Suffering is not a word you would normally see associated with Roy Halladay. Sure, he was stuck playing on the Toronto Blue Jays, but no one had a gun to his head.
Yet one player has suffered tremendously from Halladay's tenure in Toronto, and his name is Vernon Wells.
Halladay and Wells were linked on a level that exceeded the simple fact that they were teammates. They were bound together by expectations.
The two both played their first games for Toronto within a year of each other, and they managed to remain teammates throughout the whole decade. Together they reigned as leaders over some of the leanest years the Blue Jays have ever gone through. And together they were the beacons of hope for forlorn fans.
Yet one never lost his reputation as a stalwart competitor and the other found himself a pariah.
Last season the fans sided with Halladay, his final games playing out like a farewell tour from a beloved band. Wells was left to revel in his new nickname, "Boo." The fans had decided that all the years of mediocrity and the blame for them lay more with Wells than Halladay.
But their careers in Toronto were similar in many ways.
2003 was a banner year for the duo. Halladay won his Cy Young, putting together a 22-7 campaign with a 3.25 ERA. Wells had his best statistical season, batting .317 with 33 home runs and 117 RBI (earning himself a Silver Slugger in the process).
The next two seasons for Halladay were shortened by injury. That year saw shoulder trouble sideline Doc, 2005 a line drive from Kevin Mench that broke his leg. Meanwhile, Wells also regressed, playing only 134 games in 2004. In 2005, Wells hit only .269, yet still socked 28 home runs with 97 RBI.
Then, 2006 saw a resurgence for both players. Halladay went 16-5 with a 3.19 ERA; ultimately finishing third in Cy Young voting. Wells hit .303 with 32 homers and 106 RBI, also winning a Gold Glove. The pair was named to the All Star team and all was well.
If this were a VH1 special, and Halladay and Wells a band (perhaps a folk group called Vern and Roy?), this would be where I'd break out a hanging, foreshadowing, evil, question.
But would the duo ever hit the right notes again?
But would the duo ever hit the right notes again?
(End commercial break.)
Halladay and Wells had their destinies entwined while in Toronto. The decade was often a little brighter than it should have been, with fans knowing that the Blue Jays still had at least two premier players you could go and watch. The team could, would, and did stink; but these two would provide a level of professionalism the rest of the team lacked.
Wells has hit 20 home runs or more only once since 2006, and a myriad of injuries known, unknown, and suspected have curtailed his production. All of this is coupled with a decrease on defence and a massive increase in salary. If you wanted to invent a formula for unpopularity all you would need is to follow Wells' career arc.
Halladay spent the last three years cultivating an image of invincibility. He led the league in complete games three times and never finished out of the top three leaders in innings pitched. Plus Doc never stopped being effective despite his heavy workload, his ERA never surpassing 3.71 and cracking 200 strikeouts twice.
And yes, that is the "Duh" answer to the question, "Why was Roy Halladay more popular than Vernon Wells?"
But the biggest problem was with expectations. Both players had built up high standards for themselves by 2007, and only one of them would continue to perform at such a rate.
Halladay mutated into an iron man who would rather get hit by a train than miss a start. Everyone in Toronto wasn’t expected to live up to Halladay standards, but everyone isn’t due $126 million. And because Wells was, and even Halladay wasn’t, that was damning. The better Halladay played the worse it made Vernon Wells look. One was the consummate soldier and the other was the underachieving anchor.
With Halladay out, the stigma is still not gone from Wells. People still scoff at his contract and are baffled that a team would ever anchor itself to a player like that. But at the time it wasn’t investing in Wells, it was investing in where the Blue Jays were aiming to be. Together, the two were to lead Toronto into the new decade. Sometimes things don’t work out. Don’t blame Wells for accepting a favourable deal, blame him for plays made in the moment.
It’s an unfair situation for anyone to have to be in (except for the one receiving of money). Fans are all but demanding that Wells return every penny of his salary because he doesn’t deserve it. Wells is in the uncomfortable position of having to justify a deal that has already been agreed upon.
But Wells still has a chance to redeem himself in Toronto. He is his own man and he no longer lives in the shadow of Halladay’s success. Perhaps part of the reason Wells pushed himself to play while injured was trying to live up to the impossibly high level of grit that Halladay represented. Who knows how much damage was done to Wells or to Halladay himself, living in the cult of personality those surrounding the Jays created for Doc.
That’s not to diminish anything Halladay did for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the brightest star in a dark sky and he never failed to please. The Doc just created an aura of excellence that few are equipped to match.
For Vernon Wells, he spent the decade trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations, including his own; plus dealing with the impact of man who never tired. This isn’t to absolve Wells of his performance the past three years; it’s to place the feelings associated with him into context. It's a rationalization of why one man went from stud to dud so quickly.
The Blue Jays' clubhouse was one divided by expectations, and it just wouldn’t stand.