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November 08, 2017

For nearly 20 years, from baseball fan to beat writer, Roy Halladay was a personal favorite

Have you ever read something only to suddenly find you weren’t able to comprehend it?

Sure, the words you know. There is nothing misspelled or grammatically incorrect.

But when they all go together to form a headline over a story and you still can’t make sense of it. Ever have that happen?

Former MLB Pitcher Roy Halladay Dies in Plane Crash.

Maybe it’s a part of your brain that’s working in self-defense of the heart. You can’t comprehend it because you don’t want to be able to comprehend it, so it can’t be real.

But it is, and it’s unfathomable, and it’s heartbreaking, and not just for all of his former teammates, coaches, and everyone else he touched in the game of baseball, but especially for Roy Halladay’s family: his parents; his wife, Brandy, who grew up in the same Colorado town and whom he married 19 years ago this month; and his two sons, Braden and Ryan.

Halladay never committed to a full-time return to baseball – the Phillies would have loved to hire him in such a position to mentor prospects and players on the mental side of the game – because he was committed to his family, to coaching his boys’ baseball teams.

“A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

It may not rank as one of the top five most quotable lines from The Godfather, but Vito Corleone was spot on. And Roy Halladay was a real man. And he was a baseball icon in Toronto, a respected role model and quick fan favorite in Philly, and, soon enough, a legend forever enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown.

He was also an idol of many. Including the writer penning this story.

Before going any further, let’s knock down the conventional journalism walls, in part because I’m not 100 percent sure how much longer I’ll be doing this sports writing thing and, well, because this is a situation that calls for such convention to be thrown aside.

When it comes down to it we’re all human with emotions that can’t always be easily shoved aside. The objective, news stories have already been written anyway (and already written by this writer) so it’s time for my Roy Halladay story.

Just as I like to brag to Philadelphia sports fans that I knew Brian Dawkins before any of them did (we went to the same college, I saw him collect three interceptions in the first quarter of his final home game at Clemson), I also used to like to tell people around here that I’d been following Halladay’s career long before he stepped foot inside Citizens Bank Park eight years ago.

Long before I was a baseball writer I was a baseball fan. A Roy Halladay fan.

Maybe it was in part because, just as with Andruw Jones, who homered as a teenager in the 1996 World Series when I was in my second year of college, Halladay was my age, born in '77, graduated from high school in '95.

And at some point in 1998 or ’99, before a bunch of my grad school classmates decided to start a fantasy baseball league (that still exists), I can remember watching ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and hearing a baseball analyst I idolized, Peter Gammons, going on and on about this young, ridiculously talented Toronto Blue Jays pitcher. And the name – that name – sounded like a fictional hero.

Roy Halladay

And so I did what any young baseball fan would do and heeded Gammons’ advice. I drafted Roy Halladay for my fantasy team. And I drafted him the next year, too. And then the next, and when it became a keeper league, I always used one of my six keeper spots for Halladay. And when the window of being able to keep him expired, I’d redraft him.

Why? Because Roy Halladay was everything you’d want in a pitcher. He was consistently reliable and oftentimes dominant.

In his final eight seasons with the Blue Jays, from 2002 to 2009, Halladay went at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer (which we’ve referred to in this space as “super quality starts” in the past) in 116 of the 239 games he started. He also had 46 complete games in that eight-year period, 13 shutouts and a tidy 3.13 ERA. And this all includes the only two seasons (prior to the last two of his career) when he dealt with any kind of injuries, including 2004 when he had a very ordinary 4.20 ERA.

Roy Halladay was in the 2000s what Greg Maddux was before him in the 1990s and what Clayton Kershaw is in the 2010s: the most bankable pitcher in the game. And if you’re the best at your craft over a decade, Cooperstown is going to come calling.

So, sure, I liked the returns I was getting from Halladay as a member of my fantasy baseball team’s staff each season. I celebrated him yearly. And when I began writing about baseball for a living, I continued to admire him from afar. I’d even find a way to tell his story to relate to a player I was writing about or make mention of him in a story just because.

When he arrived in Philly eight years ago it felt a little too neat. I had covered a World Series championship in my first year on the beat in ’08 and got to cover another World Series in ’09, so, sure, why not have the opportunity to cover my favorite player in 2010?

Will Clark was my favorite player as a kid. Halladay was my favorite as an adult.

And so Halladay was introduced to Philadelphia after he was acquired in a December trade and who do you think asked the first question of the press conference? My cousin immediately texted and made fun of me (the biggest Halladay fan he knew) for doing so, as one does.

And following up those two World Series appearance seasons with a chance to cover Halladay in Year Three on the beat? All Halladay did was meet every expectation heaped on him from what was then a baseball-crazed town by pitching a perfect game in May, hurling a postseason no-hitter in October, and capturing a second Cy Young Award in November.

But as a long-time Halladay admirer, I could have predicted all of that, surely. (Well, maybe not the perfect game.) Here’s what I couldn’t have told you when I packed my things for Clearwater, Fla., that February: I couldn’t tell you a thing about Roy Halladay the person.

Since I was a Halladay fan I knew his fun backstory:

 He was a former first-round pick who graduated to the big leagues fairly quickly (three years after high school graduation) and lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning of his second career start when Philadelphia native and Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson hit a home run.

• Two years later he was so bad – Halladay’s 10.64 ERA was an MLB record for the highest of any pitcher who had made at least 10 starts in a season until Baltimore’s Brian Matusz broke it in 2011 – that the Blue Jays did the unthinkable and didn’t just demote Halladay, but sent him all the way back to A-ball. And it was at Class A Dunedin that he first read Harvey Dorfman's “The Mental ABC's of Pitching” and transformed himself into a three-quarter slot pitcher with a cerebral approach to the game.

But what I didn’t know was how he treated people behind the scenes or how he conducted himself in public or professional setting.

And for the same reasons I would rarely tell friends or family members who the friendliest or least friendly players are – you don’t want to ruin anyone’s affinity for their favorite player – I was cautiously optimistic Halladay would be one of the good ones, but mostly just cautious. But after a month or so at spring training, I saw that he was the real deal, an authentic pro’s pro.

No, Halladay did not kiss up to the media. Far from it. A reluctant superstar, he shied away from attention. But when you needed him, and when it was his duty to speak after a start, he gave honest, expansive, thoughtful answers.

This was both a relief and gratifying. After building someone up in your head as the best for a decade, disappointment would be tough to take. Halladay didn’t work in the disappointment business, thankfully.

The man worked like no one else in his profession. In an age when the majority of athletes yearn to become free agents to grab the biggest paycheck, Halladay basically took a pay cut when he signed an extension upon arrival to Philadelphia. And he truly cared about the work he was putting forward for his team and its fans

And then it would become even greater to see Halladay’s personality open up more when he put his famous, tireless workout regiment side and stepped away from his steely-eyed assassin pitching career when he retired four years ago. After a dozen years working like a studious businessman at the ballpark, retirement turned Halladay into the school's-out-for-summer kid.

He joined Twitter. He went to the zoo with the Phillies fan who created the absurdly funny blog (bolg?) called I Want to Go to the Zoo with Roy Halladay. He coached youth baseball. He became a fan, like you, and showered your favorite baseball player with love. He flew airplanes. He used his airplanes to help transport rescue dogs.

Roy Halladay enjoyed life, first while perfecting his craft as a pitcher for nearly two decades and then in hanging out with his kids (and sometimes acting like a kid himself) in the last four years. It’s cripplingly sad that he won’t be able to continue the second stage of his life and it’s unfortunate we’ll never know what his third act might have been, possibly in a baseball front office or on a coaching staff.

But Roy Halladay lived his life. If you need proof, go look at his Twitter, which is chock full of selfies with Little Leaguers and ear-to-ear smiles while working in or on his beloved planes.

We should all be so lucky to embrace life with the same fervor and enthusiasm.

I was lucky enough to get to know Roy Halladay, to cover the entirety of his Phillies career, to report on the scene from his perfect game and his postseason no-hitter seven years ago. I had thought that one day, perhaps in Cooperstown, I’d ask him to sign my scorebooks from those two memorable nights.

Instead, I’ll have to settle for the handshake I gave him on that perfect night in Miami. Maybe that crossed a journalistic line.

I was a genuine fan of Halladay’s that night and Roy Halladay was the genuine article, always, a man who deserved to be admired and someone whose legacy should continue to be cherished when the tears finally stop but the memories remain.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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