Roy Halladay reached the pinnacle of his profession on an 85-degree night in Miami in May 2010, when he dominated the Florida Marlins over two hours, 13 minutes for the 20th perfect game in MLB history. Three months later, he commemorated the occasion by giving 60 Philadelphia Phillies teammates, coaches, the training staff and other support personnel engraved Baume & Mercier watches in boxes with the inscription, “We did it together. Thanks, Roy Halladay.”
Many of the 60 recipients committed to wearing the watches in subsequent years, because Halladay was such an authentic sort and he wouldn’t have made such a heartfelt gesture for strictly ceremonial purposes. The perfect game was a team achievement, in his eyes, so it would have been disrespectful to just bring the keepsakes home and leave them in a box.
“I still wear my watch all the time,” said former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. “My brother David got me a Rolex one year and he said, ‘How come you don’t wear my watch?’ And I said, ‘I don’t wear your watch because Roy Halladay gave me this watch.'”
Baseball received a gut punch of indescribable magnitude Tuesday afternoon with the news that Halladay, 40, had died in a plane crash off the Florida coast. Circumstances are different in each case and the vigil is more excruciating while playing out on social media, but the announcement from the Pasco County Sheriff’s office left the same sad, helpless void that accompanied the passing of Thurman Munson, Darryl Kile, Steve Olin and Tim Crews, Jose Fernandez and so many other young ballplayers who have died before their time. Hauntingly, Halladay shared the same fate as his former Toronto and Philadelphia teammate, pitcher Cory Lidle, who died in a single-engine plane crash in New York City in 2006.
As the Halladay career retrospectives play out, baseball fans in Toronto can feel justified to call dibs on his legacy. Halladay was selected by Toronto as the 17th pick in the 1995 draft, won his first Cy Young Award as a Blue Jay, made six of his eight All-Star appearances in the city, and logged 148 of his 203 career wins as a member of the organization.
So why did so many of the initial reactions make reference to “former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay”? That’s a byproduct of the impact he had as a role model and centerpiece for a franchise that was baseball’s crown jewel from 2007 through 2011.
Halladay was 32 years old, with more than 2,000 innings worth of mileage on his right arm, when Amaro acquired him from Toronto in December 2009 for prospects Kyle Drabek, Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Taylor. Cole Hamels was a budding ace at the time, but Halladay arrived in spring training with a new-sheriff-in-town demeanor and set a tone that resonated through the Philadelphia clubhouse.
“As a teammate, you hear that he’s a hard worker. But holy smokes,” said former Phillies closer Brad Lidge. “I would get to the clubhouse early on certain days and feel like I was going to be the first guy there. And sure enough, I would pop into the training room and he would already be icing from his two-hour workout.
“I think people really feel good when somebody who works that hard gets rewarded. To see the success he had, it makes you feel like everything was right with the baseball world. A guy works that hard, cares that much, puts that much effort out there and does well. That feels right, to me, and I think it resonates with a lot of people.”
Lidge, a product of Cherry Creek, Colorado, grew up playing youth ball against Halladay, from nearby Arvada, and he could empathize with the expectations Halladay lugged around as a baseball prodigy. It wasn’t always easy being Roy Halladay, the hot-shot talent with the electric arm and that classic, rangy, pitcher’s build. Halladay endured his share of arm injuries and demotions and ultimately had to learn his craft and reinvent himself to put up a resume worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.
The early lessons stuck with him. There were times, even when Halladay was entrenched as one of the elite pitchers in the game, that he seemed burdened by self-imposed expectations.
“He was the single most accountable, conscientious, hardworking, dedicated player I’ve ever been around,” Amaro said. “He was the most competitive on the mound, and yet the kindest and gentlest person off the mound that you could imagine. That kind of person is so rare.
“I remember him sending me text messages at times. He would come out of a game with a no-decision, and he would text me and say, ‘I’m sorry I let you down.’ He was pitching with a blown-out groin in San Francisco [in the 2010 NLCS] and he gave up a couple of home runs, and he texted me and said, ‘I’m so sorry I let you down, Ruben.’ I thought to myself, ‘Don’t you realize who you are and what you’ve done and how grateful I am? I should be apologizing to you for us not rallying around you.'”
From one day to the next, in the quiet of the Philadelphia clubhouse, Halladay always seemed to be in motion. If he wasn’t immersed in video, he was sweating from a workout or ironing out the kinks in a bullpen side session. He was the pitching equivalent to second baseman Chase Utley, whose preparation was so obsessive, he never seemed to have time to stop and enjoy the perks of the surroundings.
“He had Kevin Brown stuff and Greg Maddux focus,” former Phillies reliever Chad Durbin said of Halladay. “When he would walk by you — after a 6 a.m. workout in spring training when stretching wasn’t until 10 — you’d think, ‘That’s what you would draw up a pitcher to look like: 6-foot-6, wide shouldered, with tree trunks for legs.’ Then you’d see him on the team plane with two laptops and a tablet open in front of him, watching all the at-bats of the guys he was going to face and taking extensive notes.”
Halladay’s devotion to routine made Philadelphia’s pitching coach, Rich Dubee, wonder about the best way for opposing lineups to attack him.
“I always felt the best way to beat Roy Halladay was to send up nine hitters he had never seen,” Dubee said. “That might have thrown him off a little bit. That was about the only time you saw him a little bit uncomfortable on the mound.”
Halladay was quiet, on the introverted side, and he had some geek in him. He liked to play with remote control planes in the clubhouse and tinker with classic cars. His teammates recall how he learned to fly airplanes with the same passion and eye for detail that he invested in his pitching.
In his final season with the Phillies, Halladay pitched through injuries that might have prompted other multimillionaire ballplayers to put away their spikes and go home. He retired in 2013 as a Blue Jay after signing a one-day contract with Toronto. But Amaro would invite him back to talk to the young pitchers at Phillies spring training, and Halladay liked to pass out copies of Harvey Dorfman’s book “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching” — his professional bible — and share the accrued wisdom from all his successes and failures in the game. As the kids sat and watched, wide-eyed, his reputation preceded him.
The sadness that Halladay’s playing peers feel today reflects a wistful familiarity. They were brothers who played and lived alongside him from February through September, saw him on his worst days and his best, and found his commitment to the game and his authenticity uplifting.
“He was the ultimate professional and the ultimate teammate,” Dubee said. “And he was just becoming the ultimate dad, I think. Now he’s gone — way, way too soon.”