On Tuesday, former Phillies and Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay died in a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. Halladay was one of the most dominant pitchers of the 2000s, a two-time Cy Young winner, a possible Hall of Famer, and a beloved figure on both of the teams he played for. The 40-year-old Halladay, like Óscar Taveras, José Fernández, and Yordano Ventura, died tragically and far too young, and the frequency with which we’ve lost some of baseball’s leading lights over the past few years has made a well-traveled mourning experience even more tragic because it’s so familiar. Each death was heartbreaking in its own way, but Halladay’s hit close to home for me. In my life, he wasn’t just a ballplayer — he was an important and inspirational figure, an example of the best ways that being a sports fan can touch one’s life.
I never have, and probably never will, spend as much time with a single baseball team as I did with the 2010 and 2011 Phillies. In 2008 and 2009, I was away at college before MLB.tv became a must-have application, so I’d largely missed out on the team that won back-to-back pennants and a World Series in those years, but by Opening Day 2010, I was back home and in the first year of a soul-destroying PhD program. I began to dread not only my schoolwork but the very act of waking up, so I reached out desperately for something — anything — else to think about in my free time.
So I poured that free time into the Phillies — talking about them, thinking about them, reading about them, writing about them, and most of all, watching them. Six nights a week, six months out of the year, I’d come home at sunset and flip on Comcast SportsNet, or head out to a bar, or hop on the train down to Citizens Bank Park, and escape.
I didn’t watch the first game of the 2010 season — it was an afternoon game on a Monday, and I was stuck following the old Yahoo box score from my desk — but I’ll remember it forever nonetheless: Phillies 11, Nationals 1. Roy Halladay struck out nine and allowed one run in seven innings to earn the win.
We Phillies fans had seen great pitchers before — just the past October, Cliff Lee, Pedro Martínez, and Cole Hamels had started the first three games of the World Series, and my friends and I were old enough to remember the best years of Curt Schilling, and our parents and some of our older siblings were lucky enough to have cheered for Steve Carlton. But Doc Halladay was different.
He had made six All-Star teams and won one Cy Young and finished in the top five in Cy Young voting four more times in his last eight seasons with the Blue Jays. When the Phillies first traded for Halladay in December 2009, his accolades were well known, but the deal was nevertheless controversial, as GM Ruben Amaro sent Lee — whose nonchalance had made him popular among Phillies fans — to Seattle the same day to clear salary and rebuild the Phillies’ depleted farm system.
Any disappointment faded quickly. This October, Justin Verlander talked about the difference between knowing how good José Altuve was and seeing how good he was up close every day, and how newcomers to his old Detroit Tigers teams had spoken the same way about Miguel Cabrera. Halladay had that effect on Phillies fans.
Within a few days, Halladay’s cadence and windup had become familiar to us: The peach-fuzzed, 6-foot-6 right-hander pitched like he was trying to hide his height, curling every joint during his delivery — he crooked his wrists and bent his knees as he came set, then extended his wings outward, elbows bent like a bat’s as he did so, before hurling the ball toward the plate. And when he released the ball, it sizzled through the zone like a nut floating across a well-oiled skillet. It was intoxicating, in the perception-distorting way that drugs are intoxicating, to see that every five days.
The second effect Halladay had was quite like the effect Verlander has had on Houston. Like Verlander, Halladay was a veteran pitcher at the top of his game, joining a team built on a potent and homegrown offense in search of the ring that had long eluded him. Even after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, there was still some of that defiant Philadelphia sports exceptionalism around the team — the “nobody respects us” element that unifies everyone within a fan base and alienates everyone around it. That changed when Halladay joined the club — he chose us, and this team that had been an avatar of apathetic mediocrity for 15 years became the center of the baseball universe.
In just his 11th start in a Phillies uniform, Halladay set down 27 consecutive Marlins for the first perfect game by a Phillies pitcher in 46 years.
Shortly thereafter, Halladay’s partnership with catcher Carlos Ruiz grew into a bromance that was visible from space — the stocky, light-hitting Panamanian, lovingly called “Chooch” by Phillies fans, became the mastermind behind the Phillies’ dominant pitching staff, a Sports Illustrated cover athlete, and Halladay’s lucky charm. An advertisement for MLB 2K11 depicted Halladay walking around his house in the offseason, asking an inflatable Chooch doll for advice. It felt cooler to love Chooch because of how much Doc loved Chooch.
As interest in the club grew nationally, the local bandwagon swelled to capacity, forming a community around the team the likes of which I’ve never seen before or since. It sucked up people from all walks of life, from the city, its suburbs, and across the country. The most direct outgrowth of Halladay’s involvement was Zoo With Roy, a blog about a pseudonymous penguin who wanted to go to the Philadelphia Zoo with Roy Halladay. An entire movement followed, with its own identity and slang, like if Harry Potter fans all really loved wearing red T-shirts and drinking Yuengling in parking lots.
It’s in that community that I met some of my closest friends, as have thousands of others from Trenton, New Jersey, to Wilmington, Delaware, and beyond. It’s because of that community that I raced to a sticky-floored Pine Barrens watering hole after school on October 6, 2010, to watch Halladay’s first-ever playoff start. Two hours and 34 minutes later, when Halladay finished off the first playoff no-hitter since 1956, I was so delirious that I didn’t realize I’d wrapped my friend in a bear hug that nearly suffocated him. It’s the best baseball memory I have, including the last out of the 2008 World Series.
It’s in that community that I was inspired to write seriously about baseball for the first time, setting off a chain of events that led to my writing about baseball as a full-time job. All that, while seeking an escape from some of the darkest moments of my life, thanks to Roy Halladay’s Phillies.
Halladay never got that ring. After the Phillies swept the Reds in the 2010 NLDS, he split two confrontations with Tim Lincecum in the NLCS, and the Phillies lost in six. A year later, the 102-win Phillies lost in the first round to the Cardinals in five games, with the final blow coming after the first batter Halladay faced in Game 5 scored the game’s only run. In 2012 and 2013, Halladay, after a decade of uninterrupted greatness, started to show his age, just as the Phillies slid off their perch as the National League’s dynastic power and into a rut from which they still have not recovered.
After the 2013 season, Halladay signed a ceremonial one-day contract with the Blue Jays and announced his retirement at the age of 36, and retired to Florida with his wife and two young sons. Periodic bouts of Chooch-induced silliness aside, Halladay was never a particularly mirthful figure as a player. He had a reputation for running stairs before dawn and, after nearly washing out in his early 20s, undertook both his preparation and his pitching with an intensity that turned him red and made him sweat like a waterfall.
But Halladay took to retirement with shocking ease. He maintained a charmingly earnest and dadlike Twitter account. He made bad puns, hung out with his inflatable Chooch, and actually took the guy from Zoo With Roy to the Philadelphia Zoo. He moonlighted as the pitching coach for his son’s high school baseball team and took up flying in his spare time.
Last month, he took delivery of an Icon A5, a sleek, high-winged amphibious two-seater he’d coveted publicly for years. It’s a gorgeous piece of machinery, the kind of thing that makes you wish you had the time and money to own one yourself, the latest piece of the joyful puzzle Halladay had built for himself after his baseball career had ended.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, the wreckage of an Icon with a registration number matching Halladay’s was found floating in the Gulf of Mexico. Hours later, the Pasco County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office announced that the pilot, who’d been killed in the crash, was indeed Halladay. Once again, the baseball world mourns the premature loss of one of its most beloved sons.
But for me, and for numerous others who had the good fortune to be Phillies fans in a certain time and place, this is different, because of the memories he created, the community his team fostered, and, above all, the ineffable feeling of being part of something special that he inspired. I never met Roy Halladay, never high-fived him as a fan or interviewed him as a reporter, but he changed my life all the same.