One of my favorite baseball pastimes will always be visiting Roy Halladay’s page on Baseball-Reference. Not because of his Cy Young seasons, in which he greedily consumed innings, bats, and spirits, but because of the outlier season at the beginning. It’s one of baseball’s greatest outlier seasons, and I will never tire of staring at it.
In 2000, Halladay had a 10.64 ERA in 67⅔ innings. It’s the highest ERA from any pitcher with more than 50 innings in baseball history. He was kicked down to Triple A, and he was awful there, too. He was 23 and irrevocably broken. He would not be the first or last pitcher to lose his talents like a set of car keys, never to find them again.
Except the next year he was back, and he was awesome. The year after that, he led the American League in innings pitched, and the year after that, he won the first of his two Cy Young Awards. He was rebuilt. He was weaponized. If you want the details of Halladay’s renaissance, you can find them here. It involves a pitching coach screaming just the right amount, and the development of a cutter in a secret lab.
Mostly, though, I just stare at it for a while, going through what it must have been like to have such promise, to be so used to success, only to stare into a void of uncertainty and doubt like that. Then I imagine what it was like to bounce back and sustain his magic for as long as he did. There’s a full, complete narrative arc in those simple numbers.
If you wanted to gravitate to Halladay’s most brilliant seasons, I wouldn’t blame you. He was grace, power, and efficiency, one of the most reliable enemies of scoring his generation produced. I keep returning to that lost season, though. Nobody comes back from that kind of devastation, absolutely nobody. Except Halladay did, and it strangely made me feel better about myself and whatever trap doors were waiting for me in the future. It was a real-world example of a human being failing at the highest level under the most extreme pressure and coming back.
It will always be one of my favorite baseball stories, and it’s told in just a few numbers on a page somewhere in the Internet. Halladay was great, sure, but it was where he had been that made him seem human.
That picture up there. That should have been something we all got used to, the idea of Roy Halladay returning to a ballpark and soaking up cheers, then returning to his life. For decades and decades, as he got older and older, that’s what should have happened. He should have been back when Toronto hosted the 2035 All-Star Game, and he should have thrown out the first pitch when the Phillies made the 2045 World Series.
Halladay was just about the only thing that Blue Jays and Phillies fans could agree on. There are still fistfights that are destined to begin because of 1993, but when the participants are handcuffed and sitting on the curb, one of them will turn to the other and say, “Roy Halladay sure was awesome, wasn’t he?”
It was a shared custody that’s strange on some level (he spent 12 years with the Blue Jays and just four with the Phillies, with the latter two of those seasons disappointing and injury-marred), except it made perfect sense while it was happening. That’s how intoxicating it was to watch Halladay pitch. It was a balance of form, power, and artistry that made everyone sound like a George Will paragraph when they tried to vocalize it.
When he pitched his no-hitter in the 2010 NLDS, there wasn’t a sense of wonder. There was a sense that baseball had reached a logical way station where we could stop and rest for a bit. Of course Halladay didn’t allow a hit. He tried not to allow them, and he was better at whatever he tried than any of us. Ergo, what’s the big deal? The real story was when he allowed the hits. That no-hitter should have been what you remembered when you thought about Halladay for another 30 years, at least.
The Hall of Fame ceremony is something that would have brought Blue Jays and Phillies fans to Cooperstown, and his speech is something we should have heard. It would have been humble, funny, and self-effacing, the kind of speech given by someone who was completely content with how everything turned out.
After injuries and age took him away from baseball, it was fair to wonder what was lost at the tail end of his career, if he could have had a Bartolo-like resurgence after reinventing himself, or if he could have been a new John Smoltz, dominating in the late innings. I spent a lot of time on that one because he seemed like the perfect pitcher to age gently into his early 40s before drifting off on his own terms.
He didn’t linger, though. By all accounts, including his Twitter feed, he approached the rest of his life like someone who didn’t have a lot of should-haves rattling around. He was talented, his career was in peril, he overcame those obstacles, and he became a fan favorite in two different cities for two wildly different fan bases, doing it at different stages of his career for teams that were in very different spots. He overcame and he excelled. There were no should-haves, there.
And now all I can think of is how Blue Jays and Phillies fans should have had a lot more time to appreciate Halladay, and how he should have had a lot more time to appreciate them. It wasn’t a symbiotic relationship that anyone took for granted, that odd and organic relationship between a sports hero and the city he represented, and there should have been years more of it.
Most of you reading this, I’m guessing, had no connection to Halladay in the real world, which makes the heavy, empty feeling seem strange and hard to reckon with. It’s like that with actors or actresses or authors, too, where something is lost, but it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly where.
In these situations, I promise you that it’s actually a good thing to bring everything back to yourself. Where you were when you heard Ziggy Stardust for the first time. The time you or your sister dressed up as Princess Leia for three straight Halloweens. These aren’t selfish ways to make the tragedy all about you — they’re a way to add your grief to a gigantic mural that’s shared with people you’ve never met and will never meet. They’re completely necessary to share.
I remember when ESPN cut away from regular programming to show the ninth inning of Halladay’s second career start, in which he was an out away from a perfect game. I remember rooting against it like a dummy because there was something arrogant about a rookie having that kind of immediate success, and I remember immediately realizing how stupid that thought was when Bobby Higginson’s ball sailed over the fence.
I remember how jealous and ecstatic I was when the delightful weirdos at Zoo With Roy actually went to the zoo with Roy. It was a remarkable celebration of just how silly sports fandom is, except it was also a remarkable celebration of just how beautiful it is. Both things can be true, and I’m forever in love with the moments that show us all of the above.
I remember when I started writing about baseball full-time, in 2011, at the height of Halladay’s powers. I wrote something about his brilliant season, but I included a caveat about his future because he was getting older, and I stopped for a couple minutes when I realized he was born in 1977, just like me. My job required me to label people my age as old, but I wasn’t old, right? It felt like I had my whole life in front of me.
I remember where I watched Halladay’s no-hitter and the feeling of hilarious inevitability that came along with it. He pitched that game because he was better than everyone else, you know.
Roy Halladay should have thrown out those first pitches, should have made that speech at Cooperstown, should have stopped by the booth every year or so when the Blue Jays had a series at Tampa Bay. Instead, we’re left with the only thing we could say about the abrupt end to his career: Thank goodness that existed. How lucky were we to get to watch that? Thank goodness that happened, and we were around for it.
Thank goodness for Roy Halladay, someone who will forever remind us of how elegant and fun the sport can be. Which is why it’s so crushing to know that he won’t be around to remind us in person for the indefinite future.