career was so concerned with doing the right thing, and being what people wanted him to be. Putting him in that environment … I just think it freed him, a little bit.”

If you want a legacy, here goes: Roy Halladay was a ruthlessly good man who was so devoted to his wife and family that he didn’t think about a job in baseball because he wanted to watch his boys grow up. He was, for a time, the best pitcher in the world. And he was someone who nearly broke at 23, and spent the rest of his baseball life running from that, torturing himself, giving everything he could to every pitch he ever threw. He wasn’t a robot: he was a man who worried about doing things right, and all he did was make himself into everything people wanted him to be. And he is dead too soon.

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