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Roy Halladay: The Human in the Machine, and a Triumph Over Tragedy

The late Phillies and Blue Jays great goes into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

“This is where we wanted to be. It’s the bottom line for us.”

Roy Halladay introduced himself to the media as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies on December 16, 2009. Sitting beside former General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., with a freshly-donned display jersey and siren-red cap, Halladay’s voice gently cracked as he fought off the remnants of a cold. His kind words, effusive thanks to friends and family, and frequent smile stood in stark contrast to the ferocious on-field competitor Phillies fans had only come to know from afar, watching from across the league divide as Halladay won an A.L. Cy Young Award in 2003 and finished in the top five each of the four years prior to his arrival in Philadelphia.

This was a player many of us had heard of, but hadn’t necessarily seen so much of outside of Sportscenter; the Blue Jays hadn’t made a single playoff appearance since 1993, five years before Halladay debuted, and Toronto had been relegated to the (inter)national shadows cast by division-mates New York and Boston ever since. Even with interleague play in full swing, Halladay only ever made two relief appearances against the Phillies, with one in 1999 at Veterans Stadium, and the other in 2008 at Citizens Bank Park. He was more myth than material, as far as Phillies fans could be concerned.

But you didn’t need familiarity to understand what Halladay the pitcher was capable of. After working with the late Mel Queen in 2000 to come back from posting what was a then-record-high 10.64 ERA in 67.2 innings, Halladay was rebuilt, reborn. Staring down the ridiculous gauntlet of the A.L. East in the aughts, Halladay tossed 220 or more innings six different times in nine years, only allowed 20 or more homers twice, and struck out four times as many as he walked. He was an idyllic fixture, the poster child for consistency and performance in a time and place where pitching was as rigorous a challenge as it’d ever been.

You probably know the next part of the story pretty well by now: The Phillies acquired Halladay in December ‘09 from the Blue Jays for then-prospects Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, and Travis d’Arnaud, signed him to a three-year extension through 2013, and dealt 2009 midseason pickup Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners in a not-technically-but-pretty-much-corresponding move. The Phillies exchanged three prospects and uncertainty around Lee’s long-term signability for four years of Halladay, an upgrade in the margins made in a way and on a plane we’re probably unlikely to see again for a while.

“There are things, not only in business, but in life, that are worth it.”

Philly fans, reputably, have a long memory for some things. They’ll hold a grudge and harbor appropriate bitterness for anyone — friend or foe — who slights or wrongs them. There’s another side to that coin, though, where a player can forever engender loyalty by speaking to the hard-working, winning-above-all-else heart of these fans, whether through words, actions, or both.

Halladay instantly arrived as the total package. His recovery from the depths of that 2000 season by itself cemented his legacy as a hard worker, well before any pictures or videos of him running in the stands while getting early work in would ever start making the rounds; the Blue Jays’ inability to get over the hump into the playoffs was certainly no fault of his; and a public statement of desire to continue to play at the highest level in, for, and because of Philadelphia was a ribbon on the wrapping paper.

Doc left millions and millions of dollars unclaimed to re-up with the Phillies before becoming a free agent. The very next winter, after the 2010 season, Lee returned to the Phillies on a deal two years longer for the same average annual value — a slightly higher AAV if the still-huge $12.5M buyout on its final-year option is excluded — with only a fraction of the track record Halladay had. And that’s before even factoring in the Cy Young Award-winning would-be walk year to come for Doc.

Put it all together — the skill and the sentiment alike — and it becomes difficult to identify a player Philadelphians felt they could so quickly relate to whose name wasn’t Chase Utley. And that’s saying something.

“I think you try and disconnect yourself from the emotions a little bit.”

Halladay was the rare athlete whose stoicism made him more endearing. Unflappable even on his worst days, Halladay never felt alien, despite his frequently robotic presentation on the field. It was the little slices of humanity, like planting a kiss on the forehead of Stephenie LaGrossa at her wedding to former Phils pitcher Kyle Kendrick in 2010, that let us have some brief glimpses of the man behind the machine.

But there is one key flaw shared by both men and machines: Aging. Just as technology grows obsolete over time, worn thin by use or surpassed by more superior, advanced models, so, too, do athletes grow slower and weary. It’s inherent and unavoidable. But it still came as no less of a shock when Halladay’s abilities began to erode, his body falling victim to worsening back and shoulder issues that sapped his velocity and peerless command. He developed two pars fractures and an eroded spinal disc between two vertebrae in his back, which eventually led to the shoulder issues. As Halladay put it in 2013:

“Really it’s made it hard to pitch with the mechanics I want to pitch with. Over the last two seasons I had to change some things, do some things different to be able to throw the ball and unfortunately that’s led to some shoulder issues. The big thing has really been the back, and speaking with doctors, they feel like at this point if I can step away and take some of that high-level pressure off of it, it will really, hopefully, allow me to do some regular things and help out with the kids.”

And so Halladay, now a free agent, signed his final player contract — an honorary one-day deal with the Blue Jays — and retired with designs on one day returning to baseball as a coach. The man who was so successful at detaching emotion from his game knew full well he couldn’t stay separated from the game for too long.

“I would love to be there. I think every player who ever played the game would love to be there.”

Serving as a guest instructor for the Phillies in March 2017, Halladay admitted to the Philly Voice that the Hall of Fame was on his mind. Still roughly two years away from ballot eligibility that spring, Doc’s Hall case was shaping up to be a defining one: His career totals often fell on the short end of most Hall of Fame measuring sticks, but few could ever argue that he wasn’t a dominant force, one of the very best in the game for a 10-year period.

Consider the stretch from 2002-11, when Halladay...

  • Had the second-most innings pitched (2,194.2); only Mark Buehrle, who will be first-time Hall-eligible after 2020, had more (2,204)
  • Had the fourth-most strikeouts (1,699); Javier Vaszquez (1,880), C.C. Sabathia (1,846), and Johan Santana (1,785) lead him there
  • Had, by far, the most complete games (63, nearly doubling second-place C.C. Sabathia’s 33)
  • Had the most shutouts (18)
  • Had the most starts of 7-plus innings with 1 or 0 runs allowed (93)
  • Had the 7th-best ERA+ of anyone with 500 or more innings (147); the only starter ahead of him was Santana (150)

Basically everywhere you look near the top of pitching leaderboards for that decade’s worth of work, you’ll find Roy Halladay’s name. And even though Halladay never won a World Series and “only” finished with two Cy Young Awards, you’d be hard-pressed to find a baseball fan who could look at Halladay’s register and not find multiple examples of dominance. Even without the obscene K totals that guys like Santana, Randy Johnson, or Max Scherzer can muster, Doc exerted control over his starts and the hitters he faced. He goes into the Hall of Fame emblematic of the platonic ideal of a starting pitcher, one who often went deep, with exemplary efficiency and command.

“You have very small, short moments in life to be able to do something great, so you have to maximize it, you have to make the best of it — and he did.”

Halladay did not live to receive a congratulatory phone call from Jeff Idelson, nor see his Cooperstown plaque mounted on the dais beside him as he delivered his induction speech. That quote above, fitting though it would be for a speech like that, was delivered by Cole Hamels in November 2017, hours after news broke that Halladay had died after crashing a personal aircraft into the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Florida. In his system were lingering amounts of medication, most likely used in part to mitigate the pain of his broken back.

And so Halladay’s induction into the Hall of Fame has to be posthumous. He made less than one quarter of his career appearances as a member of the Phillies, and was only his true dominant self for two of the four seasons he was here. He’ll likely wear a Blue Jays cap on his plaque, and rightfully so, but that does nothing to diminish his impact on the Phillies franchise; from his arrival, to his perfect game, to his no-hitter, to his first N.L. Cy Young Award and, yes, even to his historic duel with Chris Carpenter in the NLDS.

Though he was taken far too soon, Roy Halladay is properly immortalized by being inducted into the Hall of Fame. He’ll forever be a Phillies legend whose impact transcends his stats, and that’s saying something.

Congratulations to the Halladay family — Brandy, Braden, and Ryan — on the honor we all wish Roy were still here to receive himself.