When Commodores catcher Mat Nelson heads onto the field, what he wears stands out.
The 5-foot-11 catcher sports his usual Florida State gear, from his knocked up maroon cleats to his hockey-style mask with FSU’s baseball logo front and center.
Around his neck is a gold chain with a wood cross attached. The cross dangles around as Nelson moves behind the plate.
What many don’t see is a tattoo inked to his upper chest on the left hand side of his body.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why do you have that?’ and then I tell them the story and they are mind blown,” Nelson said about his tattoo.
The marking he bears close to his heart is in memory of his former high school assistant coach, Roy Halladay.
“When Roy joined in 2017, it was a great thing for our program,” Calvary Christian Head Coach Greg Olsen said. “Roy’s personality fit perfectly with everything we had going on within our program.”
For Nelson, baseball was his life. At four years old, he played tee-ball and cuddled with his bat in bed as he fell asleep. He attended former FSU Head Coach Mike Martin’s summer camps and even received offers from universities before starting up high school.
The Largo, Florida native grew up with former big leaguer Miguel Cairo and his son, Christian. The Cairos and Nelsons watched Christian and Mat play baseball together since they were little kids.
But nothing meant more to Nelson than to play for future member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, Roy Halladay.
“You asked Roy a simple question, he’d answer it for you or he’d give you a smart remark back,” Nelson said. “He was awesome.”
The relationship between Halladay and Nelson grew on the diamond. It was clear Mat Nelson was the starting catcher for Calvary Christian and knew all of his pitchers well, including Halladay’s son Braden.
“I think in that four-year career, he caught every game,” coach Olsen said. “We knew right away, he’d be our varsity catcher as a freshman and I don’t think ever missed a start. He had clear talent and was a vital part of our program.”
Off the field, Nelson got closer with the Halladays and spent plenty of time with Roy, his wife Brandy and Braden.
“One time, his wife Brandy was making tacos for dinner,” Nelson said. “Roy was sitting there and was like, ‘You know her brother ate the most in one sitting and got to like 20 or something.’ Me, my buddy Nolan and Braden were sitting there and we wanted to see how many we can do because she made like 100. Roy was just sitting there dying laughing watching us do this.”
Mat Nelson was so close to Roy Halladay that the eight-time MLB all-star even let Nelson fly his new airplane, a red and white ICON A5 Founders Edition amphibious aircraft.
“I flew for two or three seconds,” Nelson said about his experience flying the ICON A5. “There was a little control stick in there and he told me to pull up on it just a tad and I did. I pulled up, turned and then I stopped because I didn’t want to mess anything up.”
That was November 4, 2017.
November 7, 2017 started off as an ordinary school day for Nelson. Everything changed with one text he received in class. Someone sent him an article about Halladay’s ICON A5 crashing into the Gulf of Mexico. The article said beloved Blue Jays and Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay died.
“I didn’t think it was real,” Nelson said. “I asked my coach and he said, ‘No, I just got off with him twenty minutes ago. Then during batting practice when it was confirmed, it hit hard.”
“It was just shocking,” coach Olsen said. “He really meant so much to us.”
Fast forward to July 21, 2019, Mat Nelson is on Cape Cod playing with the Falmouth Commodores while Brandy Halladay is making Roy’s speech in Cooperstown. Roy “Doc” Halladay was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“To be able to see that he did that ‘Roy Halladay is a hall of famer, I got to watch him’ was one thing,” Nelson said. “But, to be able to say, ‘Roy Halladay is a hall of famer, he was one of my personal coaches is another thing.”
Now learning from one of the Cape Cod Baseball League’s greatest coaches, Nelson is having fun with the Commodores while enhancing his game.
“He keeps working and keeps being a great teammate,” ‘Dores manager Jeff Trundy said. “I love the way he carries himself.”
No matter where he is, whether in Largo, Tallahassee or Falmouth, a piece of Roy Halladay is ingrained in Mat Nelson.
Check his phone for proof.
“I’ve gone through three different phones since it happened,” Nelson said. “Every time I transfer, I back up all the data and have not deleted the text messages since I texted him. Quite frankly, I don’t think I ever will. I will just keep them there because they sit right at the bottom. It’s the last number I haven’t texted.”
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Maxwell Trink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @MaxwellTrink.