CLEARWATER, Fla. – The pitcher's pitcher got here before the sun rose, like he always does, even at 35. Most of Roy Halladay's contemporaries have retired. His best friend in baseball just said no more, his arm unable to take the punishment of pitching. Soon enough that same demon is coming for Halladay, so in the meantime, whether out of duty or dedication or principle or superstition or maybe all of them, he walks into an empty clubhouse, changes and starts up his day.
The legend of Roy Halladay starts here. It ends with a game's 27th out. The stories that fill the in-between are but notches on the Halladay continuum that depends on the two things that define him: the early-morning workouts that could sell a million DVDs and the complete games that made him millions of dollars.
Because he is these things, and because these things are what pitchers across baseball envy and revere, Halladay may be the most respected player in baseball among his peers. Pitchers admire Mariano Rivera and his cutter, but he only pitches 60 innings a year. Hitters marvel at Miguel Cabrera's bat, but he's a mediocre-at-best fielder. Players adore Mike Trout's game, but he's done it for one year. Roy Halladay, forgoing the ifs and ands, comes with no buts.
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"He's the consummate pitcher," said Justin Verlander, the game's pre-eminent pitcher today. "He exemplifies what you're supposed to do. He throws 230 innings a year. He throws complete games. He pitches. He strikes guys out. He wins. What more do you want?"
"He hits his spots, he throws hard, his control is off the charts, he's professional, he works hard," said CC Sabathia, perhaps Halladay's only competitor for best pitcher of their generation. "He's everything you want in a pitcher."
"You hear stories," said Matt Moore, the young left-hander for the Tampa Bay Rays who grew up watching Halladay, only to be regaled with the tales of Doc once he arrived in the minor leagues. It doesn't matter what organization you're in: There is someone who either knew Roy Halladay, saw him work, heeded his regimen, read up on his exercises or heard something apocryphal from someone else and felt it worth repeating.
Roy Halladay is Bill Brasky, except for one difference.
"The stories about him," Phillies catcher Erik Kratz said, "are true."
Halladay isn't a particularly reflective sort, not at this juncture of his life, not even in what's almost certain to be the final year of his contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Such ruminations can connote something more – the finite nature of an athlete's career, or that Halladay's troublesome 2012, his toughest season in a dozen years, was indicative of a trip back to a place he dare never go again.
"You realize very quickly it can disappear in a heartbeat," he said. "So you come here every day and try to take advantage of the moment. When it ends, it ends. We're all aware you can walk in any day and it can go away."
That feeling defines almost everything about Halladay's career. During the 2000 season, as a 23-year-old, he essentially forgot how to pitch. He couldn't throw strikes. Hitters teed off on the ones he did manage. He found himself back in Class A, learning once again how to pitch – and figuring it out with aplomb that manifested itself incomparably over the next dozen years.
There is the durability: Since the turn of the millennium, pitchers have thrown more than 250 innings in a season just nine times. Halladay has two of those. Eight times he threw at least 220 innings. The next-closest pitchers have five such years.
And the complete games: He has 64 since 2000. Livan Hernandez is second with 39. Doc has twirled 19 shutouts. Second best is Tim Hudson with 13.
Following the 2007 season, Halladay emphasized striking out more hitters and responded with a career-best strikeout rate. That wasn't good enough, so he grew it each of the next three seasons. And just to rub it in, he led the league in walk rate each of those three seasons, because mastery of craft well into his 30s and sub-3.00 ERAs weren't enough. Halladay is universally beloved. He does everything sabermetricians love – induce groundballs, strike guys out, walk guys on par with Greg Maddux and prevent home runs – while managing to crank out 199 victories and all those 200-plus-inning seasons that are so important to the majority of starting pitchers that continue to judge themselves on such merits.
"That's how we labeled him: This guy is The Immortal, we're all just humans, and we're lucky enough to play baseball with him," said Cole Hamels, one of the Phillies' aces who, postseason included, threw 262 1/3 innings in 2008 and remains awed by Halladay pushing similar boundaries annually. "He made it seem so easy, and at the same time, when the opposing team thinks it had got to him, he flipped a switch, and it was, like, 'Nope.' It's like when you try to scare someone, and he knows you're trying to scare him, and it doesn't work. It's embarrassing."
Hamels, 29, had appreciated Halladay's mastery from afar until Halladay joined the Phillies via trade in December 2009. He knew about the workouts that lasted an hour and a half, sometimes more, and started around 5:30 a.m.: the cardio, the core, the plyometrics, the resistance bands, the stretching, the hot and cold tubs and, more than anything, how it encouraged others more than his words ever could.
"If you don't want to be like him," Hamels said, "you just don't want to be successful. The guy is constantly going. I think I can hold my own running with him. But he's so focused and determined. He made a workout feel like a workout. You see guys work out and take breaks and talk and socialize. That's not working out. He made me grasp that even more. Don't take that break. Keep going. Keep going. Because that's what it takes. I saw it, I just didn't understand it. And once you follow him, you feel really great in the end, because you're worn out and tired as hell."
People in baseball preyed on this – the idea that one of the best happened to be one of the hardest workers, too. It was the perfect recipe for propagandizing brutal workouts.
"You're in the minor leagues with the Blue Jays, and you hear stories like, 'If you're not gonna make it in time for morning lift, Roy Halladay is at the gym at 5 in the morning,' " said Kratz, who was drafted by Toronto in 2002 and spent seven years in the organization. "From the big leagues down to the minor leagues with the Blue Jays, if you hadn't met him, you'd think the guy benches 1,000 pounds. His worth ethic is legendary, and it's 100 percent legit."
Beyond the tangible numbers, there was always an intangible undercurrent to the praise foisted on Halladay. Players on every team want to be known as the workout king, the guy who will lift until blood vessels pop in his eyes. Baseball frowns upon this. The silent leader is a baseball trope, and Halladay embodies it. Getting up in the middle of the night to work out before everyone else isn't an affront to everyone else. It's a challenge.
"The legend grew bigger than reality," Halladay said. "Anytime you do something different, a lot of attention gets put on it. I've always tried to work hard. I'm not trying to show anybody up or do something spectacular for attention. I want to get ready. Those things take on a life of their own."
The pitchers' pitcher doesn't get up quite as early as he used to. No matter how much Halladay has trained his body to withstand the rigors of a season, it does not respond like it once did, and so to treat it similarly would be irresponsible. He thinks about Chris Carpenter, his friend and comrade with whom he grew up in the Blue Jays' organization. Carpenter was a first-round pick in 1993, Halladay in 1995. Carp arrived in '97, Doc a year later. Both were 6-foot-6, statues to the art of pitching. Doc was blessed with an arm that cooperated. Carp was not.
And now, at 37, Carpenter is probably done. The Blue Jays gave up on him at 27, only to see him emerge in St. Louis and carve out six more spectacular seasons and three injury-abbreviated ones. Carpenter won two World Series, two more than Doc, and so this almost-retirement – this was OK, even dignified, in Halladay's mind.
"I don't think he really expected to come back after he had the surgery in Toronto," Halladay said. "The years he had in St. Louis were kind of a blessing to him. He didn't anticipate that. To come back and be as successful as he was, he doesn't have any regrets. I know he'd love to keep playing, but he did things the right way and did it as long as he could."
The right way. That's important to Halladay. If there were such a thing as a Halladay Code, it would include gritting and grinding through pain, like he did in an epic 2010 playoff performance. He tried last year as well, shrugging off diminished velocity during spring training and waiting until May to admit, yeah, something was wrong with his right shoulder.
"We knew he was a little off, and he kept trying to cover it up," Hamels said. "When you're injured and try to go out there, it just doesn't work. We've all done it. And I think you feel for the guy because he's the hardest worker we've ever had. He wants it so badly, you want to give it to him. And that's why this year is so important. It's the last year on his contract. This is the year where we have to put it together. Because we don't want the greatness to come to an end."
In his first start of the spring, Halladay's fastball sat in the 88- to 91-mph range. It was cutting and sinking, boring and diving, alive and electric, vintage Doc. With that movement, nothing is ending anytime soon, even if Halladay is going to fall short of the 259-plus innings he needs to trigger a vesting option and end up a free agent. And yet because it can vanish – because a 23-year-old with a whole life ahead can find himself at the depths of his career – the 35-year-old version of Halladay treats it as if it soon will.
"When I got sent down early, that told me how quickly it can go away," he said. "If you come in and work hard and take advantage of everything you can get, maybe this thing will last. Maybe you'll keep making it."
Maybe, eventually, he'll recognize himself for what he is to this generation. In the meantime, he had to attend one of his sons' ballgames. Halladay excused himself and walked toward the exit, another spring day in the books, another season on the horizon, another round for the indefatigable and incomparable.More news from the Yahoo! Sports Minute
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