A quick skip down the river from Philadelphia sits Wilmington, Delaware, where my wife’s family has lived for two decades. You can trek through the masses on I-95 up to Citizens Bank Park in a half-hour from there if you’re lucky, though everyone knows that rarely happens.
Wilmington is Phillies country, through and through. Coincidentally, it’s also where I was the first full weekend of October back in 2010, as the high school best friend of my now-wife (we weren’t yet married) was getting married that Saturday - the 9th. We’d booked flights to head back for it several months in advance, and though I’d managed to meet her parents and sisters without screwing things up a year or so prior, I’d never really met any of her friends who lived there.
We, at the time, were in Lexington, KY. It was where I was born, where my family lived, and where I’d spent a good portion of my life. It was also Reds country, through and through, a quick skip of its own down from Cincinnati. And in 2010, it was finally, finally good to be a Reds fan again, as the team that had stumbled its way through a full decade and a half of awfulness had an MVP candidate and a surprising lead in the division as summer turned to fall.
You remember those Reds, of course. The ones that won the Central on a swing you can’t forget. As the games continually fell Cincinnati’s way, the march towards 162 got nearer to the finish, and I began having to figure out what the hell tie I was supposed to wear to this wedding, something began to get increasingly clear.
The Reds were going to play powerhouse Phillies in the NLDS, the club that had won the 2008 World Series and added the best pitcher on the planet - Roy Halladay - prior to 2010. Game 1 would be hosted by those Phillies, and would be held on Wednesday, October 6th.
We, as it turned out, had decided to make a long weekend of the trip when booking things. Our flight got into Philly on the evening of said Wednesday, October 6th.
The irony, in the Jagged Little Pill sense, was not lost that when the team I’d grown up pulling for had finally made it back to the playoffs, there was a chance I’d be stuck in the city of their opponent long enough that by the time I got back home they’d already be eliminated. This was a Phillies club with the eventual Cy Young Winner in Halladay fronting their rotation after all, with Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels behind him, and a lineup with peak Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth all mashing. These Reds were good, but were so young and so underdog-y that despite all of our hopes and crossed fingers, the odds were heavily stacked against them.
Twenty-something me was in no position to try to track down tickets, nor was I on solid enough ground to jump out of wedding and pre-wedding festivities to attempt a trip up the road to Game 1. So, when we landed, it was straight to Trolley Square to meet people I didn’t know for drinks. People I didn’t know were Phillies fans, either.
I should mention at this point that my wife is as big a baseball fan as I am of whatever the hell the inverse of baseball is. It’s not her bag. It’s not what she goes to sleep thinking about. That she puts up with my slight obsession with the sport is something I admire incredibly about her. I did not know her friends. I did not know where we were going. I did not know her friends were baseball fans, nor did I know that I’d be rolling into a sea of them in a place that had pulled out all the stops to make watching Game 1 a thing.
We got there in the Bottom of the 1st. I-95, luck, what have you. We’d missed 3 of an eventual 27 outs, which ultimately was the lone thing I was prepared for as we finally squeezed into some standing space in the corner. The Wagon, Edinson Volquez, promptly allowed a double to Shane Victorino, who immediately swiped 3B and scored on a sac fly.
Good stuff, already down in the 1st with Halladay on the mound.
When I say that we were in a bar full of Phillies fans, I mean it. Baseball fans to the core, and excited as all hell that their team was knee-deep in one of the best runs in their team’s history, with the best pitcher in the league on the mound sporting their jersey. There were about twelve of us, sandwiched around a four-top covered in buckets of ice, grabbing beers and oysters as quick as they’d bring the damn things out. In the back of an otherwise amazing scene surrounding what would end up being a historic sporting event, I sat as the outs ticked away wondering exactly how many people I should tell that I was a Reds lifer.
Somewhere around the 4th inning, I was drunk. Drunk, nervous, trying to focus on the writing on the wall since Halladay was scripting things in twelve foot tall letters. The Reds were in trouble, as they say, with Halladay spinning things the way he did when he was at his best, using precision and otherworldly preparation to physically beat down hitters without the need of a 99 mph fastball.
Somewhere around the 5th inning, I realized the people around me weren’t casually conversing the way they were when we arrived. They weren’t loud the way ‘bars that are loud’ are loud. But when a called strike flew out of Halladay’s hand, it was fucking deafening. High-fives hurt, both on my hands as they were slapped by every stranger within reach and in my heart as it tried to quietly, anonymously remember what the hell Don Larsen did and looked like.
Roy Halladay was pitching a no-hitter against the one team in the one sport in which I’d entwined myself since I was old enough to burp. And, he was doing so in the playoffs, on the biggest baseball stage I’d seen at my age, with me a grain of sand in a Sahara of Phillies faithful.
Fortunately, somewhere around the 6th inning, that all processed. Fandom got kicked the hell out of my brain, which rarely happens. I was watching one of the most electric, iconic performances in baseball history, shoulder to shoulder with a mass in my own personal upside-down that was just about to pop with euphoria.
A fresh beer, a sigh, and a mental concession somewhere around the 7th inning, I realized that I was watching something that transcended a stupid baseball game. I was watching a master of his craft, the absolute best at what he did, do exactly what only he could on the biggest of stages. That my Reds were being relegated as the Craig Ehlo to Halladay’s Michael Jordan didn’t mean a damn thing anymore, and I swear I’d blame that on the bucket(s) of beer if it wasn’t still so vivid to me as it is today.
Not just somewhere, but exactly in the 9th inning, I realized I was watching something that was absolutely as good as it gets. No being blinded, no being angry, no years of pent up frustration being lobbed at the perpetrator’s direction. I was in the oddest of scenarios witnessing how good baseball could be, how good sport itself could be. It was so dominant, so authoritative, that there was no throwing my proverbial Reds hat in disgust - it had been left at home, anyway. Rather, it was a tip-your-cap moment to a great being his greatest on a stage where everyone expects just such a performance but so rarely gets rewarded.
Roy Halladay rewarded all of us that night, baseball fans of every single genre. I’ll remember that my team bore the brunt of it, but I’ll remember much, much more who did it to them. Sport, at its finest, features only a best of the best trophy case of such outings, and Halladay’s levy against the Reds that night sits on the top shelf.
It, by the way, was the first postseason game of his already illustrious career - and the longtime American League pitcher notched a single and a run scored, to boot.
Roy Halladay was 40 when he died Tuesday, his small plane crashing into the Gulf of Mexico some four years after he played his final game. By all accounts, he was a man who gave back to his respective communities with great, great persistence, a family man who was smiled at off the field as much or more than he was on it.
For those of us who never knew him, or never knew rooting for him on our own team, or got too bent out of shape watching him show us all how good a baseball player could be, losing him still...hurt. Tremendously. It hurt watching the developing story drag out earlier today. I watched it hurt my peers in a way that is hard to describe. It struck a nerve deep in most all of us for reasons that are hard to put into concrete words.
I think, in part, it was because Halladay was great, but as much because he showed us all how great “great” can really be. He, on awful Toronto Blue Jays teams, was still great, and every fifth day the other team knew it. The other fans knew it. Sportscenter, whatever the hell that has become today, knew it then, too. Halladay was the best of the best, and in a sport that’s so idiosyncratic with so many ways and means, Halladay was baseball to all of us - especially the ones he ran circles around.
Leave it to a Cincinnati sports fan to have one of the greatest sporting events of his life be one that came at the expense of the franchise he’s long loved. For me, that happened in a way so memorable that it’ll be with me until I’m gone. Halladay, the author of such a seminal moment to me and the player that turned my passion of Reds baseball into a love of what peak baseball can be, is now gone, and that has ripped a big part of me to shreds emotionally.
Rest in peace, Roy. Thank you for showing that reveling in how good sport can be should always, always come before any fandom. I’ll never forget that thanks to you.