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Roy Halladay’s character was even greater than his talent

Aug 1, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay (34) watches the game from the dugout railing during the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Citizens Bank Park. The Giants defeated the Phillies 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Along with the rest of baseball, Tim Wilken, the Blue Jays scouting director who took Harry Leroy Halladay III 17th overall in the 1995 draft, was stunned Tuesday to hear about the death of his best draft choice and a dear friend and neighbor in a plane crash.

Only the night before, Wilken went to deliver his 22-year-old scouting report of the pitching great to Roy Halladay at Halladay’s son’s high school baseball game. The great pitcher was serving as pitching coach for the powerhouse Calvary Christian team of Clearwater, Fla. – very likely about the best pitching coach of any high school in the country. One thing about Halladay: If he was going to do something, he was going to do it well.

Halladay had a head start in the game. He was blessed with the perfect pitcher’s frame, tall with broad shoulders and an athletic build, just like his father, also Harry Leroy Halladay. Wilken recalled, too, that the father was a commercial pilot, which likely inspired Halladay’s interest in flying.

Halladay was piloting his Icon A5 aircraft when it crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, 10 miles off of Holiday, Fla., in the northwest corner of the Tampa Bay area, where Halladay lived with his wife Brandy, and two sons, including Braden, who pitches for that Calvary Christian team. Halladay was 40.

On this tragic day, the Hall of Fame scout thought back to Halladay’s own high school days, and the attributes that caused him to elect the right-handed prep pitcher, who very likely will wind up a posthumous inductee in Cooperstown.

Wilken, one of the most accomplished scouts and scouting directors in recent memory, recalled the 95-mph fastball Halladay sported at Arvada (Colo.) West High, but he especially remembered the poise and competitiveness that would make him great.

The report was special, but Halladay’s dedication and ability to never get down were off the charts. Wilken recalled that after an impressive rookie beginning, Halladay was getting hit so hard early in his sophomore season he was posting the highest ERA for anyone with 50-plus innings – yet somehow he either didn’t get down, or didn’t show it.

Halladay wasn’t getting down, but the Jays had no choice but to send him down.

“You were concerned, but if he could get through it, you knew he had the dedication, drive and aptitude,” Wilken recalled of the one real episode where he struggled.

Blue Jays pitching guru Mel Queen remade Halladay’s delivery, changing him from a “high three-quarter” delivery to “low three-quarter.” While that may not seem like a drastic switch, it was. But Halladay did was he told to do, and Wilken recalled, “He took off from there.” 

He went from a hard-and-harder thrower to a guy who had deception and command to go with that big arm. Halladay soon was an All-Star, then a Cy Young winner, and later a postseason dominator in Philadelphia.

It was in Philly where the near-perfect pitcher joined a vaunted trio of rotation greats to form one of the greatest quartets in pitching history, with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. It was in Philly, a tough town that took to Halladay’s steely determination right away, where the near-perfect pitcher threw a near-perfect game. In many ways, he was the perfect pitcher, and this was as close to perfection as you could come. All that separated him from a perfect game was a walk to Jay Bruce. It was the best-pitched game I had ever covered, or ever seen in person.

Halladay would go on to finish his career with almost twice as many wins as losses — he was 203-105 – and at different times he led the league in almost every category. He was such a mistake minimizer that led the league in strikeout-to-walk ration four straight years. Those four years and one other he struck out 200-plus batters while walking no more than 40.

As stat guru and Philly expert Ryan Spaeder noted on Twitter, no other pitcher in baseball history had accomplished that feat more than three times, yet Halladay did it five times.

His rise to greatness didn’t surprise Wilken, who couldn’t believe the “quiet competitiveness’” he saw on that day just before the ’95 draft. There were doubters, which allowed him to get out of the first half of the first round, as some saw a “one piece” arm action. But Wilken thought he saw “just enough bend.”

Halladay was a hard one to gauge since there weren’t many purveyors of the knuckle curve. That meant there wasn’t much to gauge it against, unless you recalled the career of the Dodgers’ Burt Hooton, who had a special one.

In any case, Wilken saw a kid with great skill but an unmatched drive. He had a legendary pitching coach as a youth, Bus Campbell, and Halladay did whatever Campbell advised him to do. To aid his stamina, Campbell advised him to try cross country. And Wilken recalled that not only did he participate but wound up finishing third in the state in cross country.

Halladay is a memorably great pitcher. Yet, the people who managed him or teamed with him recalled him more for his character.

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