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Doc

May 29 2018
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Adrian Wyld/CP/AP Images
Photo by
Adrian Wyld/CP/AP Images
A.J. Burnett
Retired MLB pitcher
May 29 2018
T

hat night back in 2010 when I heard Roy Halladay had fired a perfect game, two thoughts came to mind almost immediately.

The first was that Doc finally getting his perfect game was maybe the least surprising thing in the history of baseball. I basically just nodded a few times when I heard. I mean, I always just assumed that he would get one at some point … because if anyone was ever built to throw a perfect game, it was that dude. (More on that in a minute.)

The other thought, though, was that I just sort of reminded myself I needed to hit him up so we could get together and plan a fishing trip soon, because it had been a little while since we were last out on the water. 

I wanted to catch up with him and get some fishing in … but I also kind of still had a little bit of a score to settle.

I was with the Yankees back then, and Roy had moved on to the Phillies. But when we were teammates together in Toronto, me and Doc would always fish together during spring training. And we’d constantly go back and forth about who was gonna catch more fish. (He was a way, way better fisherman than me, but there was no way I was ever going to tell him that.) I’d always mess with Doc when the fish weren’t bitin’ for him, or throw some fake worms at him when we were out on the water … just to try and piss him off and get in his head so I could maybe outfish the guy.

Well, Doc had this little lake behind his house outside of Tampa, and at one point he decided to hold a bass fishing tournament out there. I put my boat in the water, and he was out there on his boat. I remember I was super into it. To beat Doc … in a fishing tournament … that he was hosting … on his home lake? Yeah, I wanted those bragging rights.

So things get going and I’m fishing this corner pocket — just completely locked in and focused — and I don’t even notice that Doc has backed his boat in right behind mine. He went all stealth mode, I guess, and just kind of floated in, because I don’t hear a thing until he’s like three feet away. But when I finally look back and see him there, I notice his engine is set up so the propeller is jutting out of the water a little bit.

Then I look over at Roy, and he just has the slyest little grin going.

A half-second later I hear this crazy loud noise — like RRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

By that point, it was too late for me. All I could do was shut my eyes.

Doc totally fired up his engine and doused my entire boat with lake water. It was crazy. There was a 20-foot waterfall raining down on me.

I was completely soaked. Head to toe.

Dude got me good.

But, really, I should’ve had my guard up that day because everyone knew if you tried to mess with Doc he’d somehow eventually come out on top. And he’d do it when you least expected it, with that wry smile, all while barely saying a word.

He could jump up and surprise you like that off the field sometimes. And leave you shaking your head, not believing what just went down.

But Doc on the baseball diamond? Nah. That was different. He was beyond predictable out there. Nothing that guy accomplished on the field ever surprised me in the least.

Not even a perfect game.

Dude was a total machine.

Adrian Wyld/CP/AP Images

I met Doc when I came over to the Blue Jays after the 2005 season.

That first spring he was all about business and getting ready for the season, so I didn’t get to know him a ton right away. But when we got up to Toronto, we started to do contrast sessions in the hot and cold tubs — Roy in one, me in the other, then we’d switch.

I’d never done the cold tub before I became a Blue Jay, so that first time around Doc spent half the time just laughing at me because I’m in there freezing my ass off, and shivering, and hollering about it, and he’s just over there in the other tub like it’s no big deal. Like he’s an amphibian or something.

But at one point he turns to me out of nowhere and is like, “So … what’s your approach?”

I sorta froze.

I didn’t really know what to do with that. Nobody had ever asked about my approach to pitching before. And now I have Roy Friggin’ Halladay looking for a response to it?

I tried to play it calm, like I was contemplating the question, but my mind was racing a mile a minute. Like, Oh man, is there an obvious right answer that I can’t miss? Or is there a clearly wrong answer? What should I say?

“Umm … I just try to throw heaters by guys. And if I get ahead, I throw my curveball as hard as I can.”

Roy just started laughing.

Like for a while.

And I’m just shaking my head, like, What? What! Dude, what’s so funny?

The more I went on and tried to make my case … the more Doc laughed. And that one conversation we had early on, with me sitting in that freezing cold water, was really kind of the start of it all for me in terms of transitioning from being a hard-thrower to being a pitcher.

Everything changed for me after that.

Chuck Solomon/SI/Getty Images

Pretty soon, Doc had me throwing inside more, and we’d talk constantly about things like setting up my curveball, or using off-speed pitches earlier in counts, or how to work both sides of the plate to drive hitters nuts. But the main thing that happened during those early days in Toronto was that I got to see a master at work every single day.

I quickly came to realize the difference between doing enough to get by, and pitching at the highest possible level.

Because Doc, honest to goodness, was just on a whole different level than everyone else.

There were times back then when we’d talk, and I’d come away thinking he had to be crazy — just because what he was saying he wanted to do seemed totally impossible. Like when I first met him Doc told me one of his goals every year was to walk fewer batters in a season than the total number of games he started.

That’s insane. Less than one walk per start.

I was just like, This guy is nuts. That’s impossible.

But if you go and look at his stats … he actually did it some years. He wasn’t just putting it out there. Stuff like that … he’d gun for it, man.

And the main reason why Doc would be able to reach that level was because he prepared like no one I’ve ever seen. He had all these routines and plans for everything he did — bullpen sessions, workouts, pregame, everything. He never changed them. Ever. So if Doc had one of those rare occasions where he got hit around some, it wasn’t like he would panic and switch things up. He stuck to his formula, no matter what happened.

Doc also kept notebooks on everything — pitchers-and-catchers meetings, different hitters, teams, conditioning, all of it. And eventually I’m pretty sure he didn’t even need those notes, because he kind of got to a point where he had it all upstairs.

He was so good that hitters would always want to sit next to him in the dugout because they would pick up things about the opposing pitcher just by listening to what Doc would say throughout the game.

Icon SMI

Then, when it was his turn to start … that’s when you’d really see Doc be Doc.

You’d have about 10 minutes to hurry up and say hello to him on those days — maybe five — because after that … he just got completely locked in.

It wasn’t like he walked around angry or anything like that. It was just that you saw a man with a plan — someone who was 100% focused in on going out and winning a baseball game for his team. And you know you don’t want to mess with a man when he’s focused in like that. Everyone in that Toronto clubhouse respected it.

For me, back then, I just kind of watched and learned, and asked questions, and followed Doc’s lead. And I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty certain he enjoyed having me do that.

I remember at one point he randomly came up to me in the clubhouse and handed me a book.

I looked at the cover, and I honestly thought it was some kind of joke he was trying to pull. Right there in big letters it said….

The Mental ABC’s of Pitching

I figured he was taking a shot at me, you know what I mean? I was like, Really, you want me to read this? But Doc, he was totally straight-faced like,Yeah, I read it all the time. So I looked closer and noticed that it was written by Harvey Dorfman, who was basically the most famous sports psychologist in history.

Hmm.

Then I open it up, and I’ll be danged if it wasn’t highlighted.

Like the whole book … just totally highlighted in a bunch of different spots.

Now, I can’t say for sure if it was because Doc highlighted things specifically for me. I don’t know. I never asked him. But I always thought that was one of the coolest things ever, so I just rolled with it. Like, you know, Doc hooked me up and highlighted this thing for me.

Before long, I noticed myself spending more time preparing, and doing the same thing day in and day out, regardless of what happened the previous time I pitched. And I’m definitely proud to say that one of the things I stole from Doc was locking in early every fifth day and being that serious, don’t-eff-with-me, man-with-a-plan as soon as I got to the ballpark. I stole that approach from Doc, and I kept things that way no matter what team I played for after that.

And you know what, anytime I was kind of scuffling a little bit … heck yeah I’d pull out that Dorfman book in a heartbeat and go over some of that stuff.

Mel Evans/AP Images

Unfortunately, the book didn’t teach you how to dominate hitters the way Doc did.

But I feel so lucky to have seen him in action, close up, during my time with the Jays. One of the things I appreciate most about the time I spent with him was just the fact that I could watch that guy work every fifth day. And, on a lot of nights, what I saw was pure baseball magic — complete game after complete game in ’08 when Doc won 20, or that time when he got drilled in the head by a Nyjer Morgan line drive and jumped right back up like he wasn’t human, or that 10-inning complete-game win in ’07.

On some nights, you could totally predict that he was going to do something special. And that was the case even after we were no longer teammates.

When he threw that no-hitter for the Phillies in the playoffs against the Reds, I was with the Yankees in Minnesota. I was sitting in the clubhouse that afternoon, and I distinctly remember saying, “Watch Doc go out and throw a no-no tonight.”

I’m dead serious. That’s what I said. You can ask anyone who was in that clubhouse. They were there. They heard it

It was Doc’s first postseason start ever. I knew he’d be locked in.

“Watch for it. I’m telling you. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if he throws a no-hitter tonight.”

And then the guy went out and did it.


Looking back on it, I definitely think one of the reasons Doc and I got along was because we were so different.

If you know anything about me, you know I like to horse around and mess with people and just be silly sometimes. That was never really Doc’s thing … but there are a lot of hours to kill during the day for two starting pitchers who aren’t scheduled to pitch. So after a while, I brought him over to the dark side some.

And I never stopped giving that dude a hard time.

He’d try and set up his locker a certain way … all nice and neat and organized. And then I’d come in and mess it all up. Or in the dugout, he’d always sit cross-legged, with his elbow on his knee and his hand on his chin, and talk shop with our pitching coach back then, Brad Arnsberg. Well, that was my cue, man. Every time I saw Doc in that pose, I’d go over and just kind of lightly knock his elbow off his knee.

That cracked me up every single time.

To see him look over with that half-smile and have him be like: “Grow up, A.J.!”

Just to experience that moment, and knowing that I made Doc laugh a little bit … that would totally make my day.

Nathan Dennette/CP/AP Images

I played with a lot of good players over the years, and I had a ton of great teammates, but if there was one guy I wish I could have played with for my entire career it would have been Doc.

Truly.

He was the one guy in my 17-year career that I really felt terrible about leaving when I moved on to another team. I got over it after a while, I guess, but as it was happening … you know, I’m looking at him like: Man I feel really bad about this.

I remember after my final start for the Blue Jays, I had just shut out the Yankees, and at that point it wasn’t certain what was going to happen — it was possible I would be back with Toronto, but also that I might not. So I come out of the game and I look over at Doc, and I’m just like, “Hey, man … thanks for everything. Like … for real. Thank You.”

And Doc, he just looks at me and … I’ll never forget this … he goes: “Man, no, no, thank you.”

I’m like….

“What are you talking about?”

“What are you thanking me for? What is Roy Halladay thanking me for?”

And he just started laughing. Like cracking up.

He says, “For this, man. For us laughing together like we are right now.”

That absolutely floored me.

And he kept going.

“You helped me figure out how to loosen up some, man.”

I mean, are you kidding me? How cool is that? Doc was basically like: You taught me how to have some fun every once in a while.

That was, bar none, one of the coolest things anyone has ever said to me. And, you know what … I’ll take it. I’ll take that in a heartbeat, man. Roy Halladay thanking me because we had fun together. That’s tough to beat, right there.

And, of course, I missed Doc like crazy as soon as I left Toronto.

That guy meant the world to me, and I wish I could’ve played with him forever.

I never got a chance to tell him that … but I really wish I could have.


These days, I think about Doc every time I see a little plane in the sky.

Every time.

And every time I see the number 32. And every time I see the Blue Jays on T.V.

When I found out about what happened to him, it was one of those things where I wish I would’ve have called him the day before. You know what I mean? I wish I would have been like, Hey, what’s up man? I thought I’d call you out of nowhere. Why don’t we get together on a lake somewhere?

But you don’t always think like that. Sometimes we don’t make those calls, for whatever reason. We get busy, or we lose track of things, or just … life happens. And we don’t stay in touch like we should, or make enough time for the people who are important to us.

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

And then …. man. It’s just really tough when something like what happened with Doc happens.

Beyond tough.

So, I don’t know, stay in touch with people is I guess what I’m trying to say here.

Because you can’t go back in time.

And I just really wish I could’ve talked to Doc one last time before he passed away.

I would’ve reminded him of how much he meant to me, and how he helped me learn not just about pitching, but about myself. I would’ve said a whole bunch of things to that guy.

He was the best teammate I ever had.

A.J. Burnett
Retired MLB pitcher