I was on Reference Desk duty yesterday afternoon when the tragic news came with an eerie, stealthy quietness, but a sledgehammer’s impact. Two emails, one from a library colleague, the other from a baseball/jazz friend, arrived in my inbox 15 seconds apart, each bearing an identical, blunt message: “Roy Halladay died in a plane crash today.” <end>
“What?” Whaaatt?….. oh, no” came out of my mouth. And then I just sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds, trying to take it in, trying to fathom it. Impossible. He was only 40, only out of the game for a few years. And then, “Ah, Jaysus” followed by a long puff of air out of my cheeks. The librarian sitting behind me must have noticed and asked, “Everything okay, Steve? What’s up?” I said, “Yeah, just give me a minute, Roy Halladay died.” This librarian is a friend but the main bond between us is music; not being from Toronto and decidedly not a fan of baseball or sports in general, he had no idea who Roy Halladay was. And I thought, Right, if you’re not from here or never saw him pitch, this is no big deal, people die suddenly every day….. I tried to explain – “He was this great pitcher for the Blue Jays, one of the best, and an even better person……everybody here loved and admired him……” and then I just trailed off, realizing where I was and how soppy I must have sounded.
Rarely has the death of someone I didn’t know at all hit me with so much shock and dismay. And disbelief. This is understandable though, because Halladay was so straight-up and genuine that you felt you knew him; with him what you saw was what you got. Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson each died in plane crashes while still active as players, but for Toronto-area and Canadian baseball fans Halladay’s death hit much harder and closer to home because he was one of us. He was OURS.
He was American, from Colorado, but in 12 seasons of stalwart pitching for the Blue Jays we adopted him and he returned the favour, he was an honourary Canadian. He seemed very happy to be so and we loved him for it. The high esteem he was held in by Toronto fans – and everybody else for that matter – was remarkable for a number of reasons. First of all, Toronto is first and foremost a hockey town and always will be, but Doc had the exalted standing usually reserved only for puck jockeys. And the good feelings were entirely mutual, Halladay loved the city and playing here, he put down roots and became part of the community with tireless charity work administered through his more outgoing and media-savvy wife, Brandy. But most of all, the love affair that gradually developed between Halladay and local baseball people was remarkable because it was so real. It wasn’t media-driven or hype-generated, because he was famously retiring and media-shy. And it wasn’t just that he was a great pitcher for so many years and often the only thing we had to cheer about during those lean baseball times. We were grateful for that, but it was the way he went about his business and his throw-back workhorse character that resonated deeply with Canadian fans. He was quiet, modest, fanatically conscientious, polite-but-taciturn in interviews, uncomfortable in the spotlight. And he was fierce, symbolizing competitive focus and intensity on the mound, but very laid-back and unassuming away from it. Canadians are similarly polite and fierce – just watch a hockey game with them sometime and you’ll see it straight away.
As a pitcher and a person, Doc was……exemplary. Many, hardened teammates included, wanted to be Roy Halladay, or at least to be more like him, and he made everyone around him better. In a sports world saturated by hype and excess, populated by so many foul-mouthed villains and greedy egomaniacs, Halladay stood out as the real deal: a dominant-yet-humble pro who simply wanted to pitch as well as possible – which he always did – then go home to the wife and two sons he was so devoted to. With him, it was never mind the hoopla, shut up and do your job, rinse and repeat. It may sound corny, maybe even jingoistic, but these qualities are a pretty good working definition of what Canadians are like, so small wonder we loved Roy Halladay so much. We recognized him – he was like us, but with much better stuff.
Even after he engineered his own departure from the Jays in 2009, there were no hard feelings. We understood, he’d given us everything he had for 12 seasons and simply wanted to go pitch with the Phillies and have a chance to win while there was still time. He’d earned that right and it was clear leaving Toronto was hard for him; he tried to make the whole painful episode as easy for everyone as possible. He even took out a full-page ad in the Sun thanking the fans for all their support over the years. I’m not especially sentimental except when it comes to baseball and dead jazz musicians, but the outpouring of genuine affection Halladay received from Toronto fans when he returned pitching for the Phillies in a 2011 interleague game gave me goosebumps. I don’t mind admitting it, and it was somehow fitting he threw a complete-game victory against the Jays. Roy was stunned by the reception, deeply moved and a little surprised. Just this past July he was back in Toronto, having been inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame up the road in St. Mary’s. He looked great and seemed very happy to be back among so many old baseball friends again. And he was truly honoured and thrilled about his induction, you could see it in his beaming face and hear it in his voice. Remarkable for an American, and for one who is a bona fide candidate for the other, more prestigious Hall of Fame. But that’s who Roy Halladay was.
About an hour after hearing the sad news I was riding the subway home when a whole slew of Roy Halladay memories washed over me, almost involuntarily. I remembered the first time I saw him pitch. It was on the road in September of 1998 with the Barry Elmes Quintet on a Canadian tour. Elmes and I were roomies on that trip and one morning we woke up in our Saskatoon hotel room around noon, a little the worse for wear from the gig the night before, a bit road-weary. Elmes flipped on the TV before either of us had even gotten out of bed and there was a Jays game on, the season finale from Toronto already in progress. In just his second major-league start, some rookie pitcher we’d never heard of named Roy Halladay had a no-hitter going into the fifth against the Tigers. To be honest, we weren’t in a state to go anywhere quite yet anyway, but as real baseball fans we knew if we left we would jinx the no-no. So there was nothing for it but to crack a couple of beers, nurse our hangovers and watch this unfold. The tension of it became almost unbearable – I knew that rookies had pitched no-hitters before, but very few in just their second big-league start. And there had been a couple of no-nos thrown in the last game of a season, maybe this would be the third. The no-hitter was intact with two out in the ninth when the dangerous Bobby Higginson came up and bopped his 25th homer over the left-field fence. I can still see it and remember how crestfallen we were – bye-bye no-hitter, bye-bye shutout. Tough luck, kid and welcome to the big leagues – but he was full marks for the 2-1 win. As we stumbled downstairs for some much-needed lunch I remember thinking, this Halladay guy bears watching.
And watch him we did. After some arm woes and rehab time in the minors, he became a truly dominant pitcher in 2002. I remember seeing him on the way to being a 20-game winner for the first time in September of 2003. Again against the Tigers, he threw a ten-inning shutout, the first time any pitcher had done so since Jack Morris against the Braves in the 7th Game of the 1991 World Series. In the summer of 2010, I was lucky enough to be in a bar with some other musicians watching the Blue Jays game after an early gig. Word came out that Halladay was throwing a perfect game against Joe Johnson and the Marlins. The bartender switched over to the Phillies game with no protest from anybody and we watched as Roy threw the 20th perfect game in history, winning by the minimal score of 1-0. He looked as good that night as any pitcher I’ve ever seen.
Then of course there was his no-hitter later that year against Cincinnati in Game One of the NLDS. I saw it from about the third inning on, and it was kept from being a perfect game by just one walk which came when Jay Bruce (if I remember correctly) took a fourth ball on a pitch maybe three inches too low. It could easily have been called a strike, but that’s baseball. Still, Halladay had only the second no-hitter in postseason history after Don Larsen’s unforgettable perfect game for the Yankees in the 1956 Series. Maybe best of all, I remember the fifth and final game of the 2011 NLDS between the Phillies and Cardinals, in which Halladay found himself matched up against his old friend and former Blue Jay teammate, Chris Carpenter. I watched this game while pretending to play bass with a jazz band on stage at The Rex. “Stella in B-flat? Yeah, whatever, no problem …. 1-2-3-4….. Jesus, what a game, I thought while thumping away, they’re both pitching great.….” Halladay was brilliant in giving up just a run in the first inning and nothing else, but on this night Carpenter was better, pitching a shutout for a thrilling 1-0 win. Halladay was typically gracious afterward, congratulating his oft-injured old friend on outduelling him.
When Halladay retired in 2013 at 36, I wrote a piece assessing his pitching career and worthiness for the Hall of Fame. I don’t want to rehash all that, not now, it doesn’t seem fitting. Suffice it to say he was a great and very durable pitcher and that watching him work so often was a gift to us all. I can scarcely believe he’s gone and his early, tragic death is a crying shame, leaving many of us wondering unreasonable and perhaps immature things. Like, why him? What did Roy Halladay ever do wrong to deserve this? “C’mon, God, would ya? What? There was an important ball game somewhere out there in the cosmos and you needed a good pitcher that badly? Never mind baseball, couldn’t you have taken someone else instead from the long list of people we could easily do without?” I don’t want to mention any names, but there are several prominent ones who come readily to mind at the moment………
But it doesn’t work that way. There are no reasons, there are no answers. Roy Halladay had a passion for flying airplanes and it killed him. Alone, hurtling into the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes we don’t realize that the things we love to do are dangerous, even if they seem innocent.
There’s nothing for it but to say thanks, Doc, for being the real deal all those years and for showing everybody how it’s supposed to be done, both on and off the field. You’re already badly missed and will be for a long time. Rest in peace.
© 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.