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The Excellence of Roy Halladay

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Philadelphia Phillies v San Francisco Giants, Game 5 Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I’ve never been much into jerseys or shirseys. Not to judge anyone else, but for me there seemed to be a very large gulf between enjoying a person’s performance for my favorite team and having so much personal esteem for them that I’d choose to wear their name on my back.

I own a Roy Halladay Phillies shirsey. I bought it during spring training in 2012, by when, although we didn’t know it yet, Doc’s best days, and the team’s, had come and gone. My decision to buy it was not a close call.

Halladay represented a standard of excellence and commitment to which anyone can, and everyone should, aspire. You might not equal his talent; few could. But it’s his determination to be his best self that I keep thinking about, and so profoundly admire.

On a seeming path to stardom from the day he was drafted out of high school through his first couple years in the majors, in 2000 Halladay suffered one of the worst seasons any pitcher has ever had. He ended it with a 10.64 ERA, the highest ever in more than 50 innings pitched, and was demoted all the way back to A ball. He built himself back, and ultimately became a legend, by reworking not just his mechanics, but his mental approach to the game.

How many ballplayers—hell, how many young men who had known nothing but success in their lives to that point, in any field of activity—would have had the courage to do that? And then to talk about it, as Halladay did with countless young pitchers who came after him? I suspect it was this experience, facing failure and overcoming it, that made him such a great teammate, and the knowledge of it that made all those teammates, from Cole Hamels to Kyle Kendrick, so eager to learn from him.

As far as his place in Phillies history, and in the hearts and minds of the fans, it would be difficult to overstate how good it felt that he wanted to be a Phillie as much as we wanted him on the team. After the December 2009 trade that brought him to town, he signed a three-year, $60 million contract extension that was probably about half what he could have gotten on the open market as a free agent a year later… maybe less than half, considering the 2010 season he had. Acquiring him, followed by the Cliff Lee signing 364 days later, made Philadelphia the center of the baseball universe.

Our enduring memories will be of the work: the perfect game in Florida, the playoff no-no against the Reds, start after start in 2010 and 2011 when you almost felt bad for the other side. But I find myself thinking about a different playoff game, in a series the Phils ultimately lost. Game Five against the Giants in the 2010 NLCS: the Phillies facing elimination, on the road, holding a slim lead.

From the first inning, when he walked the leadoff hitter and saw him come around to score, it was clear this wasn’t the Halladay we were used to seeing. His velocity was significantly down—mid 80s, rather than low 90s—and the command was, for once, something less than supreme. He’d already thrown 66 pitches through four, and was dented in that inning on back to back doubles from Pat Burrell and Cody Ross that had cut the Phillies’ lead to 3-2. In the fifth, he retired the first two hitters and seemed to be out of the inning, but a Ryan Howard error kept the frame going. The next hitter singled, but Halladay escaped on an Aubrey Huff dribbler handled by Carlos Ruiz.

The Phillies were set down in order in the top of the sixth, sending Doc right back to the mound. Buster Posey worked a seven pitch walk to lead off. Burrell popped out, and Halladay battled Ross, who’d homered twice off him in the series opener, through an eight-pitch at-bat that ended in a swinging strikeout. After a single pushed Posey into scoring position, Halladay ran another deep count on Juan Uribe—and got him swinging, to end his night on 108 pitches through six.

The Phillies held on to win the game. Later, it came out that Halladay had worked through a lower body injury that rendered him almost unable to push off his right leg. For one night, the ace who had built everything around his fastball movement had become a change-up artist. He’d found a way.

Halladay wasn’t always able to win on sheer willpower. About a year later, his individual greatness wasn’t enough to carry the Phils on the last night of their mini-dynasty, the 1-0 loss in Game Five of the 2011 NLDS. For most of his final two seasons, as his body gave out, he looked downright mortal. But even at the end, he did it right: no delusions, no spotlight-hogging, just a graceful bow-out and a smooth transition to what by all indications was a blissful life with his family and his hobbies.

The man who went deep into so many games was lifted from this world far, far too soon: Roy Halladay should have enjoyed about fifty more years of that happiness. But in the time he had, he set an example for us all. It’s one I want to live up to, and will remember every time I put his name on my back.