Roy Halladay didn't need to be Canadian to be a Canadian icon

Former Blue Jays legend Roy Halladay died in a plane crash on Tuesday. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Roy Halladay was born in Colorado, lived in Florida, and arguably reached the apex of his career in Pennsylvania, but when news of his death broke on Tuesday afternoon, hearts sank across Canada.

Halladay was an unbelievable baseball player. He was immensely talented but soon learned that would take him only so far, so he outworked his teammates and opponents on the way to an amazing career. Whether you choose to remember Halladay for his year-in year-out consistency, his historic performances, or just some Sunday when you turned on the TV or the radio, it was all a privilege to see, hear, and experience.

For Canadians, though, Halladay was more than just a great baseball player. Not because we felt like we knew him better – if anything the pitcher was on the guarded side. Not because he was one of us, because as much as we’d like to claim him he wasn’t ours to claim.

No, Halladay was an icon north of the 49th parallel because for more than a decade he was the Toronto Blue Jays. In a country that’s so big, with so many regional differences, the Blue Jays are one of the few things that people from Vancouver to St. John’s can stand behind. In the early 2000s, Halladay kept an entire country’s interest in baseball afloat almost single-handedly.

For most of the big right-hander’s 12-year Blue Jays tenure, he was the only thing right with the franchise. From 2001, when he first broke out as a staple in Toronto’s rotation, to his final season with the team in 2009, the Blue Jays never won more than 87 games. They finished 10 or more games out of the AL East lead every season. His task was a futile one, doing battle with the division titans New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox each season only to watch his teammates fall short.

It was a dark time for the Blue Jays. They were mired in mediocrity with ill-conceived jerseys and empty seats. The front office had to overpay free agents to come, if they could be persuaded to come at all. Homegrown stars weren’t non-existent, but they were awfully hard to come by at a time when out-developing their rivals was the club’s only chance. But there was one constant that seemed to make everything alright, or at least tolerable: Roy Halladay.

For almost a decade in Toronto there were two kinds of Blue Jays games: Halladay games and “other.” If Halladay was pitching you were reaching out to friends and trying to co-ordinate a group excursion to the park. If someone else was on the bump it probably wasn’t worth the trouble. The work of one rather unassuming man known as “Doc” was the difference between a palpable buzz outside the then-SkyDome or a sleepy scene of shuffling bodies on the way to see a probable loss.

Normally when exposed to excellence over a long period of time, people habituate to it and sometimes fail to appreciate it. That never seemed to be the case for Blue Jays fans with Halladay. Every year they would argue anew that he was the best pitcher in baseball as opposed to whoever else was hottest that season (he was), and that he deserved the Cy Young (he probably did). Every year they continued to treat him with the reverence he deserved.

It’s hard to say exactly why that was. The fact the rest of the Blue Jays failed to inspire probably helped him continue to stand out. Perhaps more than anything, Canadians in general – and Torontonians in particular – always show appreciation for a grinder. Some of the most popular athletes in this country are third liners who are not strangers to dropping the gloves or rebounders with no interest in shooting jumpers.

Halladay had incredible natural talent, but his work ethic was legendary, as was his ability to finish games and gut out strong performances even if he didn’t have his best stuff. He was half Vince Carter, half Charles Oakley, or half Mats Sundin, half Tie Domi. Whoever says you can’t be all things to all people hasn’t watched enough Roy Halladay.

He also showed loyalty to the Blue Jays, signing an extension with them in 2006 despite the fact there was little evidence they were turning the corner. By the time he gave any indication he wanted to chase a World Series title elsewhere he was 33 years old and had given Toronto more than enough chances to challenge for the playoffs.

Often when a player moves on – especially if his desire to leave is public knowledge – he is derided by the fanbase of his first team. Fans demand an irrational degree of loyalty that can’t possibly be repaid by athletes who owe nothing to franchises that draft them. In this case, though, Blue Jays fans understood. Some probably followed him to the Philadelphia Phillies, most others wished him the best there. To this day, it’s not unusual to see a Phillies jersey with ‘Halladay’ on the back at Rogers Centre.

In Philadelphia he reached the peak of his career, earning his second Cy Young Award and becoming one of 23 pitchers to throw a perfect game – and just one of two to manage a postseason no-hitter. That’s what many baseball fans will remember about Halladay, and that’s totally fair.

[Tim Brown: Halladay’s wife, sons mourn death of their greatest hero]

For Blue Jays fans across Canada, though, that’s not what Roy Halladay was about. Halladay was about the Herculean day-in day-out effort. Remarkably consistent excellence regardless of the circumstances around him. A belligerent refusal to let apathy seep in for one second. A humility that ran in stark contrast to his accomplishments.

We are always looking for athletes to be role models because they are the superheroes in the eyes of our children. Most of them fail to live up to that, because ultimately they are just mortals. That’s not their fault.

Halladay never did, though. He was everything you’d want your son or daughter to look up to. A whole generation of Canadian kids did just that – and they were better for it.


More Roy Halladay coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Baseball world reacts to Halladay’s tragic death
Sports world rocked again by plane crash death
5 moments that made us love Roy Halladay
Halladay’s plane, the ICON A5, was a ‘Jet Ski with wings’