"The late Roy Halladay." It's going to take an awfully long time before those words don't feel so wrong, so heart-wrenching, and so surreal.
On Tuesday afternoon the Blue Jays, Phillies, their fans, and MLB, lost an icon and legend—words that, as big and impressive as they are, don't even truly capture what the man called "Doc" really meant to the baseball world.
It's easy to get hyperbolic when someone dies, especially tragically, and especially when it happens when they're much too young, as the 40-year-old Halladay was. But I don't think that's what's going on here. Roy Halladay was a giant, hiding in plain sight.
Here in Toronto, in the late-2000s, when he was the best pitcher in baseball, and damn near the only thing worth watching on a series of mediocre teams, his greatness was so evident that it became a running joke. For example, my brilliant friend, Drew Fairservice, wrote in a 2008 post at his old site, Ghostrunner on First, a comically outsized portrait of "a day in the existence of Roy Halladay," in which Halladay’s "ravenous appetite for the flesh of opponents is offset by his laser-like execution of a precise, predetermined strategy and his unfailing humility. Basically, he's all things to all men." The jokes all land absolutely perfectly because they're underpinned by so much truth.
Save for maybe the no-hitter in his first playoff game, no moment showed off Halladay's unflinching, unflappable dedication to his craft better than his performance on Tuesday, May 12, 2009. By coincidence of the schedule, Halladay squared off that night against former teammate A.J. Burnett, as the latter made his first return to Rogers Centre after leaving the Blue Jays as a free agent. Over 43,000 Jays fans showed up that night—more than the next two games of that series combined—and they were out for Yankee blood. A.J.'s blood, in particular. I remember sitting in the 500s, where Blue Jays fans only took time out to stop chirping nearby Yankees to boo Burnett when he was on the field. It was like a dress rehearsal, six years too soon, for the incredible, hostile atmosphere Jays fans would bring to the Rogers Centre during the club's 2015 and 2016 playoff runs. Through it all, Roy was magnificent—he threw a complete game, five-hit, one-run masterpiece that took just two hours and 22 minutes to complete.
Halladay was as relentless a competitor and as tireless a worker as any human could possibly be. A favourite story among Blue Jays fans involves much younger teammates in his later years with the club—eager in spring to soak up as much of Doc's greatness as possible by trying to keep up with his gruelling and impossibly early starting workout regimen, they dropped off one by one until it was only the veteran ace left running up and down the stadium stairs each day before dawn.
But Halladay was also, by all accounts, just as relentless in his devotion to his family, to his charity work, and to basic politeness and humility itself. The outpouring from the baseball community following the tragic news of his death spoke volumes about who he was as a player and person, and how he'll be remembered.
"Everyone who plays baseball wishes they could be a small fraction like Doc Halladay," said Brett Anderson on Tuesday. "Roy Halladay was your favorite player's favorite player. A true ace and a wonderful person. Heartbroken for those who knew him best," added Brandon McCarthy.
Inextricable from all of this is the fact that Halladay’s was an incredible story of perseverance and redemption, too.
At this point everyone knows the story of Halladay nearly throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, yet winding up being sent all the way down to Single-A to completely rework his delivery less than three years later. What is maybe less known is the mental toll this took on him and his young family, which Tom Verducci captured in a 2010 cover story for Sports Illustrated:
Brandy Halladay happened to be holding her car keys when her husband talked about jumping out the window of their third-floor apartment near Dunedin, Fla., nine years ago. 'I would jump out the window,' Roy told his wife, 'but with my luck I would only break my leg, and I'd still have to go back out on the mound.' The macabre crack followed a declaration by Roy Halladay, a 23-year-old pitcher freshly demoted by the Blue Jays all the way to Class A ball, that he was too embarrassed to ever go back home to Colorado.
As Verducci tells it, the couple, then with a six-month-old son, "wondered if they had saved enough money for Roy to quit baseball and go back to school."
Halladay's new delivery, and the work that he did that summer with Mel Queen, was what got him back to the big leagues. But it was Brandy's discovery of a book, The Mental ABC's of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance Enhancement by H.A. Dorfman—and eventually one-on-one work with Dorfman himself—that, along with his tireless work ethic, kept him there.
He had seen failure up close. His career had been taken to the brink. Dorfman's teachings, he said, allowed him to face up to failure, and to avoid negative "thoughts creeping into your head, a picture of how things might not work out." He worked and fought and prepared and pushed to become the best player that his immense talent and power of will would allow him to be. "If you saw all the work that Roy put in for the four days before every start," said a Jays clubhouse manager in Verducci's piece, "all the conditioning, all the video work, all the studying—you would cry if he didn't come out of that game with a win."
In the years since his retirement, social media allowed fans to see another side of Halladay. Gone was the unflinching seriousness with which he carried himself throughout his career. The post-baseball Halladay appeared to be genuinely happy, making jokes on Twitter, spending time with his family, doing the things he always wanted to do, and that his success as a baseball player afforded. He came through the ups and downs of his baseball career, the endless workouts, the laser-like focus, the dedication to the singular goal of being the best pitcher in the world, and he didn't seem jaded. He didn't seem restless. He didn't seem scarred by the things the game put him through, or that he put himself through. And that, I think, is what hurts the most about his loss.
We can look at his statistics, his accolades, and reminisce about his baseball career and the great moments and the joy he brought us on the field, but the two Cy Young awards (which surely would have been three if not for a Kevin Mench liner to Doc's shin in the middle of his sublime 2005 season), the career 3.38 ERA, the 200 wins, and the seven times he led the majors in complete games don't nearly tell the full story.
This was an incredible person, who was not just a great athlete, but all the things the best versions of ourselves aspire to be—not just talented and successful, but humble, loving, devoted, charitable, tenacious, hard-working, beloved. He was everything you want your sons and daughters to be. And, freed from the rigors of big league baseball, he was out there in the world, with a beautiful young family of his own, living his best life, having fun, and all of it so unbelievably richly deserved.
That he's been taken away so suddenly, so crudely, leaving his family shattered and the baseball world to mourn, is unbearably cruel and unfair. This was going to be a time for Roy to enjoy himself, to coach his sons, to give back to the current Blue Jays and Phillies, and to be honoured for his career—on the Blue Jays' Level of Excellence, and ultimately in Cooperstown. Those things will happen regardless, but that he won't be there to bask in our love is a serious gut punch.
We tend to think of sports as a fairly frivolous pursuit, and most times that's probably accurate. But every once in awhile there are people and stories that transcend mere wins and losses, that inspire, that teach us who we are, what we want to be in life, or what we can be when we push ourselves to the true limits of our capabilities. He may have done so quietly and humbly, leading by example rather than by sheer force of personality, but Roy Halladay was absolutely that. And it's absolutely heartbreaking that he's gone so soon.
Rest in peace, Doc.