When the world loses someone like Roy Halladay, who died tragically in a plane crash in November, the anniversaries of his achievements are no longer just for celebration. They’re also for mourning and remembrance. And May 29 marks the first significant anniversary since Halladay’s death: on that day in 2010, Halladay tossed a perfect game for the Philadelphia Phillies. On the eighth anniversary of that achievement, his old friend and teammate A.J. Burnett wrote a loving, emotional tribute to the man he played with for three years. But for Burnett, it was too short a time. He wished he could have been teammates with Halladay forever.
How their friendship began
As with many great friendships, A.J. Burnett and Roy Halladay became friends by chance and circumstance. Halladay had been with the Toronto Blue Jays for eight years when Burnett joined the team for the 2006 season. In Toronto, Burnett and Halladay would alternate between a hot tub and a cold tub after pitching, which is something Burnett had never done before. The first time he tried it, his reaction was classic, and so was Doc’s.
I’d never done the cold tub before I became a Blue Jay, so that first time around Doc spent half the time just laughing at me because I’m in there freezing my a– off, and shivering, and hollering about it, and he’s just over there in the other tub like it’s no big deal. Like he’s an amphibian or something.
Despite the yelling and laughing, that’s how their friendship began. And the hot tub/cold tub switching led to one of the most important conversations of Burnett’s career. Halladay asked him what his approach was, and Burnett didn’t have a good answer. When Burnett told Halladay that he just tried to throw hard, Halladay started laughing.
The more I went on and tried to make my case … the more Doc laughed. And that one conversation we had early on, with me sitting in that freezing cold water, was really kind of the start of it all for me in terms of transitioning from being a hard-thrower to being a pitcher.
Everything changed for me after that.
Halladay taught him about pitching inside and setting up his curveball, but just being around a master like Roy Halladay was an education in itself. Burnett couldn’t believe the amount of preparation that Halladay put into his job. He had a routine he stuck to every single day without fail. He kept notebooks on every hitter he ever faced, and of every side session he ever threw.
Eventually, Halladay shared his pitching bible with Burnett: “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” by Harvey Dorfman. When Burnett opened it up, it was already highlighted. And soon after, Burnett began adopting some of Doc’s preparation tricks.
And I’m definitely proud to say that one of the things I stole from Doc was locking in early every fifth day and being that serious, don’t-eff-with-me, man-with-a-plan as soon as I got to the ballpark. I stole that approach from Doc, and I kept things that way no matter what team I played for after that.
That’s a true baseball friendship.
Their friendship wasn’t all business
There was more to their friendship than just pitching. Pitchers have more down time than position players do, and so there was plenty of time for the two of them to get silly. Halladay was a more reserved guy than Burnett, and Burnett relished the opportunity to “[bring] him over to the dark side some.”
He’d try and set up his locker a certain way … all nice and neat and organized. And then I’d come in and mess it all up. Or in the dugout, he’d always sit cross-legged, with his elbow on his knee and his hand on his chin, and talk shop with our pitching coach back then, Brad Arnsberg. Well, that was my cue, man. Every time I saw Doc in that pose, I’d go over and just kind of lightly knock his elbow off his knee.
That cracked me up every single time.
And it made Halladay smile, too. The two would even horse around away from baseball, when they were fishing together during spring training. At one point, when Burnett was trying to catch more fish that Halladay, Roy silently maneuvered his boat to where Burnett was fishing, and then turned on the propeller so Burnett and his boat were completely soaked. The playful side of Halladay isn’t one that fans got to see very often, but it’s not hard imagining him doing something like that.
As the 2008 season was ending, Burnett knew that he might not be back with the Jays. So he decided to thank Halladay for everything he’d done for him. And what Halladay did next absolutely stunned Burnett: Doc thanked HIM, and Burnett had no idea why.
“What are you thanking me for? What is Roy Halladay thanking me for?”
And he just started laughing. Like cracking up.
He says, “For this, man. For us laughing together like we are right now.”
That absolutely floored me.
And he kept going.
“You helped me figure out how to loosen up some, man.”
Roy Halladay may have been one of the best pitchers of his generation, but he needed A.J. Burnett to help him learn how to loosen up.
The second goodbye wasn’t like the first. After Halladay died, Burnett wished he would have called his friend before that fateful plane flight. In fact, Burnett thinks about Halladay all the time: whenever he sees a plane, or the number 32 (Roy’s jersey number with the Jays), and anytime he sees the Blue Jays play. And of course, he wishes he could have one more conversation with his friend.
And I just really wish I could’ve talked to Doc one last time before he passed away.
I would’ve reminded him of how much he meant to me, and how he helped me learn not just about pitching, but about myself. I would’ve said a whole bunch of things to that guy.
He was the best teammate I ever had.
Roy Halladay’s life was cut short, but his legacy lives on in all the people he touched. He wasn’t just a great pitcher, but he inspired greatness in others.
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