I’m currently living a dream. I’m traveling the Appalachian Trail, writing a travel book based on a route parallel to the trail. I drop into towns and cities and chat with locals, collect restaurant menus, take tons of photographs and attempt to find the character of whatever location I may be visiting.
It’s the lifestyle I was born for, the one that allows me to retreat into another place, even for a few hours. I’m racing all the time, completely out of touch with reality, until the sun sets and I have to check into the hotel at whatever community I’m visiting at the time.
Today I was in Hagerstown, Maryland, collecting information about the city from the local tourism bureau. On the tourism official’s recommendation I drove out to City Park, then stopped the car and grabbed my phone. I saw a new email from the Phillies. The subject line read: “Phillies release statement on Roy Halladay.”
“Holy crap!” I yelled. Fans had been wishing that manager Gabe Kapler would choose Halladay as the new pitching coach, but I couldn’t believe he actually went with him, let alone even considering Doc as a candidate.
The email loaded. It took a moment. Then I saw the photo choice. Then I saw the words.
My heart fell.
I was there on April 5, 2010. We arranged a bus trip, but my brother and one of his best friends arranged their own drive to Nationals Park for opening day. We stayed at a random friend’s apartment the night before, all taking to couches and drunk off the news that the Redskins had brought in Donovan McNabb as quarterback. That was the appetizer for Monday’s entrée: Roy Halladay carving up the Nationals in his Philadelphia Phillies debut.
Halladay was the moment. The trade that brought him to Philadelphia – forgetting the Cliff Lee sacrifice for a second – signaled the moment that the Phillies were the most important team in major league baseball. The Phils brought in baseball’s best pitcher at his absolute peak, handing him the opening day ball at a crucial moment in franchise history. The Phils were in the midst of their greatest run, and Halladay’s arrival meant the run had to continue, come hell or high water. We were in it for good.
That day remains one of the coolest baseball memories of my life. Halladay opened by slicing up the Nationals, and slowly he slid into the background as the offense battered the Nationals in front of a primarily Philadelphia crowd. As we booed the Nats and turned their park into a playground, Halladay dazzled, finishing a stout seven innings with Placido Polanco’s grand slam providing the cake icing. It set the tone for the season; we wouldn’t have to worry when Doc took the hill.
The starts blend together. He’d go seven, maybe eight or nine, and the Phils would win by at least three. During Memorial Day weekend he showed up on a mount in South Florida, and I showed up at the Princeton in Avalon. While most everyone there watched the Flyers play Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, I fixed myself on the TV showing the Phillies game. I called my dad after two innings.
“Hey Dad, you should keep in touch with the Phils game,” I said. “Doc looks unhittable.”
He was perfect. The bar turned their attention to Halladay as the final out approached, but I was there the whole time, sensing and knowing greatness as it was happening.
That was Roy Halladay. He was great like the sun rises. We called him robotic, because he literally worked hitters like he was mechanically destroying them. A fastball in the right place. A breaking ball to put them off the case. A final two-seamer to end their chance. Maybe a well-placed changeup. Hell, a curveball if he was feeling feisty. During those high times he was never bad. He did his work and walked away methodically. The offense would score the runs. The game would end.
We were blessed to have 2010 and 2011. We had him in 2012, when he was a shade under league-average, then in 2013, when he fell apart unfairly. It didn’t matter if we had him or not. Halladay was the best in his profession at the top of his game. His career shouldn’t have ended so quickly. He should’ve mastered hitters for another four to five years, coasting into the hall of fame without any worries.
Now he’ll get there. He’ll get there for sure.
Still, he took in stride his unfair fate. He cherished time with family, coaching his son’s baseball team, and made it a point to try new things. He went to the Zoo with Zoo With Roy in one of the most beautiful, victorious moments in the history of social media. Honestly, think about what kind of successful, lucrative person actually takes a guy up on the mission statement of his scratch-made blog. Roy
Halladay was a king. For a few years, he was our king.
Beyond that, though, Halladay was the best pitcher of his era. He was and is a hall of famer. He was perfect once, and then, in his first postseason start, tossed a no-hitter. He pulled off the impossible, and he barely had any trouble doing it. He brought a city to its knees in a time of absurd wealth, then he lifted the millions to unknown heights simply because he was that good. Before Halladay there was Steve Carlton, and before him there was Pete Alexander. Few men were as superb at their profession, among all men, as Roy Halladay.
And he was ours. For a few years, he was ours.
I walked the trails of Frederick’s City Park in a daze. “It’s not real,” I told myself. I called my dad, much in the way I called him during Halladay’s perfect game. He was taken aback just as much. We talked about his kids. We’re not the victims here. We’re not ultimately that impacted by this loss. His kids won’t have a father. His son won’t have a coach. His wife won’t have a husband. That’s the real loss.
Still. It’s lonely on the road. I searched for any Phillies fan to talk to, just to process the news that Roy Halladay, our great ace, our brightest light in our greatest days, had actually died today. I took to Twitter, wrote some hastily formed messages. All I want is confirmation that I’m allowed to feel this shock, and that the shock can transform into a sadness that washes over me and brings new depth to me.
Yet I’m just a fan. I’ve never met Roy Halladay. So many more have met him and have been touched by him, even in a small way. My buddy relayed to me a story of Halladay giving his spring training suite to a kid suffering a life-threatening disease. That’s what matters. And that’s what Roy Halladay was here for. He was supposed to be here longer, if only to touch just a few more lives.
He touched my life in the way that faraway heroes touch our lives. He represented the best of people, and best yet, he was one of us. He wore our uniform. He won games for our team. The team I spent years rooting for despite mounting losses, bad talent and dingy facilities. And he represented us with class, dignity and unwavering kindness.
Losing Roy Halladay is losing who we want to be.
Just now I looked up at the television and ESPN ran the story once more. Quotes from Charlie Manuel and Chase Utley ran across the screen. I began crying. It seems absurd to cry over the loss of a pitcher, a guy I’ve never met, and yet, I’m going to cry tonight.