December 12, 2013

He's our huckleberry.

The date was October 7, 2011. It was Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series.

I was living in Bethesda, Maryland at the time, and some friends from Philadelphia had come down for the weekend. You'd think that we would be going nuts for this crucial matchup, but it was actually quite the opposite. We sat sipping beers, preparing for the night ahead, occasionally ignoring the pitchers' duel in front of us.

We'd grown complacent; in those days the Phillies seemed to be perpetually in the playoff hunt, including a delightful World Series championship in 2008. We couldn't have realized that this was the last important baseball game Roy Halladay would ever start.

He was 34 years old, not a spring chicken but nowhere near the age of typical depletion. He was coming off a 19-win, 233-inning, 220-strikeout season where he finished second in Cy Young voting and ninth in MVP voting. As studly as ever, Halladay seemed to be.

There was no reason to believe that his body would break down, that he'd throw only 218 more innings in his major league career, that the Phillies themselves were about to tumble from a half-decade of elite contention.

But here we are, in December of 2013, and Roy Halladay is officially out of baseball.

He retired on Monday as a Toronto Blue Jay, a fitting tribute to the team that helped him blossom into one of the game's finest pitchers. The Jays could never leap to the top of the AL East and get Doc into the postseason, but it was Toronto who gave the young Halladay a chance when a rocky start (10.64 ERA in 67 innings in 2000) would've doomed so many other arms.

Still, as Michael Baumann noted on Tuesday, Halladay made the most of his time in Philly. Despite only a few short years in the city, Doc found himself revered as one of the few universally beloved Philadelphia athletes.

Developing strong feelings for Roy Halladay was easy; we could tell from second one that he wasn't out for personal glory. He wasn't trying to round out his resume with one more bullet point; he wanted to win. You could sense that in every fiber of his being, with every pitch, in every photo snapped of his insane early-morning workouts. His icy stare could burn holes through a catcher or manager, but he seemed to love both Carlos Ruiz and Charlie Manuel. He was like a exacting father; he demanded the best, but earning that smile made it all worthwhile.

He came to Philadelphia because they were the hottest team in baseball: two straight World Series appearances, three straight playoff appearances, bona fide superstars in Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels. His arrival was the icing on the cake; add a Cy Young winner to a perennial contender and watch the magic happen.

Of course, it's not that easy, and he never got that ring. The Phillies ran into two future world champions in 2010 and 2011, then the wheels came off in spectacular fashion. In fact, I wonder what Roy might've done if the 2014 Phillies looked like title contenders. They aren't; they'll be lucky to sniff second place. But if the stars had aligned, would he give it one more try?

In the end, though, he didn't want to ply his trade for some mediocre team (in Philadelphia or otherwise), hoping that they'd catch lightning in a bottle. His body was falling apart: labrum, rotator cuff, back. We saw him labor on the mound throughout his ill-fated return in late 2013, sweating profusely and looking nothing like the Roy Halladay we'd come to love. The gradual decline turned into an all-out free fall faster than anyone could've anticipated; I know I wasn't the only Phillies fan who breathed a small sigh of relief when I found out that he'd hung them up.

Roy Halladay spent four seasons in Philly; only two of them ended up mattering. But in a way he validated the city as a premier baseball town; his time in a Phillies uniform confirmed our lingering suspicions that the team was (albeit briefly) among Major League Baseball's elite. For a while it was Boston or New York, Boston or New York, but for a fleeting moment, there was also Philadelphia.

Despite eight 1-run innings from their ace, the Phillies lost that night in October of 2011. Their anemic offense was mowed down by Chris Carpenter, another aging superstar who was also nearing the end of his dominance in St. Louis.

"Ho hum," we yawned. The bats were garbage; that's all it was. Roy and the boys would be back next year.

But they weren't. And now Roy is gone forever. While it's hard to feel bad for a man who's made $148 million and will probably make the Hall of Fame in a few years, I'm genuinely sad that he never won a World Series in Philadelphia. He doesn't need one, but athletes like Roy Halladay don't seem to come along very often. And it's a goddamn shame to leave them hanging when they do.

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