Roy Halladay, 1977-2017: The perfect modern pitcher, the last of his kind

·MLB columnist

Roy Halladay jumped into the passenger’s seat of the crappy rental car, exhaled a plume of relief through his mouth and said: “I don’t ever want to do that again.” Brad Arnsberg, the driver of the car and Halladay’s pitching coach with the Toronto Blue Jays, snorted a laugh. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous,” Halladay said.

Over the previous half hour, in front of a few dozen Blue Jays minor leaguers at their spring training complex in Dunedin, Florida, Halladay had thrown a 30-or-so-pitch bullpen session. He had won a Cy Young Award and 20 games and silenced Yankee Stadium, and he would throw a perfect game and the second-ever postseason no-hitter and carve a path straight for the Hall of Fame. Here he was, the epitome of unflappable, totally shook.

And that, among so many other things, made Roy Halladay, who died Tuesday at 40 in a single-engine plane crash off the Gulf coast of Florida, truly beloved around the sport. However robotic he carried himself on the pitcher’s mound, that exoskeleton covered something deeply human. Never would he take for granted his successes because he so understood failure. Baseball gave Halladay so much, though not before it borrowed his confidence and self-worth and leveraged them against his future.

What unsettled him that day was the familiarity of it all, of kids in their early 20s who cannot begin to understand the fragility of the game they chose to love in a relationship that’s so often unrequited. He knew failure, tasted it, lived it, drowned in it, escaped from it, fought it, vanquished it. Little moments like this reminded him, anchored him to his origin story, which needed no embellishment because the man it forged so deeply reflected it.

Halladay grew up in Colorado the son of a commercial pilot, blossomed into 6-foot-6 of raw right-handed potential, went to the Blue Jays in the first round of the 1995 draft, rocketed through the organization, arrived in the major leagues at 21 years old, established himself at 22, imploded at 23 and spent the next year rebuilding himself as much mentally as physically. Though to separate those two would be pure folly because Roy Halladay didn’t just rescue his career by marrying the mental with the physical. He nurtured a symbiotic relationship that would define each of the 2,518 1/3 innings he threw between 2001 and his retirement following the 2013 season.

Today, the notion of preparation and routine among pitchers has reached peak cliché. So many adhere to the dual tenets because they work. And Halladay was one of their progenitors. Never was it about luck. During Halladay’s nadir, he tore into “The Mental ABC’s of Pitching,” the Harvey Dorfman enchiridion whose wisdom resonates nearly two decades after its first printing. Dorfman was Freud with a ball, Jung with a bat, Skinner for the jerseyed. Counterintuitive though his through-line thesis may have been – strict discipline unlocks freedom – it spoke to Halladay, gave him purpose and liberated him to be the last of his kind.

One of Roy Halladay's most memorable performances was a no-hitter in the playoffs as the Philadelphia Phillies' ace. (Getty Images)
One of Roy Halladay’s most memorable performances was a no-hitter in the playoffs as the Philadelphia Phillies’ ace. (Getty Images)

Calling Halladay that is no exaggeration. Baseball’s pivot from the innings-eating starting pitcher to a relief-centric game continued this season. The 250-inning starter is an anachronism. Halladay did it twice. The 200-inning starter is an endangered species. For a decade, Halladay averaged nearly 220 a season. Of the 390 times he started, 67 ended in complete games. In 4,860 starts this year, pitchers finished the game just 59.

“My perfect game,” Halladay once told Yahoo Sports, “is 27 pitches.”

Efficiency spoke to him. Though Halladay’s fastball reached 95 mph in his early years, it settled in the low 90s. He cut it in on left-handed hitters and sank it toward right-handed hitters and adored groundball outs. He did not worship at the altar of the strikeout. Though he retired just four years ago, he feels from a bygone era.

Which is part of why those who knew him and played with him so revered Halladay and so ached Tuesday. At one point or another, everyone showed up at 5 a.m. once just to witness Halladay go through his legendary workouts. He grew close with Donovan Santas, the Blue Jays’ strength-and-conditioning coordinator, and they had developed the sort of leg program that felled even the heartiest. One Blue Jays pitcher, Arnsberg remembered with a bit of glee, made it halfway through before tapping out. He wanted to be like Roy Halladay. He learned quickly Roy Halladay was 1 of 1.

“He never says he’s going to work harder than anybody,” Erik Kratz, who caught Halladay in Philadelphia, said in 2013. “You wouldn’t respect someone who says that. You respect someone from whom you see it.”

That, actually, is what stuck with those who came across him: Something about Roy Halladay made the extraordinary seem simple. The leg workouts? Price of doing business. The CGs? Pitchers should go nine. The fortitude to embody a pitch-by-pitch ethos by which so many try to abide and flame out spectacularly? Try harder perhaps.

“He made it seem so easy,” Cole Hamels, his Phillies teammate and close friend, said in 2013, “and at the same time, when the opposing team thinks it had got to him, he flipped a switch, and it was, like, ‘Nope.’ It’s like when you try to scare someone, and he knows you’re trying to scare him, and it doesn’t work. It’s embarrassing.”

Even Halladay had trouble sometimes separating those personae: the pitching machine and the brain that allowed it. When he retired at the 2013 winter meetings, a sore shoulder doing him in at 36 years old, Halladay radiated happiness while fighting an instinct that had guided him for well over a decade. “There’s something missing here,” he said. “I should be working out. I should be running. For a second, it’s kind of a little bit of panic.”

Instead, he coached his boys, Ryan and Braden, and he spent time with his wife, Brandy, and he trained his discipline toward something that could open as much physical freedom as mental: flying an airplane. Halladay got his pilot’s license and used it to fly to Alabama and rescue puppies about to be indoctrinated into a dog-fighting ring and went on solo expeditions because he loved the air and its infinite possibilities.

Soon, the National Transportation Safety Board will offer more definitive clues as to what happened to Halladay’s ICON A5 plane. When its tail number was first linked to Halladay’s registration, the baseball community trembled. Arnsberg, who was Halladay’s pitching coach for five years, called his cell phone. It went straight to voicemail. He tried Brandy. Hers rang and rang and rang. Text messages started flowing into Arnsberg, from Brett Myers and Ricky Romero and others who wanted any sort of information, any sign that Doc Halladay, the closest thing any of them had seen to a gunslinger, wasn’t gone like Thurman Munson and Roberto Clemente and his friend and former Blue Jays teammate Cory Lidle.

He was. He wouldn’t get to see his boys turn to men. He wouldn’t get to grow old with Brandy. He wouldn’t get to stand in front of the enormous crowd at the Hall of Fame that would migrate to Cooperstown for the weekend from Canada to pay homage. And the world wouldn’t get any more of a fine husband and father and example.

Despite his nerves that spring training day, Halladay threw a perfect bullpen. Didn’t miss a spot, Arnsberg said. What he thinks the kids watching that day always will remember, though, is one of Halladay’s responses in a Q-and-A session afterward. A young pitcher asked Halladay how he prepares to make it all the way through September.

“I never once prepared to play through September,” he said. “I prepare to play through November.”

That was Roy Halladay, ever ready to work, to compete, to win every moment, even if he never did pitch in a World Series. He wanted to be ready, his brain, his body, everything that personified him. His humanity was not a bug. It wasn’t a feature, either. It was his defining characteristic, the thing about which those who knew and loved him will remember most. He was himself, free, all the way to the end.

More Roy Halladay coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Baseball world reacts to Halladay’s tragic death
Sports world rocked again by plane crash death
5 moments that made us love Roy Halladay
Halladay’s plane, the ICON A5, was a ‘Jet Ski with wings’