Roy Halladay retired on Monday, as a Blue Jay. He signed a one-day contract with Toronto so he could go out as a Blue Jay at his retirement news conference at the winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. In some circles, heads are likely being scratched, as many of Halladay's greatest successes came during the years he played in Philadelphia. In those four Philly seasons (2010-2013), he made his only playoff appearances, twice pitching Philadelphia into the postseason. With the Phillies, he threw that 2010 NLDS no-hitter against the Reds. With the Phillies, he won the second of his two Cy Young Awards. With the Phillies is when he truly began to get his due. That's when the masses noticed what he could really do and when the question mark near his name was wiped away. In Philadelphia, he passed the "tough market" test by showing he could perform under stress and under the bright spotlight of high expectation.
It might be true that Halladay was a better pitcher later in his career, especially during his first two seasons with the Phillies. Maybe, like Curt Schilling, he found winning -- or just the chance to win consistently -- to be the push he needed to tap that fifth gear that he always knew he had within. And if that's the case, it would have made some sense, when he was ready to declare that his time is up, for him to go out with a celebration of where he was at his best, and where people most acknowledged that fact. As a Phillie. Because it is easy to associate yourself with where your team was dominant (and where your agent found you the best contract offer and most lucrative marketing opportunities). It is easy to go out from the place where the appreciation for what you brought to the game peaked.
But loyalty and one's beginnings matter more than winning.
And Halladay seems to understand that a baseball career is a crescendo. It builds from a humble beginning, when you scrape through connecting flights and bus rides in the minor leagues, when you ice your own arm with a Dixie cup in a dark hotel room in Knoxville with no one around.
This time of your career is when you find out who really has your back. When your supporters don't care that you are pitching in Boise instead of Yankee Stadium. Getting support and love and respect when you are winning is easy; getting it when you are at your worst, your team is at its worst and you have no trophy and no cash in the bank ... that's when it is hard.
The minor leagues are eye-opening, and Halladay got banged around a little down on the Blue Jays' farm. He marched and stumbled from a first pro season in the Gulf Coast League to Dunedin, to Knoxville, to Syracuse. From 1995 to 2001 -- before his 12-year stay in Toronto -- he bounced up and down, learning the lessons, the ego checks and the developments that combine to produce some of the biggest jumps in your game. And at the end of it all, when it's time to say goodbye and you think of all of the coaches who came out to help you for early work, who pulled you into meetings, who stayed late for you, you can't help but reflect on those early days before you had a routine, a system that kept you going in the big leagues. Clearly, major league coaching staffs work incredibly hard, too, but they are often dealing with players who have already figured out a lot about themselves by then, for better or for worse.
When I retired, I went out as a Philadelphia Phillie by choice (we weren't winning by any stretch back then). Yet the Cubs drafted me, developed me and ultimately traded me to where I would get an opportunity. I will always appreciate what the Cubs did for me, even if they didn't see my future as I had seen it. With the Cubs, I had coaches such as Glenn Adams in Triple-A, who revamped my entire swing to push me to the next level, and gurus such as Sandy Alomar Sr. and Jimmy Piersall. Yet it was during winter ball in Puerto Rico, and ultimately in Philadelphia, when I matured enough to see the major league possibility. In effect, Philly was my new beginning. It was in Philly where I would be every kind of player a player could be at the major league level: from platoon player, to starter, to pinch hitter, to fourth outfielder, to mentor, to trade bait, to afterthought, to borderline All-Star. And through it all, I had the choice to stay and finish my career there. Through many ups and down, I believed the city had my back.
I chose to retire with the Phillies, too, because they were the team I loved as a kid in my college town. I grew up rooting for players who became my mentors, like Garry Maddox, like Greg Gross, like Larry Bowa, my manager. They were my history, and it went way back before the Cubs even knew my name. That history supersedes winning and quantifiable success to some players, and it is a personal choice as to what each player values to celebrate when his time in this game has expired.
Nothing aggravates me more than the comments like this that often come up at key moments in the playoffs: That was the biggest hit of this young man's life. Really? Do we know that for sure? I know when I got the game-winning hit for the Cubs in Game 3 of the 2003 NLCS, that suggestion was certainly made to me in many interviews, and I am sure the comment was made during the telecast, too. I get the magnitude of getting a hit in front of 60,000 fans in the farthest playoff level you have ever seen, with the most national attention on that moment; but when I think about my big hits, I think about the first hit of my career, or the one I got on the day my father died, or the one I got when I first returned from a rehab assignment off of a torn hamstring. Those hits probably shaped my career and life more than the one in the NLCS. I had already overcome a lot before I got in the batter's box against the Marlins that night.
After that 2003 hit, I wasn't even invited back to be with the Cubs the next season. But after my 1,000th hit on the day of my father's death, I was able to bury him with that ball. That is forever.
Maybe, then, we found out a little more about Roy Halladay on Monday, and what makes Doc tick. He clearly remembers his humble beginnings. When I faced him in spring training when he was younger, he had a good fastball with little movement and he was up in the zone. But then he figured out a new arm angle and honed his control. He re-invented himself. That lesson was bigger than any trophy on his mantel, I would think.
So let Halladay be a Blue Jay. That's where he found his chops, where he turned opponents into pork chops. Sure, Phillies fans should forever be grateful to him and have expressed and will continue to express that sentiment, but they don't really have first dibs on the man who became the Doc. He had already been to med school and finished his residency by the time the Phillies got to enjoy his practice, his game. In retiring with Toronto, he is just honoring those who taught him how to cut.