Roy Halladay was a great pitcher. It sounds sort of banal to say, but it’s the number-one truth of his career. Even when he put up a 10.64 ERA in his age-23 season, and even when he fell apart during his last two years in Philadelphia, he was still great, even if he didn’t have his best stuff. He threw an untouchable sinker and a curveball that they should require a background check to posses, and his cutter was one of the most unhittable pitches in the history of the game of baseball. Two Cy Young awards, eight All-Star games, a no-hitter, a perfect game, and, unofficially, the Best Pitcher of His Generation.
Halladay died last week after his Icon A5 plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving behind a wife and two kids.
As fans, how do we reconcile these two parts of Roy Halladay? Aging and decay are understood as a part of baseball, with retirement as the sort of ritual death of a career, but real death? How can it be understood when we think about a person, especially one to whom our relationship didn’t extend beyond seeing a pixelated version of them on a screen, or maybe from afar with 35,000 other people? It’s almost like saying we “know” a character on television, given the extent of our interaction with that person is usually mediated by a screen.
It seems that every one of Halladay’s former teammates and coaches has taken time over the past week to speak about how much he meant to them, about his legendary work ethic and patience and passion. These have been the talking points about Halladay his whole career, and so in a way, fans already “knew” this. But what can a fan actually “know” about a player, beyond the traits that are deemed most appropriate to a given television narrative? The answer is, not much, which leads us to another question:
Why are so we invested in all of this? Why the outpouring of anecdotes from fans after Halladay’s death?
There’s the basic human level, of course, mourning for the loss of a person with a family. But when it comes to sports, this great collection of the most simple human narrative — victory or defeat — dramatized, every day, the characters take on a lot more for people. It’s true that the overwhelming majority of fans will never interact with their player beyond watching them play on TV, being sold something by them on TV, or playing as them in a video game — and if they’re lucky, they might score an autograph. But they can see their own basics desires, fears, and hopes played out in the visual poetry of sport, of supremely athletic people struggling, persevering, and either finding uplifting victory or crushing defeat. The communality of it, they way it can create memories, the excitement — that’s all a feature of the stories.
Or it could just be that people like seeing someone throw a ball really fast. I’d be hard-pressed to really disagree with that. I have to admit I’m not thinking about narrative at the moment that an outfielder lays out to extend his glove for a #SCtop10 catch. What I can say is that Halladay, for whatever reason, resonated with a lot of people, and it’ll be bittersweet to see him inducted in the Hall of Fame in a few years.