More sad news in the baseball world Friday: Mel Queen, who worked for the Toronto Blue Jays for the past 25 years, has died at age 69. He had been in poor health, but the club has not cited a reason for his death.
Those of you who read Big League Stew regularly know that we're usually not in the business of writing obituaries for every employee within an organization. But Queen, who served in roles varying from Toronto's farm director during the World Series years to the team's big league pitching coach from 1996 to 1999, leaves this world as a bit of a cult figure in the baseball world.
It's not an embellishment, either. Like Charley Lau and George Brett before them, Queen and Halladay built a famous teacher-student relationship that turned Doc from a 23-year-old bonus baby on the brink of career failure in Dunedin, Fla., into a veteran big league pitcher who's almost certainly headed to the Hall of Fame.
From inspiring the gentle giant with plenty of foul-mouthed "tough love" to changing Halladay's mechanics, Queen's influence on the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher has never been questioned. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated documented Queen's makeover of Halladay in last year's season preview issue and it's well worth the read.
Queen brought Halladay to the bullpen for a throwing session, except he began so rudimentarily that he refused to let Halladay use a baseball. Queen lowered Halladay's release point and speeded up his delivery, all without a ball in the pitcher's hand.
Halladay threw phantom pitches for 20 minutes. The next day they did the same thing. At the end of that session Queen let him actually throw a ball. The coach showed him two grips for a fastball: one that caused the ball to run away from a righthanded hitter and another that sent it away from a lefthander. "Aim for the middle of the plate," Queen said.
What happened was amazing. The improvement was immediate.
"It was one day," Halladay says. "The first day it was good. And the next couple of days it just got more comfortable and more consistent. It just made it so much easier to move the ball."
The actual process was a lot rougher. As Queen once told Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, Halladay needed a wakeup call at that point in his career and he was only too happy to give it to him.
"As far as baseball-wise, I told him he was pretty naive and stupid. And that's got to change," Queen said.
The rest, as they say, is history: Halladay has a 174-88 career record, two Cy Young awards (one in each league) and a 3.29 career ERA. He's the ace of a team full of them and also probably the first pitcher you want on the mound if you have to win just one game.
As for Queen, his list of achievements runs much longer as you might expect for someone who spent roughly 50 years in the game. The son of big league player Mel Queen Sr., he spent seven seasons pitching for the Cincinnati Reds and California Angels, amassing a 20-17 record and a 3.14 ERA. He served in a variety of roles with the Blue Jays, serving as interim manager for five games when Cito Gaston was fired in 1997 and helping lead the clubhouse opposition against Tim Johnson when the ex-manager lied about his service in Vietnam.
Also, as the National Post notes, Halladay was far from the only big league talent that Queen helped cultivate. Among the others that came through the Jays system on his watch were "Chris Carpenter, Alex Gonzalez(notes), Shawn Green, Pat Hentgen, Jeff Kent, Shannon Stewart, Todd Stottlemyre, Mike Timlin, David Wells and Woody Williams."
That's one heck of a legacy to leave.