CLEARWATER, Fla. - The infatuation just might have begun on a Sunday in late spring - anonymous in all respects except for two: The torrent of rain that had soaked Citizens Bank Park for the better part of the afternoon, and the sight that greeted the Phillies as they returned to the field after a 40-minute rain delay.
This was May of 2008. The Phillies were 24-21, trailing the Mets by a game in the National League East, still very much unaware that in fewer than 6 months they would transform from a budding contender to one of baseball's destination teams.
As Charlie Manuel returned to the home dugout and looked across the field to the visitors' bullpen in centerfield, he was skeptical about what he saw. The Phillies trailed the Blue Jays at the time, 6-4, a Chase Utley single having driven home a run and put runners on first and second before the latest downpour halted play with two out in the sixth inning. Toronto was scheduled to fly back home that evening, the start of a big American League series against the Angels awaiting them in Canada in 2 days. Roy Halladay was scheduled to make that next start, but as the grounds crew removed the tarp and readied the infield for play, he wasn't lounging in the clubhouse counting down the hours until the team charter would depart.
He was in the bullpen, warming up.
"I didn't think he was going to pitch, because he was scheduled to pitch the following day," Manuel said. "I thought maybe they just had him down there, just putting somebody up for show."
But after the 2003 AL Cy Young winner thwarted the sixth-inning rally with a Pat Burrell popup, then retired five of six batters in the seventh and eighth, Manuel came to a realization that has only been strengthened over the past few months:
There is nothing showy about Roy Halladay.
"Anytime we're getting a guy who can set an example like that, that's the kind of players we like," Manuel said. "We like good old country hardball players."
When the Phillies traded for Halladay in December, sending three well-regarded prospects to Toronto after agreeing to a 3-year, $60 million extension, they did not just acquire a pitcher widely regarded as the best in the game. They acquired a pitcher who says his single goal in baseball is victory, and whose day-to-day actions back up that talk.
They acquired a pitcher who not only has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting in each of the past four seasons, but has averaged 232 2/3 innings in doing so. They acquired a pitcher who not only has recorded 148 career victories with a 3.43 ERA, but who has pitched in relief 26 times, who has thrown 42 innings with a 2.79 ERA in six starts on 3 days' rest, who is 23-11 with a 2.36 ERA in September and October, all while pitching for a team that has finished fewer than 10 games out of first place just once in his 12 major league seasons.
The source of that uncommon endurance and durability is on display every morning, as Halladay pulls into the players' parking lot at Bright House Field around 5:45 a.m to begin an intense workout program that includes plenty of focus on his body's core. It is a routine that began early in his career in Toronto, after an abysmal 2000 season earned him a demotion to the Blue Jays' Class A affiliate in Dunedin.
"I felt like if I was going to be out of baseball, I was going to be out doing things the right way and doing things to the best of my ability," said Halladay, who went 4-7 with a 10.64 ERA in 2000 as a 23-year-old, 1 year after posting a 3.92 ERA in 149 1/3 innings as a rookie. "I really felt like that was important. Every day I try to get the most out of it that I can. I kind of took some of those examples that I've seen from the past and started to apply it. It's one of those things when you go home and look-in-the-mirror type of deals. You want to know that you gave it your best. For me that's more important than the success or failure on the field. Did I do it the right way?"
That message is a pertinent one for several of his fellow pitchers on this year's spring-training roster, including young righthander Kyle Kendrick, who spent last season at Triple A Lehigh Valley after going 11-9 with a 5.49 ERA for the Phillies as a 23-year-old second-year player in 2008.
When Kendrick arrived after a month of training at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., he began to mimic Halladay's schedule, even attempting to beat him to the ballpark in the morning. The two pitchers eventually began to talk, Kendrick picking Halladay's brain about the cutter he developed to offset his fastball, and eventually about his rocky early days with the Blue Jays.
"I was sent down to Triple A after a year-and-a-half in the big leagues and I thought the world ended," Kendrick said.
At one point, Kendrick asked Halladay about his demotion.
"Man," he recalled Halladay saying, "it sucked."
But it also lit a fire.
"Anything I can take from that guy," said Kendrick, who will compete with lefthander Jamie Moyer and others to join Halladay in the rotation, "I will."
Halladay has a huge incentive to help his teammates improve, one that was driven home in October as he watched the team he had hoped to join at the trading deadline last season square off against Yankees' righthander A.J. Burnett, his teammate and protegé in Toronto, in the World Series.
"It does get hard watching it, wondering," Halladay said. "For me it was more wondering how I would do. How are you going to stack up? How are you going to handle this? How fun could it be?"
Halladay's last taste of championship baseball came in 1995 at Arvada West High near Denver, when he lost in the state title game to a team from Cherry Creek that featured a slightly less renowned pitcher named Brad Lidge.
"We did something not many people were able to do [beat Halladay]," said Lidge, who did not appear in that game.
And something that not many people have done since.
"Nothing's going to get in the way of him doing his thing," Manuel said.
And the Phillies are thrilled that he will now be doing it on their side.
For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at http://go.philly.com/highcheese.