i wrote this essay on roy halladay for the first issue of THE CLASSICAL's magazine. you had to buy that issue to read it, but i'm hoping they'll be cool w/ me posting it here today. roy halladay was extraordinarily good at throwing baseballs in specific locations. he seemed, by all accounts, to be an excellent human being, too. i will miss him a lot.
DOC IN AUTUMN
There are some things you may not know about Roy Halladay. They happened while he was a Toronto Blue Jay, a team that gets all the mainstream coverage of a pro lacrosse franchise. None of these things about Roy are as prototypically significant as his post-season no-hitter or his perfect game. Those kinds of events unfold already in sepia tones, their narrative heft pre-measured. They are about triumph and results. Baseball, though, is a game of failure and process. Its best practitioners blow it more often that not, so you learn as much about them from their failures as their successes. The pith is often in the prosaic. Roy’s failures are even more essential to his character than most other players’. For all of his next-level dominance over the past decade, few have failed as beautifully as he has.
Here is one of those things you may not know: in 2008, Doc pitched four consecutive complete games and lost three of them. A squalid Blue Jays’ offense combined to score just four runs over the three contests. Doc would throw nine complete games that season, meaning that he took losses in a full third of games he started and finished . This sort of personal excellence tempered by wincing futility was emblematic of Roy’s eleven-year Blue Jays career. It’s a crucial part of what makes Doc the player he is, and a major reason he’s such a compelling figure. I liken him to Sisyphus, one of literature’s great failers.
The Greek Classical figure Sisyphus, a king who scorned the gods, was doomed to forever push a boulder up a mountain. When he reached the top, the boulder would inevitably roll back to the bottom, and Sisyphus would descend and begin again. The eternal repetition of this gruesomely difficult, totally pointless act was his punishment. Sisyphus is the central, symbolic figure of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, a treatise on the Absurd. For Camus, the Absurd is about coming to grips with the essential meaninglessness of human existence.
It would take a pretty poor reading of either mythology or Camus to conclude that Sisyphus’ plight maps neatly onto Doc’s career. Roy Halladay is not Sisyphus, not exactly. He is not a scornful man, and he has not been punished. He may have stolen the gods’ secrets (exhibit A: god-mode curveball arriving at 74-mph on the heels of a 93-mph cutter with late action), but receiving vast sums of American currency in exchange for ball-throwing, however precise, is not a punishment. Doc is like Sisyphus in how he has responded to failure and futility throughout his career.
Drafted seventeenth overall in 1995, Doc made his big league debut in September of 1998. In his second career major league start he came one out away from a no-hitter before surrendering a solo jack to Bobby Higginson. He’d stick with the Jays for the entire ‘99 season, working as both a starter and reliever and flashing tremendous potential. On May 20, he threw his first career shutout, striking out six and walking none. Then everything went sideways. In 2000, rather than building on his early success, Doc put together one of the worst-pitched seasons in the history of modern baseball. He finished the year with a 10.64 ERA, the worst ever recorded by a pitcher who threw at least 60 innings in a season. This was not a developmental hiccup so much as a collapsed lung. Doc, like so many blue-chip prospects, was dealing with failure for the first time, and lacked the mental fortitude to process it. His confidence was so shaken that the Blue Jays’ ownership was concerned he’d never recover. He was busted all the way back down to Single-A Dunedin, then sent to Knoxville where his mechanics were dismantled and reassembled under the cruel tutelage of pitching guru Mel Queen. The story of his rehabilitation reads like a training montage from a Shaw Bros. flick - Tom Verducci’s full account is required reading. Doc would return midway through the 2001 season a completely different pitcher, his straw-straight fastball replaced by sharp sinker and feral cutter. His pitches were all vivified with late movement, and his command had become clinical.
As per the Verducci joint, Halladay’s mental toughness was credited as the key to his rebirth. If you’re a first-round pick in any major sport, it’s unlikely that you’re used to being anything but the best at that game. To go from a constant supremacy, to immediate success at the highest level, to all-time, high-grade failure, to an embarrassing demotion is some hell of an emotional roller coaster. Many would never have been able to recover, much less respond with a decade-plus of sustained dominance.
Now is a good time to mention another thing you may not know about Doc – he likes to build remote control helicopters from scratch. Outside family and baseball, this is what he does. When asked about the choppers, he explained, “I enjoy putting things together.” Whether the hobby informs his approach to pitching or vice-versa, it makes a ton of sense. When Doc is really on, he seems to assemble a game as much he pitches one. He has an end state in mind (nine innings of shutout ball) and creates it piece-by-piece as efficiently as possible (inducing weak contact to be converted into ground-outs). By 2003, Doc had fully bloomed, putting up video game numbers on his way to his first Cy Young Award. He threw 266 innings, striking out 253 batters while walking only 32. The Jays finished 15 games out of first place.
The years between Doc’s emergence and departure were weird ones for Jays fans. The teams were often decent, but never had a prayer of October. Doc was, at times, the only good thing about watching the Blue Jays. He was so good you felt you didn’t deserve him, like you wanted to tuck him into a wicker basket and leave him in front of Yankee Stadium. It hurt to watch Doc spin gem after gem, knowing that no matter how well he pitched, he couldn’t will the team to the post-season on his own. The Blue Jays of the last decade, trapped in the AL East and burdened by bad contracts, were never able to be the team Doc deserved. By the beginning of the 2009 season, it had become clear to the Blue Jays’ fans that he would not be back in 2010. Doc wanted to win, and you would’ve been hard-pressed to find a Jays fan that didn’t want that for him, too. He had been more than loyal to the franchise over the past eleven seasons, performing at a consistently higher level than any other pitcher in the game for a largely indifferent city. Every five days, Doc pushed the boulder up the mountain, and every September, it rolled back down. Through it all, Doc never complained or publicly criticized ownership like so many dissatisfied superstars. He just kept doing his job.
Doc closed out the 2009 season in typical fashion with a complete game shut out at Fenway. Then, on December 15, he was flipped to Philadelphia for a trio of top-shelf prospects. He would immediately sign a three-year, $60 million extension to stay in Philly, avoiding free agency and leaving tens of millions in potential earnings on the table. For Roy Halladay does not, relatively speaking, care about money. He cares about winning, and he was finally poised to do exactly that. Here was the best pitcher in baseball joining its best team. His presence made the favorites even more favorable, and early results confirmed suspicions. Doc was spectacular from jump, allowing only three runs in his first four outings on his way to four wins, two complete games, and one shut out. On May 29th, he’d throw a perfect game against the Marlins, and it was as though the baseball deities were smiling and winking at us, telling us that this would be his year. He’d cruise through the rest of the season like it was a formality, leading the Phillies to a league-best 97-65 record. The Phils drew the Reds in the Divisional series, and Doc would spin a no-hitter in his first post-season start. Ultimate victory felt undeniable – there was no way that Doc wasn’t getting his ring. But, of course, he didn’t. The Phillies were bumped by the soon-to-be-World-Champion Giants in the Championship series. Halladay would earn his second Cy Young, but it was cold comfort.
2011 was a similar story. Again, the Phillies entered the season World Series favorites. Again, they did not disappoint, winning 102 games. And again, they came up short, losing once more to the eventual World Series winner. This time, it was the upstart Cardinals, who had overcome a huge late-August deficit to clinch the Wild Card on the last day of the season. In the deciding game, Doc faced off against Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter. Doc was masterful, allowing one run in the first inning before shutting down the Cards over the next seven. Carp was better, though, throwing a three-hit, no-walk shut out and sending the Phillies home empty-handed for the second year in a row. What more could Doc have done? You can’t reasonably expect much more from a pitcher than eight innings of one-run ball, but for a guy like Halladay, a loss is a loss. He watched his boulder carom down the mountain, sighed, and slumped back down to retrieve it.
For both Doc and the Phillies, the 2012 season was an unmitigated disaster. Doc started strong but faded quickly, looking uncommonly flat and hittable by mid-May. Since his emergence in 2003, Doc pitching like a mortal usually meant he was pitching hurt, which was exactly the case last year. Hampered by a strained lat, he spent nearly two months on the DL on his way to his weakest campaign since 2000. Plagued by injuries, the Phils would miss the playoffs by a mile, finishing 81-81.
Going into 2013, the Phillies are, frankly, a mess. Smart Baseball People have been saying this in smart baseball ways for some time. In brief: their core players peaked years ago, and their window, if not already shut, is closing rapidly. Ryan Howard is injury-prone, unable as ever to hit left-handed pitching, and untradeable due to the $105 million he’s owed over the next four seasons. Jimmy Rollins enjoyed a resurgence in 2012, but time is not on his side. Chase Utley’s lower body is made of pipe cleaners and broken glass, Cliff Lee is coming off his worst year since he broke out with Cleveland in 2008, the outfield is a series of question marks, and the farm system is barren. Barring major bounce-backs from all of the above, emergent performances from their youngsters, and more than a bit of luck, the Phillies are not going to be able to hang with the ascendant Nationals and Braves, two teams that figure to be among the best in baseball for several years. A playoff berth in 2013 is unlikely, and it’s not getting any easier in 2014.
So, what does it mean for Doc? He’ll become a free agent after this season, unless he manages to trigger a vesting option in his contract by throwing 256 innings – unlikely, given that the last and only time he’s topped that mark was a full decade ago. It’s entirely possible he’ll re-up in Philly and finish his career there – he’s said on more than one occasion that he’d like to retire a wearing the uniform. If a rebuild is in the cards, though, Doc is the Phillies most valuable trade chip, and would fetch a tidy sum on the deadline trade market. You wonder whether he would lift his no-trade clause to be shipped out to another contender.
No matter what happens at this point, it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Doc will get his ring. He was supremely awful in his first two starts of the season. His command was nowhere to be found, and he gave up dingers in bunches. The cutter was not cutting. In his past three outings, though, he’s begun to right the ship. His average fastball velocity is up a tick and he’s shown improved command of his other pitches, leaning heavily on his sinker and well-placed curveballs. He hasn’t exactly made it look easy, but the results are promising. We may be witnessing the emergence of as-yet-unknown form of Doc who is effective sitting in the high-80s. Even so, his chances of winning a title are still only as good as the team he’s playing for.
Doc’s final home start as a Blue Jay was on September 25, 2009. He shut out the Mariners in just over two hours, striking out 7 and throwing 71 percent of his pitches for strikes. He didn’t even come close to surrendering a walk, not once pitching into a three-ball count. I went to this game alone, and sat beside an elderly Japanese couple there to see Ichiro. They watched attentively when Ichiro was at the plate and cheered loudly when cheering was appropriate. The bulk of our section drank lot of expensive beer or verboten purse liquor, called each other homos, did the wave, and left early. Officially, 20,668 people were at the game, but by the bottom of the ninth the Skydome felt mostly empty. The game ended with a Kenji Johjima groundout, and Doc stalked off the field with a curt tip of his cap. The next night, 29,783 people would show up to a game started by David Purcey.
This, for better or for worse, is how I’ll remember Halladay. Here he was again: building helicopters in the basement. That is to say, excelling at an extremely difficult task in relative obscurity, with zero chance of achieving his real goal. He is, in this sense, a perfect Absurd hero. No one in baseball deserves a title more than Roy Halladay. No one has been as good for as long. He has said and done all the right things, overcome major adversity, and been an exemplary teammate and a philanthropist. But deserve don’t mean shit, and in baseball, as in life, there is no greater meaning. The task is its own reward, the freedom to perform it a great gift. Even if Doc never makes another post-season appearance, you can be sure he will continue throwing baseballs professionally until he’s physically incapable of doing so. Putting games together, pitch-by-pitch, is what he loves to do. And you have to think that, World Series title or no, Doc will know when its time to close the book on his career he’ll do so without regrets. It is like Camus says of Sisyphus: “[t]he struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” One must imagine Doc happy. It’s too huge a bummer to imagine him otherwise.