Why We Watch: Roy Halladay, Disappearing Man

As Doc's career winds down, what can we say about someone whose play spoke for itself?
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It’s just sad now.

Not that Roy Halladay’s rapid, craterous decline has, at any point, been especially happy. Even the most loathsome of truly great players can merit a winsome backward glance once their skills atrophy; Halladay, the stand-up dude who issued a public apology to Phillies fans for sucking, is far from loathsome. He is also, it seems, pretty much gone.

And this is a sad thing, for a variety of reasons. In a sense, we’re sympathetic to a collapsing star athlete mostly to remind ourselves to remind ourselves – that we once saw Halladay transcendent and at his zenith, that we should appreciate watching him scuffle as a reminder of how privileged we once were, that we can now brag to future generations about having seen him in the flesh. It’s the spectator’s version of a living wake, except this is really more about the mourners than the mourned; the mourned was always somewhat distant.

Absence is, at least for Halladay as he’d been this year, something of a kindness. The ghoulish present-day version – the guy getting bombed in the third inning, who then becomes the guy without a timetable for his return to active duty or updates on his injury – exists only to a certain extent. No one recollects being in the stands when a Hall of Famer chucked 88-mile-per-hour meatballs and got lit up by the Mets; no one wants to. He may as well not even be out there at all. It’s better, in a bunch of ways, when he isn’t.

In that regard, Halladay is neither special nor remarkable, his flattened-out sinker no different from late-career Randy Johnson’s flaccid slider or Pedro Martinez’s watered-down fireballs. What is unusual, though, is the relative frequency and volume at which baseball’s latest misery porn is being processed.

Certain regional pockets reveled in the demise of Halladay’s ace predecessors: Johnson, Martinez and Roger Clemens, all villains to some fans in other cities. Halladay was never that sort of bad guy, and his collapse arrived as a cyclone out of a clear sky, a sudden whipping churn flattening something that had been utopian.

Or maybe not flattening, maybe just emptying. The foundation remains intact, the bricks and mortar, steel beams and Plexiglas; Roy Halladay still looks like an ace, his motion and demeanor were unchanged. But what animated it is gone. The edifice is the edifice, but it’s too difficult reconcile that hollow husk with the vivid beacon it once was. It’s easier to say that the place has disappeared, when in fact it hasn’t quite, and instead is just still there but no longer itself. Roy Halladay, who was not so long ago the best pitcher in baseball, is both present and disappearing.

***

So: why is it that Halladay, of all players, is the one who jolts us out of our usual half-macabre fan-narcissism into an empathetic puddle of pathos?

Even Philadelphia’s famously, monotonously acidic local media has been jarringly docile, couching itself in a sort of circumspect melancholy about the whole thing. Some of the national folks have dropped any pretense of detachment, and eulogic saccharine oozes from their paragraphs. Like most everyone else, watching age and wear and rough luck corrode Halladay’s greatness has gnawed a hole through their defenses.

“We’re all fans of this guy,” crowed Ken Rosenthal in a recent column, before quickly following that up with a line that would come off as hilariously maudlin were it not so universal: “Dammit,” he wrote, “I want Roy Halladay to succeed.”

Those are loud words for a writer not paid to write loudly, and made louder still when referencing such a unique and understated individual. There was always a perfunctory quality to Halladay’s greatness, inasmuch as a superbly gifted athlete could ever be yeomanly. Halladay won 22 games and the first of two Cy Youngs in 2003, but the lasting milestone was the 266 innings he withstood to get there, a supersized total within the modern game’s low-carb starts and tapas-sized relief appearances.

That was Halladay: making prosaically virtuosic endurance an achievement, soaking up innings into his sponge-like shoulder and then wringing them back out with cut fastballs that made bats plop when they should have cracked, inducing an endless loop of feebly quelled protests. In some ways, his was an even more impressive path to dominance than piling on strikeouts, a more decisive one.

It wasn’t quite as befuddling as a punch out, but there were no immediate reassurances for the hitter, either, no half-hearted rationalizations that he would have smoked a double had he just dipped the barrel of his bat half an inch lower. Watching a meekly hit grounder dribble back to the shortstop instead offered the heartless certainty that one’s best not only fell short, but that it wasn’t close to being good enough; that the missing fraction of an inch between ball and bat might as well have been a football field in length. It was incontrovertible proof that Halladay was simply better, often cruelly so.

Spectacle wasn’t among those means of dominance, though, and so even when he held the mantle as the game’s most dominant pitcher, Halladay probably wasn’t discussed as much as he deserved to be. There are only so many conversations to be had about someone so consistently and understatedly brilliant. There was no caveat to him. At 6-6, he was built to dominate and ever since he reemerged from the sinkhole of the minor leagues with a rebuilt arsenal, it’s exactly what he did. And so he became the anonymous ace, perpetually out of sight in Toronto and occasionally out of mind in Philadelphia, too, taciturnly grinding away in front of two MVP infielders and alongside a pair of fellow aces in the rotation, one of whom had leading man looks (Cole Hamels) while the other made leading man money (Cliff Lee).

That we acknowledged him as the best in the game, at any point, may owe itself most to timing. Just as Roger Federer peaked at exactly the right moment in tennis – post-Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, pre-multiple surface-adept Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – Halladay crested at the best possible instant historically. That first Cy Young came a year after Johnson won his last, when Martinez was less war machine than jheri-curled spirit animal, with Greg Maddux many moons removed from his last All-Star appearance. Among the old guard of Hall of Fame pitchers, only Clemens, firmly ensconced in his bloated porcini mushroom period, would put up anything like a career year afterward. When Halladay won his second Cy in 2010, it was one year before Justin Verlander did his Cy Young/MVP double and at the nascent stages of what might wind up as The Clayton Kershaw Era. Sandwiched in between as Halladay’s contemporaries were names like Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Brandon Webb – each burned at a high wattage at their peak, but had much less filament to fall back on. The only one with staying power was CC Sabathia; that he profiles as something like a poor-man’s Halladay speaks volumes.

None of that obscures what Halladay accomplished. But had it happened in another time, against a more teeming backdrop, it’s worth wondering whether we’d take stock in quite the same manner. How much would we have noticed his shrinking out of the frame if the picture were more crowded?

***

Halladay will pitch again, of course, or at least attempt to, but there’s scant reason to believe it will end well.

The overwhelming evidence points to his final arc being brief and unsightly, and possibly gruesome if he – a free agent at the end of this season – seizes the low-hanging fruit and ends his career pitching in his native Denver at Coors Field. The living wake will roll on for as many more innings as he can muster and so too will the mourning, maudlin and garish but, at least, honest.

In truth, there is no simple explanation for why Halladay has prompted such a to-and-fro between detachment and investment. It could be the nature of his decline, so abruptly and violently derailed after years of churning locomotive dominance. Perhaps it owes itself to his humility, the everyman aura he maintained while at the top of the sport.

But it may also boil down to the very mechanisms that allowed him to be taken for granted for so long. There is comfort in constancy, in the recognition of an anchorage among perpetual change. For the better part of ten years, Roy Halladay was the pitcher who provided that as no other, even as we sometimes failed to notice him; only now, as he fades away, has it become fully apparent. So, maybe too late, we will watch – not just for ourselves, this time, but for him, too.

Maybe a moment of silence means more when it's dedicated to a man who never said all that much in the first place. More still, maybe, when it’s for someone to whom we should have paid more and more detailed attention all along.


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