By CATHAL KELLY
Thursday, November 9, 2017
TORONTO -- If the criteria are titles or signature moments in October, you could have a long argument about the best Toronto Blue Jay ever.
If it is instead the harder thing - devoting yourself to a lost cause and doing the job you are paid to do at the highest level and without complaint - there is none. In that case, Roy Halladay, who died in a plane crash off the west coast of Florida on Tuesday, was the greatest competitor in Jays history.
It's not easy being a good player on a good team, but it is simple.
You do what you do and people fall in love with you for it. Winning creates a virtuous circle of contentment - everyone wants to come to work, and is anxious to do their bit, however small.
Many of the players who leap to mind in a 'best ever' conversation got that advantage through the 1980s and early 1990s.
Being a good player on a consistently mediocre team? Not as much fun.
The fans resent the club, the players resent the fans and eventually they begin to resent each other. If the alphas on the roster lose the plot, the room goes feral. Then it's a spiral into chaos.
For eight long and occasionally miserable seasons, as the good vibes of back-to-back titles became ancient history and Torontonians drifted from baseball, Halladay would not allow that to happen.
Decent years, so-so years, terrible years - Halladay was the constant spark.
If anyone was contemplating insurrection, they could look over at the most consistent starter in baseball and remind themselves that if that guy wasn't complaining, they did not have permission to, either. Those who tried it anyway found no takers in the room and did not last.
Halladay was not a talker. His style of leadership was more primal.
You'd occasionally be standing around a locker room before a game and players would be goofing off, playing cards, typical stuff. Then Halladay would come through, soaked through with sweat, and everyone would go quiet.
He'd head to the back to get treatment or crush bricks or whatever else was next in his endless workout regimen, and players would start getting out of their chairs. Roy Halladay, best player on a team eight or 11 or 14 games out of first, wasn't easing into his work day. So no one else could, either.
When things got bad, nothing about Halladay changed. Same approach, same routines, same calm.
I remember Halladay once turning to a reporter after a question he didn't like and saying with just a hint of edge, "What do you mean by that?"
I remember it so well because it was the single time I saw Halladay irritated by anything other than his own on-field mistakes.
People in the scrum - people who were used to being shrieked at by frustrated players every once in a while - rocked back on their heels.
It was that weird.
Halladay did not make waves, with anyone, ever. He didn't hold grudges, needle guys or make a show of himself.
He was there to work, and that's what he did. Once work was finished, he went home, slept, got up and worked again.
For eight years he did that without once caving to the urge to use the megaphone baseball stardom had given him for anything other than soothing words.
It is difficult to express how rare those qualities are in a top professional athlete. It's not once in a generation, but once in a lifetime.
He provided the emotional ballast for an entire franchise, as well as giving fans a one-man rationale to invest in watching in a loser.
It wasn't always smooth. There is no way to paper over the fact that a team isn't very good and isn't doing enough to get better. But because Halladay never pointed out that fact, it never got to the point of crisis.
As the Jays head toward what could be another period of extended mediocrity, there is no one on the current roster who occupies that space - supremely gifted, entirely devoted and allergic to drama.
Think about how he handled his contracts. Halladay never allowed them to become a story because he would quietly renegotiate extensions long before anyone had begun talking about them.
He never said anything about "seeing what's out there," never hinted that his co-operation was contingent on the team investing in this or that free agent. Despite having enormous leverage, he never once applied it in public because it would have embarrassed the organization and, to Halladay's unusual way of thinking, himself.
Baseball is a business - that's become the mantra of every star just as he leaves - but Halladay didn't treat it like one. For him, it was a vocation.
He may be the only athlete on the continent who truly did not pay any mind to the money. As long as the Jays allowed him the freedom to perfect his art, he was happy to do it in Toronto. The rest was details.
It was the team that first suggested a trade, not the other way around. The process took nearly a year. The pitcher didn't agitate or sulk in the interim and though the team was miserable that season, he continued putting up Cy Young-calibre stats. The result was a deal that, at the time, seemed like highway robbery for a want-away star.
Who does all that now? No one.
You can't expect everyone to carry themselves as well as Halladay.
Players are human and flawed. They have bad days and make impulsive decisions. It is a business and everyone likes attention.
But a very few special people rise above that. When they do, applauding it is not a slight on anyone else.
In a grasping, individualistic sporting age, no qualities are more rare or precious than loyalty and modesty.
Halladay's numbers are Hall-ofFame level, but they are paltry things beside those aspects of his remarkable professionalism. Those traits went beyond wins. They were the sort that make a player mythic.
He has been gone for only a few hours, but it is not too early to begin thinking about how to properly honour Halladay's contribution to Toronto baseball.
There should be no limit to the organization's aspiration.
Level of Excellence? Retire his number? Erect a statue? All of those things could and should be done. In his way, Halladay means as much to this organization as Ted Williams or Babe Ruth did to the Red Sox and the Yankees.
But those are gestures made - quite rightly - for fans.
Something else should be done to memorialize Halladay's legacy in the place it was most directly felt - the clubhouse.
Hang his jersey there for the entire coming season as a sort of mourning shawl. Then install a more permanent reminder. It needn't be grand - that wouldn't be very Halladay - but instead spare and utilitarian.
Done right, this shrine can be a daily reminder to every player who ever puts on the uniform again that there is a way to approach baseball that raises up the people around you and gives the job meaning beyond mere results.
Long-time Toronto ace Roy Halladay, shown in 2003, means as much to the Blue Jays as Ted Williams or Babe Ruth did to the Red Sox and the Yankees, and his legacy needs to be honoured.
FRED THORNHILL/THE CANADIAN PRESS