LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - The pitch by which he should be remembered was a 78 mph curveball that died in the leftfield corner of Citizens Bank Park on a crisp night in the first week of October.
This was the 126th time that Roy Halladay had delivered the ball toward home plate that evening, the 126th time he had glared in at the catcher's mitt, a defiant stare radiating from beneath the bill of his cap, the 126th time that he had channeled every ounce of his energy into desperate attempt to extend his team's season for at least another four games, his deteriorating back laden with the weight of a win-or-go-home Game 5 in the NLDS against the Cardinals.
For eight innings, he had gone pitch-for-pitch with longtime friend and fishing partner Chris Carpenter, retiring 23 of the final 30 batters he faced after allowing his only run in the game's second at-bat.
Now, with the bases loaded and the Phillies fighting to keep their deficit to one run, Halladay dropped a curveball in front of Matt Holliday and turned to watch Raul Ibanez settle under the resulting flyout. As the stadium roared, he walked off the mound for the final time. The only thing left for Roy Halladay to do was wait.
Two years later, as he strode through the carpeted hallways of a convention center an hour-and-a-half from his home on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Halladay was still waiting: for that fateful run and elusive title, yes, but also for a receiving line of well-wishers that included some of the most influential people in his professional life; for the wife and two sons who followed in his wake; for the eventual drive back across Interstate 4 to his new life as a stay-at-home-dad and world's nastiest batting-practice coach.
Roy Halladay retired yesterday, and if that does not seem to carry the same ring as "Michael Jordan retired yesterday" or "Brett Favre retired yesterday," it is mostly because Halladay spent so little time in his sport's national spotlight.
The peak of his dominance played out in Toronto, where hockey is the major passion and where each season began with little chance of making the playoffs. Yet for an entire decade, he was better than anybody else at what he did. His 63 complete games from 2002-11 were nearly twice as many as the next closest total during that span (CC Sabathia's 33).
No pitcher logged more than his 18 shutouts and only one accumulated more than his 2,194 2/3 innings (Mark Buehrle, who finished 2,204). Of the 131 starting pitchers who logged at least 750 innings during that stretch, only one posted a lower ERA than Halladay's 2.97, or a higher ERA+ than his 148. In both instances that pitcher was Johan Santana, who started 49 fewer games (and completed 50 fewer).
And, if you are somebody who places a lot of merit in a pitcher's wins, well, Halladay had more of those than any of his peers, too: 170, 11 more than his closest challenger during his decade of dominance. In fact, his career winning percentage of .659 trails only Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez among pitchers in the expansion era.
Halladay's name might not ring with the same sort of transcendence as players like Koufax and Martinez, but that's because the media never had much of a reason to build him to that level.
He did not make his first postseason appearance until the age of 33, by which point his body had already begun to show the effects of his peerless workload. But he had the kind of qualities that get turned into legends in bigger markets, on bigger stages. Former Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee used the word "ferocious" to describe the competitive zeal that assumed control of his body every fifth day. Phillies second baseman Chase Utley called him "by far the hardest worker I've ever seen."
"It was no coincidence why he was the best pitcher of his era," Utley said. "I'll miss his presence and passion but, most of all, I will miss his intensity."
The most unique aspect of Halladay's character was the way he managed to combine that intensity and competitiveness with a supreme respect for his craft, and for every person whose occupation brought them into his orbit. To watch Halladay go about his business was to watch a professional in every sense of the word.
"The most professional player I have ever been around," said one member of the Phillies' contingent who watched Halladay announce his retirement as a member of the Blue Jays.
Professionals do not complain or make excuses, so Halladay did not provide a specific timeline on the back injuries that hastened his exit from baseball (two pars fractures and a deteriorating disc between his L4 and L5 vertebrae). He did, however, acknowledge that the decline of his body was not as sudden as the disparity between his first 2 years and last 2 years with the Phillies suggest. Even in 2011 there were times when, late in a game, his body would begin to betray him. The decline, he said, "was probably a lot more steady than people knew."
Which brings us to the aforementioned pitch in the aforementioned playoff game in the first week of October in 2011. This was Halladay's moment, maybe more so than the night he tossed a perfect game against the Marlins, or the one when he held the Cincinnati Reds hitless for nine innings of postseason baseball.
He was more dominant on those nights, but he was more Halladay on this one, gritting his way through eight innings as his teammates tried futilely to provide him with a run or two of support, attacking batters with his sinker and cutter, pitching out of jams, refusing to yield an ounce more of breathing room. With the bases loaded and one out, he struck out Lance Berkman on a cutter on the inner third. Then, after falling behind Holliday 2-0, he battled back to even the count, ending the frame with the 2-2 curveball that prompted the flyout to left. At the time, few would have guessed that we were witnessing Halladay's last pitch in such a moment. He would finish the year as the runner-up in NL Cy Young voting, an award that he had won the season before. The Phillies had finished with the best record in the majors for a second straight season. There would be plenty more chances.
Rarely do we see the end before it flattens us on the ground. Few players more deserved to depart a champion than Harry Leroy Halladay, but maybe that makes his ending all the more fitting, because Halladay spent his career dominating a sport whose cold, cruel chance mocks the notion of karmic fate, and when That Which We Cannot Control finally threatened to overtake him, he responded with his final victory: He looked the beast in the eye, smiled, and walked away.