Since the team’s founding in 1883, only two Phillies pitchers have thrown perfect games. In June of 1964, Jim Bunning did not let up a single baserunner against the Mets, and, in May of 2010, Roy Halladay sat down every member of the Marlins he saw.
I must admit that I didn’t really watch either of these games. I can probably be forgiven for missing Bunning’s performance; neither of my parents had even been born yet. But when Halladay took the mound against the Marlins in 2010, I was at the peak of my Phillies fandom. At 13 years old, I had no responsibilities other than to watch baseball, and there was perhaps no better time for me to watch. By 2010 the Phillies had won three straight divisional championships and had appeared in the last two World Series, winning one of them. It was, as Gary Smith so beautifully put it in a profile of Halladay’s soon-to-be teammate, “Baseball Heaven.”
But as it happened, Halladay’s performance came on a day that was inconvenient for a once-in-a-baseball-lifetime event. The Flyers were playing in game one of the Stanley Cup Finals at the same time as Halladay’s start, and it was obvious which one we would watch. Baseball was, and still is, my favorite sport, but the championship final for a Philadelphia sports team – an extremely rare occurrence indeed – superseded early regular season baseball against an atrocious opponent.
It also just so happened that this was Memorial Day Weekend, and my family and I had gone away to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a weekend trip. I don’t quite remember the reasons for this trip, but it involved eating at some sort of smorgasbord and being confused at horses and buggies on the highway. I have no recollection whatsoever of what we did that weekend other than the fact that we stayed in a hotel with ceilings entirely too low for jumping on the bed. I found this out because of the euphoric glee that caused my sister and I to jump after watching the final out of Halladay’s perfect performance. It left me with a bump on my head and the most excitement I’d ever felt watching the regular season.
Yes, while we started out with the Flyers, we put on the Phillies game for the final two innings of Halladay’s performance. My dad somehow knew, in the way that dads do, what was going on in South Florida, and that it demanded our attention immediately. By the time the right-hander went through his trademark windup – stretching his entire frame towards the plate and pausing for a split second, suspended in air in a way that never seemed to match the laws of physics – and caused a groundout to third, my family was watching. Janky mechanics and all, Roy Halladay had thrown the 20th perfect game in MLB history.
But, like I said in the beginning, I didn’t really watch it. The thing about incredible pitching performances, especially ones in which a pitcher only faces 27 batters, is that they aren’t like other historic baseball events. Incredible home runs and hits just require a player to get it right once. In a similar way, they don’t really need the fan’s closest attention. You can be distracted by other things, a hockey game for example, and still know to turn on the TV when there’s a man on third and two outs. You can’t do this with a perfect game. Sure, maybe a defensive player will make a huge play or a pitcher will throw an extraordinarily dirty slider, but really each at-bat is the same. For a starting pitcher to throw a perfect game requires just that, perfection. It is not just a successful at bat or even a strong inning in relief, but rather it is the ability to do one’s job consistently for an entire nine inning baseball game, and I don’t think that watching the last two innings, however exciting they may have been, can really capture that. Pitchers go perfect through two all the time; Roy Halladay did it through nine.
In a lot of ways, that perfect game was like his career. Yes, his time in the league had highlights, that incredible May game included, but what was most impressive was the consistency with which he found success. Halladay’s perfect game, as incredible as it was, was part of a 15 year career in which he had only two losing seasons, won two Cy Young Awards, and played in eight All Star Games. Those numbers are even more incredible when you realize that in his first and last years he started in less than 10 games.
And, much like his perfect game with the Phillies, it seems like I just watched the end. Halladay was only in Philadelphia for his final four seasons, and the only times I had seen him pitch before that were the few times he faced the Phillies. When it comes to Roy Halladay, it feels like, yes, I watched him pitch. But I didn’t really watch him. Not when he was winning over 20 games for a team he would never pitch a playoff game for. Not when he went 16-5 in 2006 and still managed to only come in third in Cy Young Voting. I was lucky enough to watch him pitch for the Phillies, to throw a perfect game and only the second no-hitter in playoff history in back-to-back years. I was lucky enough to watch him go 19-6 with 8 complete games in 2011. And still, thinking about those moments makes me wish I had seen more, seen the entire thing, so I could really appreciate how incredible it was.
This makes last week’s news of Halladay’s untimely and tragic death all the worse. Halladay was more than a baseball player. He was a father, a husband, and a coach, and the overwhelming presence of former teammates at his memorial service on Tuesday stands as a testament to just how well loved he was.
Unlike recent baseball tragedies, like the recent and far-too-soon death of José Fernández, Halladay was retired when his plane tragically crashed. The ace hadn’t started a game in four years, but still the smog of lost potential hangs thick in the air. I don’t know what would have happened had Halladay’s plane not crashed into the Gulf of México last week. Maybe he would’ve had the chance to do incredible things as an MLB coach or manager, and I would have been able to watch. Maybe he would have chosen to continue his retirement lifestyle, tweeting and flying for all the world to see.
Regardless, Roy Halladay is no longer with us. Rewatching his old highlights, an activity I’ve taken to quite often in the last week, is just a little less cool when you know how it ends. Still, when I look back on his career, I am filled with gratitude that I got to watch, even if it was just the end.