The story of Roy Halladay is a sad one, and it was a sad one even before his shocking death at age 40, in November 2017, just four years after his retirement from the Phillies. His first major biography, Todd Zolecki’s Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay, arrived in time for the 10th anniversary of Halladay’s perfect game.
One of the best in baseball
Halladay spent many years as one of the best pitchers in baseball, maintained a reputation as both hyper-competitive and a decent guy, and was a rare top athlete in Philadelphia who never, at any point in his tenure in town, earned the sustained ire of the local fans.
But he also dealt with debilitating pain in the later years of his career, which led to a painkiller addiction that continued after his retirement, along with depression, anxiety, and multiple stints in rehab. All of these things happened completely out of the public eye, until the news broke that the ex-pitcher's private plane had crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, near his Florida home. He left behind a wife and two sons, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame posthumously, in 2019.
Author Todd Zolecki is a talented reporter who has covered the Phillies for the last 17 years, first for the Inquirer and more recently for MLB.com. Since he covered Halladay on a day-to-day basis, the parts about the pitcher’s time in Philadelphia are more detailed than the ones about his years pitching in Toronto.
Minor leagues to no-hitters
The book follows Halladay's early life, his amateur career, and eventually his arrival in the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he at one point struggled so mightily that he was sent to the low minor leagues, before bouncing back to become one of the game's top pitchers. But the Blue Jays remained a bad team for most of his tenure, leading up to Halladay's trade to the Phillies before the 2010 season.
Halladay was an ace pitcher in Philly, the kind who caused palpable excitement in town on the days when it was his turn to pitch. Halladay didn't win a World Series in Philadelphia, or even reach one, but he was part of some exciting and memorable teams, and made history twice in the 2010 season, pitching a perfect game in May and another no-hitter—the first one in a baseball postseason since 1956—that October.
When it comes to baseball stories, Doc is far from the most exciting book, although that's not really the author's fault. Halladay, for all his virtues as an athlete and human, was never the most colorful or quotable of ballplayers. A lot of the stories in the book, especially in the Toronto section, are Old Baseball Men imparting Old Baseball Wisdom about how much Halladay was a competitor.
The Philly part is better. There's a great story about Halladay using a toy helicopter in the clubhouse to (literally) lift teammate Ryan Howard's notoriously large paycheck, and we learn about a sensational incident with an anaconda when Halladay and some other players went on a fishing trip in the Amazon. There's also an interesting tick-tock of the day Halladay was traded to Philadelphia, while Cliff Lee was traded away the same day. But when it comes to wild times and outrageous stories, Halladay's era on the Phillies will never hold a candle to, say, the '93 team.
A man under pressure
The most intriguing part of Zolecki's book, by far, is the final third, in which he shares Halladay's private struggles, in his last two years in baseball, and later in retirement. The author paints a picture of a man who was under enormous pressure from a young age to be a great pitcher, and that pressure stayed with him for his entire life. It continued at the end of his career, when Halladay was too injured to pitch but insisted on sucking it up and doing it anyway. He even apologized, in the final year of his career, for pitching poorly while hurt.
There's a lesson here, about how even larger-than-life athletes may very well be dealing with immense physical and emotional pain, and that perhaps us fans, especially in a tough town like Philadelphia, should cut them a little more slack than we generally do.
It's especially unfair, as many fans and even media members do, to question the commitment or desire of an athlete who gets injured—e.g., the last two years of local discussion about Carson Wentz—or to treat athletes' physical breakdowns as a failure of morality or masculinity. Some media jackasses, when confronted with the addiction revelations and NTSB reports about reckless flying that led to Halladay's crash, have even declared themselves posthumously disappointed with the pitcher.
Todd Zolecki's book does indeed let us meet the real Roy Halladay, a man who was both a superhuman athlete and a very human one.
What, When, Where
Doc: The Life of Roy Halladay. By Todd Zolecki. Chicago: Triumph Books, May 2020. 352 pages, hardcover; $28. Get it here.