Roy Halladay was a total game-changer in just four years with the Phillies

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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.

Baseball in Arizona as early as May is pure madness

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UPDATE: Major League Baseball has released the following statement in the wake of Jeff Passan’s ESPN report overnight, discussed in more detail below:

MLB has been actively considering numerous contingency plans that would allow play to commence once the public health situation has improved to the point that it is safe to do so.  While we have discussed the idea of staging games at one location as one potential option, we have not settled on that option or developed a detailed plan.  While we continue to interact regularly with governmental and public health officials, we have not sought or received approval of any plan from federal, state and local officials, or the Players Association.  The health and safety of our employees, players, fans and the public at large are paramount, and we are not ready at this time to endorse any particular format for staging games in light of the rapidly changing public health situation caused by the coronavirus.

9:04 AM: Overnight Jeff Passan on ESPN followed up on the Associated Press’ report of preliminary talks between Major League Baseball and the MLBPA about the potential resumption of the baseball season. The plan, which is nothing short of radical — and nothing short of highly-fraught — would potentially have baseball resume as early as next month. June at the latest.

The talks are highly preliminary at the moment, but Passan describes the following topics that are at least on the table:

  • All 30 teams would play games at stadiums with no fans in the Phoenix area, including at the Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and various spring training facilities;
  • “Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium;”
  • Teams would carry significantly expanded rosters to (a) allow for players who get sick or who test positive for COVID-19 to be easily replaced; and (b) to allow for ample rest give that games would be played in the triple-digit heat of the Arizona desert;
  • There would be an electronic strike zone to allow the umpires to keep their distance;
  • There would be no mound visits;
  • There would be seven-inning doubleheaders to allow them to schedule as many games as possible;
  • On-field microphones would be used by players, “as an added bonus for TV viewers;”
  • Players and team personnel would sit in the empty stands 6 feet apart instead of in a dugout to ensure proper social distancing.

There’s a lot to chew on there, but I want to hold off a moment on that chewing. I want to resist the urge to do what we usually do when some radical new idea about sports comes up such as a rules change, the implementation of a new technology, divisional realignment or playoff expansion, or something to that effect. I’ll get to that stuff in a moment, but for now I want to take several steps back and leave the specifics of those things aside and ask a question:

What in the hell are we doing here?

Don’t get me wrong: I miss baseball. Everyone misses baseball. Setting aside the financial incentives at play for the moment, MLB exists to put on baseball games and they want baseball games. Players live to play baseball and they want to play. If we could snap our fingers and make that happen, God, it would be wonderful. If we could play baseball or any other pro sport right now, it would definitely be a pick-me-up for a large part of the nation.

This plan, however, is patently absurd. Less in form than in its very conception and existence.

How, in light of all that is going on at the moment, is this at all justifiable?  How is the level of necessary logistical support to pull this off — the transportation, the isolation, and the prioritization of a few thousand baseball people for testing and attendant medical care if someone gets sick — close to rational?

Just yesterday a member of New York’s city council announced that they will be burying the city’s many dead in temporary mass graves in public parks, ten to a row, and that prison inmates will be offered $6/hour to dig the graves. The governor of Illinois said last night that states are bidding against one another to try to obtain desperately needed medical supplies to treat the national surge in the sick and the dying. Is that what everyone is going through right now? No, of course not. Most of us are bored at home. But that — the tens of thousands of dead and counting and the overarching fear and anxiety which is affecting the populace — provides the national backdrop against which these negotiations are occurring. To call it “incongruous” to be talking about a far-sooner-than-expected return of baseball is a monumental understatement.

Yes, sports have, traditionally, served as a rallying point for the nation. But this is not a war. This is not a natural disaster. This is not a situation where our defiant assertion of normality will help pull us through. We do not need a Winston Churchill figure and, in fact, attempting to be a Churchill figure, we have unfortunately learned, is precisely the opposite of sensible. This is not a situation where keeping calm, carrying on, and acting resolute in the face of peril will help us prevail. A viral pandemic is not impressed with our composure, our resolve or our symbolic gestures such as playing baseball in the face of what can only be described as horror. The only thing we can do in the face of this horror is to take sensible precautions. To collectively sacrifice. To collectively appreciate the risks, stay at home, ride it out, and provide every possible bit of support available to the sick, to those who treat the sick, and to the millions of people displaced, economically and psychologically, by the crisis.

There nothing sensible about this nascent plan currently being floated by Major League Baseball, however. And make no mistake: it is being floated. With a purpose.

This report comes two days after President Trump held a conference call with Rob Manfred and all of the other major sports league commissioners in which he expressed his desire for sports to return as soon as possible. It is in his and his administration’s political interests for that to happen. As it would be, to be fair, in the interests of any president. There was a reason FDR pressed baseball to play on as usual during World War II. My political leanings are pretty plain to those who have read this website for any length of time, but I do not begrudge Trump this impulse, in and of itself. As a leader there are very good reasons for him to want the public to be happy and entertained and, as I said, we would all love to be happy and entertained at the moment.

President Trump, however, has been demonstrably shown to have made countless missteps in his handling of the pandemic thus far. Missteps that, in at least one case, appears to be born by personal financial interest. I simply do not trust his judgment in pressing professional sports back into service and I do not trust Rob Manfred to sensibly push back against political pressure urging him to take what would, clearly, be irresponsible steps in order to make baseball happen the way it is being described in Passan’s column.

And it is irresponsible. Let’s just play this out for 30 seconds:

  • Passan describes a scenario in which players would be isolated for more than four months. Are they supposed to not see their families during all that time? How are they supposed to function under that scenario? Even worse, what if their family members get sick? What if one of their parents die? Is their season over or do they stay in Arizona?
  • No quarantine can be perfect, so there’s a non-trivial chance that despite these efforts someone gets sick. Passan mentioned that they would be removed from their teams and put into isolation. That may be fine for a physically fit 24 year-old, but many managers, coaches, trainers and clubhouse attendants are older and, as such, at far greater risk of complications if they get sick. Some players are too. Adam Duvall is Type 1 diabetic. Kenley Jansen just had heart surgery. Carlos Carrasco and Trey Mancini are cancer patients. What about them?
  • If players are quarantined in hotels or resorts, there are hundreds if not thousands of people cooking for them, cleaning for them, doing the laundry and stuff like that. They all have to be isolated too, no? Just as a virus propagates itself exponentially, so to does the support necessary to put on Major League Baseball games, even in these radically different circumstances.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are many other things that infectious disease experts and people who are more involved in the details of putting on games under these circumstances could imagine. Yes, I understand that the idea behind flattening the curve and slowing the spread is not to prevent every single person from becoming infected. That’s impossible. But at the same time, Major League Baseball should not be creating conditions under which a highly infectious disease has an entryway into a in environment where 26 guys and a staff x 30 teams all share close quarters as a rule.

That’s especially true when we look at the benefits of all of this. Benefits which, as Passan freely notes in his article, are primary financial. Or, as noted above, may have some broadly inspirational or symbolic significance. And that’s before you start to assess the actual quality and integrity of the baseball which would be played under these extreme circumstances.

Could they figure this all out? Maybe. Will they do it? I don’t know. It might actually happen. Nothing would surprise me at this point. But even attempting it seems profoundly incongruous to what’s happening in the real world. And profoundly misguided.

And one more thing.

To the extent this misguided plan gains traction, it will be because a lot of us — particularly people in my industry, but fans as well — approach this idea solely through the prism of sports. It will be because, when presented with the idea of a 2020 baseball season in the Arizona Bubble League, we spend more time debating electronic umpiring and whether East Coast Bias is the reason the Yankees and Red Sox get more games in air-conditioned Chase Field and that Oakland A’s have to play more games in 105 degree heat at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa. It will because we thought of all of this as great fun or a cool intellectual and competitive exercise and judged it, as we judge so much else in sports, only on those terms.

We need to think bigger than that. We need to think smarter than that. We need to set aside our laser-focus on sports as the be-all and end-all, set aside our strong and understandable desire to have sports return as soon as possible and treat the current situation with the gravity it deserves.

And this plan ain’t it, jack.