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The end of an era?

Eleven years ago, I had the privilege of attending the last game of the Blue Jays’ 1998 season. My Jays were a respectable 87-74, and though their last-ditch playoff push had come up short, there was cause for celebration.

It was the best season our franchise had enjoyed since winning it all in 1993. Roger Clemens had all but wrapped up his second Cy Young award in two years with the club, and we’d even scrapped our way into postseason contention with a franchise-best 11-game win streak in the season’s final month. 40,000 came out to the SkyDome that afternoon to show their appreciation for what had been an inspiring campaign.

With the faint glimmer of playoff hope now squashed, the Jays took the opportunity to give one of their young upstart pitchers some big league reps. I was outraged; Clemens was on four days rest and it was his turn in the rotation. He had been dominant all year long, led our club back to reputability, and here he was being robbed a chance to personally close the books on the season and – in all likelihood – his career in Toronto. Instead we sent a 21-year-old unknown by the name of Roy Halladay to the hill, with one unremarkable major league start under his belt.

After four innings, I’d forgotten all about Roger Clemens. I looked up at the scoreboard after every pitch, just to make sure, and there I saw the two zeroes side by side in Detroit’s line – no runs, no hits.
Here’s the amazing thing about a no-hitter in baseball: it’s feasible enough that you have a hope of seeing one anytime you tune in to a game, but rare enough that witnessing one is still unbelievably special. I had always wanted to see a no-hitter; every game I went to I thought about it. I’d keep my fingers crossed until I saw that zero in the second column turn to a one. Sometimes it happened on the first pitch of the game, saving me a mountain of stress and obsessive-compulsive glances at the scoreboard every five seconds.

That day, Roy Halladay spared me none of the anxiety. Heading into the top of the ninth, the Jays were up 2-0 and the Tigers still hadn’t registered a hit. What made it even more impressive was that he hadn’t even walked anybody. Only a Felipe Crespo error had cost young Roy a chance at a perfect game.
Nobody in attendance knew what the hell was going on. Who was Roy Halladay? What business did a pup making his second career start have flirting with perfection? The stadium was hushed, everyone sucking in their breaths, waiting to exhale and claim their own small piece of history, or waiting, perhaps, for it all to come crumbling down.

Then Roy quickly retired the first two batters in the ninth, and 40,000 weary fans allowed themselves to dream. The place erupted. Everyone rose to their feet – just one out standing between them and the ultimate spectacle, between Halladay and immortality. Cautious optimism was replaced by supreme confidence.

I guess it would make it more interesting if I said I felt some indeterminate sense of foreboding when Bobby Higginson stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter, that somehow I knew something wasn’t quite right or that I should have seen it coming. Retrospection usually works like that anyway. But I remember thinking beyond a doubt that Higgs would make the last out of that game, right up until the moment his first-pitch drive cleared the left field wall. Then I just felt sick to my stomach. One swing had crushed my hopes and drained the life out of the entire building. When Halladay retired his 27th batter on the very next pitch, completing a masterful one-hit, no-walk, 94-pitch gem, I didn’t even notice. It felt like we had already lost.

That missed opportunity doesn’t irk me so much anymore. I’ve come to see the poetry in the act of falling just shy of perfection. Maybe I’m just deluding myself because it’s all I can do at this point, but I like the fact that that game left something on the table. And I like thinking that maybe, just maybe, that near miss gave Roy the fuel he needed to come back with a vengeance and give himself a chance to finish what he couldn’t the first time around. Of course, he hasn’t been able to do so yet, but it’s hard to complain about the way the script has played out.

Things got off to a rocky start (in 2000 he was 4-7 with a 10.64 ERA, the highest of any pitcher to ever pitch more than 60 innings in a season) but soon Roy found his groove, and just two years after that disastrous 2000 campaign, he was an all-star. The next year he won the Cy Young. By then he was “Doc” Halladay, and baseball people were calling him that without even flinching, despite it being the great Dwight Gooden’s old moniker.

Doc’s last eight major league seasons have been as good as any pitcher’s in baseball. From 2002 to 2009 he amassed a record of 130-59, with a 3.13 ERA and an incredible 46 complete games, easily the most in the majors during that stretch. He was an all-star in all but one of those seasons, and finished in the top five in Cy Young voting five times. But it isn’t those numbers that stand out. What stands out is the fact that I’ve felt compelled to monitor every pitch of every game that Doc’s been on the mound for, because there has never been a player I’ve enjoyed watching more; that when he’s pitching, I don’t mind watching our batters go down in order because I hate watching him stew and cool off in the dugout; that even during his most dazzling performances, even when he’s pitching with a huge lead, you’ll still see him cursing at himself over seemingly inconsequential mistakes. In his tenure with the Blue Jays, Doc has exemplified professionalism. His competitive fire has burned through eleven middling seasons without ever getting a taste of the big dance, and yet he has never publicly complained about management or ownership. He has shown immense loyalty to the Blue Jays’ organization, and even amidst a torrent of trade rumours this summer, he quietly put together yet another Cy Young-worthy campaign.  Doc has never demanded anything less than perfection from himself every day he’s taken the hill in a Jays uniform. I still like to attribute that in some part – however small – to that September afternoon in 1998 when perfection narrowly eluded him.

Now Doc might be on his way out of Toronto. With his contract expiring at the end of next season, it seems inevitable that the Jays will try to move him and get some valuable assets in return while they still can. And the one thought that pervades all the feelings of anger, sadness, and uncertainty that this impending situation has evoked, is a wish that we could have done more for him. Doc never said he wanted out of Toronto; all he ever asked for was a chance to win; to play in the postseason. We never gave him that. I don’t know that anything could or should have been done differently – we play in the toughest division in baseball; making the playoffs is a tall order – but I can’t help thinking that Doc deserved better. Now we’ll never get a chance to see the best hurler in franchise history throw a pitch in a Jays uniform when it matters most. I don’t feel cheated so much as I feel like Doc got cheated. The enduring memories of the best to ever play the game are forged in the playoffs. Doc can’t claim any vintage performances on the game’s biggest stage, nor does he have a signature moment that people can associate him with. Instead, I tell all my friends about the time I watched Doc almost pitch a no-hitter in his second career start.

If this is in fact the end of Halladay’s Blue Jays career, he certainly bid us farewell in style. He posted four complete games in his final six starts, including a one-hit shutout against the Yankees and a six-hit shutout against the Mariners in his last game at home. Then of course there was the game in Boston, billed as Doc’s last start as a Jay. I watched him take a no-hitter into the bottom of the sixth inning, the whole time thinking to myself how wonderfully poetic it would be if Doc could just take care of that unfinished business in his last appearance as a member of our club. In the end, he scattered three singles over nine innings in a 12-0 win. Not quite the storybook ending I had hoped for, but not far from it.

Doc has a lot of years left in him, and somewhere, somehow, he’ll leave his mark on the MLB. Whether he’ll avenge the death of his no-no of 11 years ago is another question. But no matter what uniform he ends up wearing next year, or 10 years from now, I’ll be pulling for him the whole way.


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