The retirement of Roy Halladay on Monday came as a surprise to most of the baseball world, but upon deeper reflection, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who has followed him closely. The truly great don’t usually handle decline well, but Halladay, the ultimate competitor, didn’t experience the steady decline of age’s cruelty in the twilight of his career. Age dropped him suddenly.
That Halladay wanted to begin the second part of his adult life pain-free rather than climb back from the depths with a fractured back is a decision that none of us can rightfully argue. Still, the fan in all of us, and especially the Phillies fans of recent years, feels cheated, not by Halladay, who is credited with being as hard a worker as anyone of his generation, but by the undefeated combo of the baseball gods and Father Time.
Sure, Halladay’s best years were behind him no matter how hard he worked, but it sure would have been fun to watch him outsmart hitters for a few more years with diminished stuff the way Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez did before him.
I am an unabashed Phillies fan, something I don’t allow to creep into my writing very often. I come from the breed of rationally passionate fans who don’t try to fight women and children in opposing team’s colors, but who wept openly in bars when Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske in 2008. I did again five minutes later while on the phone with my father as FOX played Harry Kalas’ call of the moment.
With the exception of that pinnacle moment of my Phillies generation, however, the greatest memory I have of the Phillies is of Roy Halladay. On Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010, on what was a glorious afternoon in both Philadelphia and Baltimore (where I lived at the time), Halladay turned in one of the most memorable postseason performances of all time, no-hitting the Cincinnati Reds in the opening game of the Division Championship Series and cementing his place in baseball history, and deep within the fickle hearts of Phillies fans.
I watched the game at a local Philly-centric bar with a friend, and we celebrated Halladay’s accomplishments well into the night, our coming struggles at work the next day doing nothing to diminish the joy that Roy had brought us. I texted her when the news of Roy’s retirement came down, causing emotions both happy and sad. Now, she has been my girlfriend for some time. Of all of the happy memories we have as a couple, one of my favorites is of two friends watching Roy Halladay throw a baseball on a weekday afternoon.
You don’t care about my dating history, but this is what baseball fandom is about. A simple sentence across the bottom of your TV screen or an innocuous tweet over your morning coffee that can simultaneously evoke memories of a great accomplishment and of a special time with your future wife from years past, freezing you like one of Halladay’s back-door two-seamers and causing you to well up like a toddler with a scraped knee. Not all players have this influence on us, but Roy did.
Of course, Halladay isn’t ours as Phillies fans alone. He began as a Blue Jay, spent a more than a decade as a Blue Jay, won a Cy Young Award as a Blue Jay and retired as a Blue Jay. One day, if the Baseball Writers of America do their job properly, he’ll go into the Hall of Fame with a Blue Jay on his cap as well. And the Phillies fan in me is fine with that, because the prospect writer in me appreciates the work Halladay did as a Blue Jay that gave him the greatness we later enjoyed.
In 1998, Halladay debuted as a young flame-thrower getting by on talent alone. In 1999, he reprised that role in his first full season in the major leagues, enjoying some moderate success. In 2000, however, the league figured him out. So in 2001, at 23 years old and with some major league success under his belt, Halladay did the unthinkable—he went all the way back to A-ball to rework both his mental and physical game. He changed his arm slot and his approach, and grew up and into the pitcher we know him as today. The next year he was an All-Star, two years later a Cy Young Award winner.
Not many young major leaguers would be willing to do what Halladay did, and even if their organization forced them into it, even fewer would participate with the willingness that Halladay did. His humility allowed him to become the pitcher that fans in Toronto and Philadelphia got to enjoy for the decade that followed, and if for nothing else, we should thank him for that.
But I don’t get to thank Roy, so instead I’ll do what fans do. We thank our favorite players by remembering their legacy. I will watch his highlights and remember fondly not only his best performances but the joy the fan in me took from them. I will unfairly compare prospects to him as I evaluate them, watching one-by-one as they come up short. Eventually I will tell my kids about him, and that playoff no-hitter specifically, and I promise to embellish only slightly. After all, the facts are good enough.