A single-engine plane crashed in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday afternoon, killing the pilot. By suppertime, Philly mourned a singular man, but a man who was not really of it. There was an alarming emptiness; a keening ache. For some reason, you were more fond of Roy Halladay than you realized.
This is how it feels to miss someone you never really knew.
That is the paradox of Roy Halladay and Philadelphia. He felt like that close cousin whose wife’s name you can’t remember at Thanksgiving.
He wasn’t aloof, exactly; he was apart. Among us, on his own terms, but utterly committed to the cause. Your cause.
That was enough.
That’s what won him your love.
Without great effort, you couldn’t have known him; not really. He spent his best seasons in Canada, the Blue Jays’ engine in their futile quest to catch the Yankees and Red Sox. He pitched in a Phillies uniform for just four seasons; or, 103 games; or, five fewer games than another Phillies front-end starter who landed via trade from Toronto. But you just don’t feel that same connection with Robert Person.
Halladay wasn’t even very good for the second half of those four seasons. He had pitched more than 220 innings in a season eight times in his prime, and he’d finally worn down. He battled, and that won him more admiration, but by the end of 2013, his shoulder frayed and bone-spurred, he retired.
As a Blue Jay.
You love him, still.
You love him because, in 2010, Philly got a guy who was as good as advertised. That doesn’t happen much in this town. The agent or the general manager or God himself con Philadelphia into great expectations, which become another great disappointment. Halladay did not disappoint.
He won his first four starts, giving up just four runs. He dealt a perfect game in May, pitched more than 250 innings, opened his postseason career with a no-hitter, then walked off with the Cy Young Award. The next season, he earned 19 of the franchise-record 102 wins with a career-best 2.35 ERA, even though his home games were in a hitter’s paradise. That July, he pitched through heat exhaustion in Chicago and pitched OK; then, like some Chuck Norris meme, he bounced back the next start and destroyed the Padres.
Two great years were enough, because, for those two great years, he was Philly’s. All Philly’s. The ghosts of Gregg Jefferies and Danny Tartabull were exorcised, sent packing by a guy who seemed too good to be true.
Only, Halladay was exactly as good as he seemed. When he got hurt and couldn’t win games and created a weak spot at the front of the rotation and at the top of the payroll on a good team that drew sellout crowds, he called an impromptu press conference – to say he was sorry.
Still waiting on that apology from Freddy Garcia.
They called him “Doc” Halladay because his last name was similar to a consumptive gambler and gunfighter of the Old West who spent time in Denver, Roy’s birthplace, but Halladay wasn’t a drifting, drinking scoundrel. Roy Halladay loved his family and loved his job and loved his life away from, and then out of, baseball. Roy Halladay was pure.
And so we came to adore the idea of Halladay; strong, silent, clinically effective. And we came to love the ideal of Halladay, maybe more than the actuality.
Who among us didn’t aspire to his commitment to his job? To his depth of preparation? To his focus on the mound?
Who among us didn’t imagine how great we might be if we invested that much effort?
Like all great leaders, he made you want to earn his approval, to equal his investment. His catcher, Carlos Ruiz, said in a statement, “I wanted to win for him more than I did for myself.” Chase Utley, his workaholic second baseman, marveled on Instagram at Halladay’s work ethic.
A baseball clubhouse can be a very public space — two dozen players and two dozen support staffers always coming and going. Halladay seldom came or went. He was usually busy doing. When Halladay allowed himself to be seen, he was always easy to spot: 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, square-shouldered and sweaty. Always sweaty. When Halladay wasn’t sweating, he was working on it.
He mastered the craft because he relished the work. Philly loves workers. Philly also loves passion and emotions worn on sleeves, but Halladay performed with a cool detachment that Philadelphians found endearing nonetheless. But then, “simple elegance,” as manager Joe Maddon described Halladay to Sports Illustrated, always draws admiration.
Halladay kept it simple. He trained himself to execute specific tasks at the highest level. He honed his body and his mind to attack the next batter he faced, and, dammit, he wanted to face all of them.
In his 10 best years, from 2002-11, Halladay pitched 63 complete games. In those 10 years, all other Phillies pitchers had 58 complete games combined. That included the pitchers from five pennant winners, two of which went to the World Series, and one of which was the 2008 world-bleeping-champion.
It’s true that Halladay pitched all but two of those 10 seasons in the American League, where the designated hitters mean that pitchers never get pulled for offensive reasons,. But Halladay finished 49 games in 12 AL seasons, and 17 in his first two NL seasons. With the rules stacked against him, he lasted even longer.
How? Again: simple.
He cared about pitch No. 1 to batter No. 1, then pitch No. 2, and so on, ad infinitum. Like all great performers, on the field or the stage or in the operating room, Doc focused only on the next step of the performance, lest the entire operation be ruined.
That’s why you loved Roy Halladay.
Even though you really knew him only in passing.