No matter what he did, Roy Halladay had a way to win you over.
Youse a baseball lifer from Passyunk? Doc’s sinker was magic on a Monday night. Got eyeballs for entertainment? The 12-6 breaker could make your jaw hang. Even the mouth-breathers, the out-of-town jawns who didn’t give a lick for the Phils, could still sit a few Sub stops for the show.
Doc was appointment television in Philadelphia, just like he was in Toronto before that. Just like he was anywhere. Most folks can appreciate a job joyfully and thoroughly done. That is one of the tenets of sports, the doctrine we abide by through loss or splendor.
It wasn’t just that beautiful, traditional form, tucking every inch of his body into itself just to unleash a fireball to the plate. It wasn’t only the Darth Vader stare, the inscrutable mask and dominance displayed through countless complete contests. It’s that he embodied all of us from his first day to his last, carrying a workman’s load that never appeared unforgiving.
It only took one inning for you to understand why you were there when Doc was pitching, either falling over yourself in The Bank or hanging on every Tom McCarthy syllable from your couch or car. Philly fans knew what Halladay possessed in Toronto for 10 years. We didn’t just love him because he was ours. We loved him because we were lucky, not only to have him in our city, but to be around him, to bear witness and watch history happen weekly.
It’s not like Doc didn’t keep you entertained. If he knew how to do anything else, he commanded a show. There was the gorgeous crackle in his cutter, the salsa slide the batter’s feet did when the ball sank, how their shoulders slumped for a changeup, the grind of their teeth and the lock of their elbows when they couldn’t decide where that curve would land. The favorite, of course, was his painter’s touch. Pitches brushing the outside corners, masterpieces that’d make Van Gogh gush. My, I’ve never seen a man make a ball dance like that in my life.
Amid the recurring experiences, there were so many individual moments to cherish. How one of Andrew McCuthchen’s intros to baseball was a Doc cut-piece he’d always remember. That spring training morning at 5:45 am when Chase Utley came to the park to see Doc eating breakfast, clothes soaked, fresh from a workout. Utley was confused. He thought it had rained. Doc was just hanging out and hustling.
How when returning to Rogers Centre in Toronto in July 2011, Doc smiled while running stairs, hauling his 230 pound, 6’6 frame through each motion. The things he did to maintain his stardom as a baseball giant were aberrations to the normal being. His focus was unparalleled. His cool was sublime. It wasn’t an Obamian cool, as apparent as the sun on a clear day. Doc’s aura was unique because it was up for interpretation. There were too many reasons to love him.
It made you often wonder who the hell was this man? No one smiles running stairs. No one calls a press conference to unnecessarily apologize to fans. No one fans nine in front of the president in their first outing with a new club. No one throws a perfecto in their 11th start in the red pinstripes then gives the entire team luxury watches saying “We did it”. No one takes the kid who made a blog out of your name to the zoo and cast it off as nonchalant. No one makes a postseason debut by flashing a no-no for the national audience. Really. No one was Roy Halladay.
Philly was in an athletic renaissance before Doc arrived in 2009, but Halladay just felt different. He was immediately dominant in a workmanlike way that forged a connection deeper than his 55 wins with the Phillies would suggest.
The thing is: Philly had seen success and special pitchers before. We had Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and even a glimpse of Pedro Martinez. Our older siblings saw pre-meme Curt Schilling and parents witnessed Jim Bunning and Steve Carlton. Yet in an era of baseball dominance rivaling Andy Reid’s early Eagles and Allen Iverson’s Sixers, none of us expected to be zooming down Broad Street one night in 2008. We didn’t think we’d be in another World Series a year later. We never expected Halladay to arrive after that. Like. At all. We didn’t think someone like Halladay would come somewhere like here. But when he chose us, he became a part of us, both our torch bearer and our baseball role model, the ace of aces.
In retirement, he shared his personal joys. He loved to fly. He opened a Twitter account with so many dad jokes Tim Kaine kept notes. If he was robotic and focused during the game he was affable and transparent out of it. During his years coaching his son, Ryan, the travel ball teens didn’t even know he played in the majors, something Doc found funny while they scoured the web on smartphones for his no-no in the NLDS against the Reds.
This was Doc. He was both a pitching celestial and a rando travel coach. Each description was equally important and visible. Doc died Tuesday doing something else he loved. Flying was a hobby he wanted to share with his sons, and something he also tweeted frequently about. It was his escape, the same thing he gave us. Whether it was sharing the joys he found in coaching or among the clouds, he was able to show Philly, baseball, and fans anywhere that beneath his unflappable mound demeanor there were layers. He increasingly displayed an openness that top-tier talent doesn't often share with their athletic constituents.
Sometimes, the men and women we deify on fields can transcend the rarified excellence of the athletic world. They can touch and change lives, bringing ecstasy to a city. For a few years, Doc did that for Philly. He impassioned the bloggers, the lifers, the everyman. He was lightning that preceded the thunderous roars at the park, the inspiration for the newsman's fresh spring copy, the glorious glimmer in the extended twilight of Philly's modern baseball reign.
He renewed in us this want, this overlooked but natural desire to care about the purest part of the game. He brought a zeal to the mound that I've never seen duplicated. It's why you eventually gave in, like a hitter facing his legendary curve. The fervor 34 provided proved infectious. Your love of sports and passion for life was healed by Doc whether or not you wanted it.
Somehow we all became Doc’s patients by the time it was over.