ESPN the Magazine contributing writer Robert Sanchez grew up in Aurora, Colorado, with Roy Halladay, going to school and playing Little League together.
I'd never seen anything like it.
Back in the 1980s, when we were kids in Aurora, Colorado, I'd go to Roy Halladay's house, and we'd always wind up in his basement. Down there, even as a third-grader, Roy and his father were plotting greatness.
Thirty years later, the memories are hazy, but I still remember the mattress. Roy's father -- a strapping, gregarious pilot -- mounted it on a wall. There, night after night, Roy II worked with his son, watching him throw. He'd offer mechanical tweaks on Roy's arm slot and on foot placement and describe how a pitcher should square up after the delivery to field a ball. Roy's father wanted his son to understand and love the game. Most of all, Roy's father wanted to be a good dad.
Baseball is a sport often passed from fathers to sons, on dirt fields with dandelions and buffalo grass sprouting in the outfield. It comes while watching a game on television together or reading about it in a bedtime book. It comes in those monumental moments when a man tosses a ball high into the air and watches his son make his first catch. It comes on that second catch, when a father realizes it wasn't a fluke. It comes when that kid digs in against a hard-throwing righty, gets plunked between the shoulder blades and pulls himself off the ground. It comes in those basement moments such as the ones between the two Halladays. In the best hands, those moments can be times for a man to grow closer to his boy, to pass along early concepts of trust and faith and disappointment and pain and longing.
Roy and I were close early-elementary school friends. We'd meet at the park before school and play catch. At recess, we'd see who could throw a tennis ball against a wall the hardest. (You can imagine who always won.) Even back then, not many kids got a hit off Roy. We played our first Little League season together in the early 1980s. Then Roy's father started a team called the Padres. Roy's team always won. He always loaded up on strikeouts, sending kids back to the bench. No one cried or got mad. Even then, we knew -- it was Roy Halladay who was on the rubber.
On tiny Little League fields south and east of Denver, Roy became known for the uncommon speed and accuracy of his pitches and the meticulous quietness with which he went about his game. He was already a burgeoning Doc, with the seeds of his All-Star persona already planted and sprouting. Roy was a third-grader who could play like a middle-schooler, but he never lorded his gifts over anyone. He and his father knew he was special in ways no one else would become, but they didn't say it.
Roy II nurtured his son. They started working together in that basement when Roy was about 5 years old. The idea was brilliant, especially in Colorado, where snow can limit outside practice, especially in the winter and spring. Roy would throw hundreds of balls each week. The basement workout area allowed the pair to talk, to play, to bond. Baseball was fun for Roy because his father made it that way. It was their time together. Later, when Roy and his family moved north to Arvada, Colorado, his father made sure the basement was big enough for Roy to pitch. Roy II added a pitching machine and a tire through which his son could throw. The work -- and the bond -- continued.
When my own son started playing baseball five or so years ago, we moved into a new house. I made sure to tell my wife that we weren't finishing the basement -- at least not now. I bought a pitching machine and put up netting. I brought down a pitching rubber and a plate. I dragged down an old mattress and put it against the wall.
There were no grand designs about my son's baseball future. Still, I liked the idea of slipping down there some nights with him and playing catch together. I'd write numbers on balls, and we'd go through addition and multiplication problems. We'd talk about his day at school or what we planned to do that weekend. Even now, I know those will be some of the most cherished moments I'll have with my son.
Now that Roy is dead, I don't want to imagine what his father is going through. If anything, I hope Roy's father will always remember the basement and that mattress and the work and the love that happened there.
I hope he knows the example he and his son set for the rest of us.