SEATTLE - Once word began to circulate that Roy Halladay might be available in a trade, two thoroughly predictable phenomena were set into motion.
The first was that Halladay began being glorified and deified, praised and exalted, lauded and extolled as the best pitcher on Earth and several neighboring planets. Any team lucky enough to get him, the assumption went, could begin selling World Series tickets and designing their championship rings. Somebody thought they recalled him pitching three straight no-hitters with his right hand in a cast, then flying the team plane home afterward.
The second was that any team that made a grab at Halladay and ended up with anybody else would inevitably be viewed by its disappointed fan base as having somehow come up short, to have settled for warmed-up leftovers.
Harrumph . . .
There's no argument here that Halladay, who took the loss while allowing three runs on a season-high 11 hits in his seven innings against the Seattle Mariners yesterday at Safeco Field, was the pick of the trade-deadline litter this season. As much as any pitcher can be viewed as a sure thing - and every one of them is always an elbow twinge or a shoulder ache away from a visit to the surgeon - he is the real deal.
At the same time, Cliff Lee shouldn't be viewed as some sort of booby prize. The news that the Phillies acquired the Indians lefthander, plus righthanded-hitting outfielder Ben Francisco, for Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson, Jason Donald and Jason Knapp, is better than that.
The difference between the two isn't enough to drive a tractor-trailer through.
A compact, or even a midsize maybe. But not a big rig.
On July 21, at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Lee pitched a complete game to beat the Blue Jays, allowing a single run in the process.
Halladay has been a dominant pitcher for several seasons now and is having another terrific season. Don't forget, though, he didn't win the American League Cy Young Award last season. Lee did.
"For the last 2 years, Cliff Lee has been as good as any pitcher in baseball," testified Blue Jays third baseman Scott Rolen. "We're partial to Doc [Halladay] around here because we play behind him every time he pitches. But Lee is really good, too."
Mariners designated hitter Ken Griffey Jr. said it was difficult to compare the two, but added: "Both of them have done a tremendous job over the last couple years . . . They're part of the people that fans come watch. The thing about [Lee] is he works both sides of the plate, he's not afraid to challenge people and he's one of those pitchers who gets stronger as the game goes on."
Not afraid to challenge people? Lee has walked just 33 batters in his major league-leading 152 innings pitched. And any pitcher will tell you that, in a smaller park, the worst sin is giving up walks that turn into runs if somebody happens to pop a cheap home run into the flower bed.
Not that Lee is prone to giving up the longball. He has allowed just 10 all season in 22 starts. And, since his first two starts of the season, he's allowed more than three runs just twice. So, yeah, this guy is pretty good.
Halladay, the subject of all those covetous come-hither glances, seemed drained late yesterday afternoon, and it probably had less to do with the record heat wave Seattle is experiencing than the stress of wondering if he was going to have to call a moving van anytime soon.
There had been some speculation that Halladay was secretly hoping that he would end up with the Phillies. He had, after all, talked openly about his desire to have a chance to win a championship.
If that was the case, he hid his disappointment well even though he must have realized, before he even threw a pitch, that one possible door to the World Series this year had been slammed shut.
His reaction? "It's never something I had set [my mind on] one way or the other so I was going to be upset one way or the other," he said. "It was important for me to realize that the best chance, I think, was to be here. That's what I was going to be focused on. I don't think you can get caught up [in the speculation]."
Asked if he waived his no-trade clause to come to Philadelphia, he remained evasive. "I can't answer that. It was never a real option, so it's not something I really ever had to consider," he said.
After all this, Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi, who remained in Toronto, still seemed unsure of what he planned to do. He was quoted by the New York Post saying Halladay would now remain a Blue Jay through the end of his contract, which expires following the 2010 season. But he told MLB.com: "I don't think [the Lee trade] impacts us. Obviously, it impacts the Phillies. I would say we're probably out of it with the Phillies, but we're still talking to other teams."
And there were rumors that the Jays had asked him not to play golf during the open date today, a precaution that could indicate that a trade might still happen.
Asked if he thought it was over, even though the deadline isn't until 4 p.m. tomorrow, Halladay stiffened slightly. "For me it is," he said. "You never want that kind of circus, so that part will be nice. It's baseball. It's something you love to do and you look forward to doing it. But it's always nice when there's less outside stuff going on."
The Phillies wanted Roy Halladay. They got Cliff Lee. In the words of the country song, it ain't love, but it ain't bad.