When the Phillies acquired Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays in December 2009, they had come off of back-to-back World Series appearances: a championship in 2008, and a Fall Classic loss in six games to the Yankees in ’09. They didn’t need Halladay so much as want him, understandably so. To acquire him from the Blue Jays, the Phillies relinquished what were at the time three highly-touted prospects: pitcher Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis d'Arnaud, and outfielder Michael Taylor (not the Nationals’ Michael Taylor — this one).
The Phillies had had franchise aces before. Cole Hamels. Curt Schilling. Steve Carlton. The list goes on. Halladay quickly added himself to this list despite not having the lengthy history with the team the other aces had. Every Halladay start became appointment viewing for Phillies fans.
To understand what it felt like to have Halladay pitching for the Phillies, one must understand the history of the Phillies. The Phillies are baseball’s losingest franchise, having lost a record 10,413 games since 1890. From 1890 through 1914, the Phillies didn’t reach the playoffs a single time. They finished second just twice in that span of time. They lost the 1915 World Series and wouldn’t appear in another one until 1950. The Phils lost in the NLCS three years in a row from 1976-78. Finally, the stretch of futility was broken when the club won it all in 1980 over the Royals. Even that run of success was short-lived. After losing in the 1983 World Series, the Phillies stunk it up some more, going into another playoff drought from ’84-92. They lost the ’93 World Series in the most heartbreaking way possible: Joe Carter hitting a walk-off, World Series-clinching home run — the only time that’s ever happened in baseball history with the batter’s team trailing. The Phillies again hit the skids, enduring a playoff drought from 1995-06. This period saw a concerted effort at winning, as the club brought in Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood, and Billy Wagner, among others, but to no avail.
You can forgive Phillies fans for thinking the rug was going to be swept out from under them after 2007-08. Even kids who grew up in the 2000’s were conditioned to believe the other shoe would drop at any moment. Halladay, however, morphed Phillies fans’ impending sense of doom into everyday hope and confidence.
From his debut in 1998 through 2009 with the Blue Jays, Halladay had won a Cy Young Award, made six All-Star teams, led the league in wins once, led the league in innings pitched three times, and was on his way to a Hall of Fame-worthy career. But, at 33, how much did he really have in the tank? He showed us exactly how much by having the best season of his career. He went 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA and a 219/30 K/BB ratio in 250 2/3 innings. Halladay threw a perfect game on May 29 against the Marlins, joining Jim Bunning as the only Phillies to accomplish the feat. Halladay’s Phillies won 97 games and appeared to be on their way to another World Series appearance. It felt that way with Halladay at the top of the rotation. As a Phillies fan, any time I saw Halladay as the probable pitcher for that day’s game, I not only felt that the Phillies had a chance to win, but that they had a chance to completely dismantle the competition.
During the 2010 regular season, Halladay pitched nine innings nine times, eight innings another six times, and reached at least the seventh inning in 28 of his 33 starts. The game of baseball had already begun to evolve at that point, so starters pitching complete games was almost anachronistic. Only six pitchers in 2010 completed at least five games. Halladay, with nine, had two more than his closest competition, Lee and Carl Pavano. He never wanted to come out of the game. On many occasions, the Phillies broadcast caught him cursing under his breath as then-managers Charlie Manuel and Ryne Sandberg strolled out to the mound to bring in a reliever. Sometimes, he’d plead his case to stay in the game, and oftentimes he’d win the argument. Halladay was as intense as anyone in the heat of battle. You always want that kind of competitor on your team; it’s scary to play against someone like him, like Max Scherzer.
As a kid, I grew up lower-middle-class, but I went to a public school that mostly had upper-middle-class and above families. Sometimes I’d go over to my friends’ houses and have dinner, and the differences between that experience and dinner at home was stark. Stairs that didn’t creak. Bedrooms for guests. Closets you could walk into. Pool tables, swimming pools, hot tubs. I never felt like I belonged in such houses; it wasn’t the environment I had grown used to being in. Having Halladay pitch for my favorite team made me feel that way, too. And as someone who ran a somewhat popular Phillies-centric blog in that era, I can say with confidence that a lot of Phillies fans generally felt the same way about him. Watching him pitch was an absolute privilege.
Many athletes will tell you that it’s exceedingly difficult to earn adulation from Philly sports fans. Even quarterback Donovan McNabb, who led the Eagles into the playoffs in seven of his 11 seasons, received mixed reactions from fans at best. Jimmy Rollins, the greatest shortstop in the 127-year history of the Phillies, was a constant lightning rod for criticism. Halladay, though, was revered from day one and that never wavered.
Halladay authored one of the greatest performances of all time in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS against the Reds, tossing the second postseason no-hitter in baseball history. Don Larsen, who threw a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, was the only other pitcher to accomplish the feat. Halladay would only play four seasons with the Phillies before the end of his career, but that one season alone cemented him as an all-time Phillies great, even as the Phillies were ousted in the NLCS by the Giants.
Halladay didn’t endear himself to Phillies fans by pitching alone. He developed a special bond with catcher Carlos Ruiz (another fan favorite) such that Ruiz became his personal catcher. Their relationship was parodied by Halladay himself in a commercial for the MLB 2k11 video game.
The accounts of Halladay’s work ethic became the stuff of legends. In spring training, he would arrive to the ballpark before the sun came up. During the regular season, he’d relentlessly study hitters with charts and film. Halladay took it upon himself to take some of the younger pitchers, like Kyle Kendrick, under his wing. Others, like Charlie Morton, emulated him from afar.
There are no accounts of Halladay mistreating anyone, which in the age of social media is absolutely incredible. Members of the Philly media, a group that — generally speaking — was grumpy and jaded, thought the world of him. He answered questions directly and in detail, and never shied away from accepting blame for a poor performance. From the beginning of spring training through the end of the postseason, Halladay would happily sign autographs and take pictures with fans. And that remained the case even as his arm began to betray him, causing him to post a 4.49 ERA in 2012, then limiting him to 13 starts in 2013 due to a rotator cuff issue. He would retire in December.
Even in retirement, Halladay remained in contact with fans, tweeting often and making public appearances. He even went to the zoo with the creator of a Philly sports blog called “I Want to go to the Zoo with Roy Halladay.” Halladay coached kids’ baseball. And he took up flying planes as a hobby. It seemed like Halladay was always doing something that he wanted to do and he seemed very fulfilled by it.
Every city deserves to have a Roy Halladay: someone who combines elite athleticism with an unquenchable love of the game and an unreasonably terrific personality. For Toronto and Philadelphia fans, today’s news is a somber reminder of how fortunate we were to have been able to watch him pitch up close every five days. Our only regret is that he never got the championship he deserved.