Emotional dignity at the Hall of Fame

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Brandy Halladay represented her Hall of Fame husband Roy with emotion and dignity Sunday afternoon. (Hall of Fame photo.)

Brandy Halladay wasn’t the first widow to speak for her husband at his Hall of Fame induction, as she did Sunday. Vicki Santo did likewise for her husband, third baseman Ron, seven years earlier. Dona Vera Clemente did it for her husband, right fielder Roberto, in 1973. One and all would surely have preferred their husbands accept their honours for themselves.

I don’t know if Mrs. Santo or Mrs. Clemente were present Sunday, and Ron Santo died after a lifetime battle with diabetes (even during his playing career) and before the honour overdue him was finally bestowed. But Mrs. Clemente might have empathised with Mrs. Halladay even if only for a brief spell. Both their husbands perished in airplane crashes. But the similarities ended there.

Roberto Clemente was killed in 1972, on a humanitarian flight he arranged in an ancient Douglas DC-4 to deliver supplies to earthquake-smashed Nicaragua. He’d been through his own buffetings as a young Puerto Rican proving himself a major league baseball master, and he’d achieved his own kind of comfort in his own skin.

Roy Halladay was killed in 2017, four years after his retirement, while enjoying his favourite relief. He’d proven himself as a major league pitcher but he turned out to be fighting a war within himself that no success on the mound, no amount of love from his wife, children, and family, could negotiate successfully. Comfort in his own skin proved too elusive a quarry.

On Sunday afternoon in Cooperstown, newly-inducted Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez remembered getting hooked on baseball watching Clemente and assorted World Series highlights on television. “All I wanted to do was play the game and like most kids in Puerto Rico, I wanted to be like Roberto Clemente,” said Martinez, the designated hitter who was a study in scholarship at the plate. “What a great example Roberto Clemente was to all of us in Puerto Rico. What an honor to have my plaque in the Hall alongside with his.”

His fellow newly inducted Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera, once remembered of Martinez, “I couldn’t get him out. My God, he had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” But Rivera, the arguable greatest relief pitcher the game has ever seen, also has a direct connection to Halladay that now reposes in the Hall’s museum, after Mrs. Halladay donated a talisman her husband carried with him the rest of his life once he acquired it.

The talisman is a baseball on which Rivera allowed Halladay to trace the grip of his fabled cut fastball, the pitch that broke more bats than classic movie stars broke hearts, and handed to Halladay during the 2008 All-Star break, after Halladay approached Rivera at that break asking to learn the pitch.

The Mariano, who loved to teach as well as to pitch, and who’s remembered from his clubhouses and elsewhere around the game for a Sandy Koufax-like interest in pulling everybody no matter whom up with him, marked the ball with lines showing the grip and gave it to Halladay. Mrs. Halladay gave the ball to the Hall of Fame before the induction ceremony. It reposes with a small plaque describing its significance in a display between two of Halladay’s uniform jerseys, one Blue Jays and one Phillies.

Also before the induction ceremony, Sports Illustrated profiled her husband, revealing he’d learned two things from his father: how to pitch, and how to fly. As the magazine so soberly phrased it, “One gave his son life. The other killed him.” Both were delivered by a father perhaps too determined to shape a son whose talents included nullifying parental displeasure with wit.

It may have done something else. “I feel like my brother lost out on a lot of his childhood,” his sister, Heather, told SI writer Stephanie Apstein. “I don’t fault [our father] for it anymore, but I think that my brother could’ve been just as good without being pushed so much and having all that responsibility.”

To Harry Leroy Halladay, Jr., Apstein writes, the process was the reward. To his Hall of Fame son, the process only led there. Major difference.

Maybe that’s how Harry Leroy Halladay III excelled as a mound workhorse who eventually pitched a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter in the same season, win Cy Young Awards in each league, but also admit while querying the University of South Florida about auditing psychology classes, “I would, however, like to take some general psychology courses, because I feel the root of many athletes’ struggles is a warped or underdeveloped self worth and identity.”

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Left to right: Harold Baines, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, and  Brandy Halladay for her late husband Roy. (Hall of Fame photo.)

He may have referred especially to himself. He was the son of a commercial pilot who’d once been an Air Force Thunderbird flier and who all but drilled him in the pitching and the flying arts. He refused to raise or coach his own two sons the way he’d been raised and coached. There’s a line between persistence and perpetual pushing, and the pitcher who once asked The Mariano for a cutter tutorial wouldn’t cross it.

When Halladay’s body was recovered from the crash of his Icon A5 airplane, the toxicology report showed that among the substances in his system (for some of which he could have been prosecuted had he lived) were a few associated with depression, including Prozac. Once, according to Apstein, he asked his sister whether he was lost or depressed. The sister replied, “I think it’s probably a little of both.”

And Halladay kept something else quiet for long enough: he was addicted to an anti-anxiety drug known commercially as Ativan. He finally advised his sister not to even think about accepting a prescription for it. “I think he felt like he needed to hide his mistakes because he didn’t want anyone to think he wasn’t as good as they thought he was,” she told Apstein. “He thought they wouldn’t understand that he was human. Just because you’re a good baseball player doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes.”

Nobody in the stands at a game really knows what goes through the minds of the men who play the game, and everybody in the stands thinks they are or should be all alike, all mechanical, and all impervious to the flaws and buffeting that bring those who can’t play baseball professionally to the assorted racks of their regrets.

We watched Mariano Rivera, the elegant game-ending assassin; we watched Mike Mussina, the stoic-looking craftsman; we watched Edgar Martinez, the professor putting on a daily lecture in the batter’s box and practising what he preached; we watched Lee Smith, as bullish a bull as ever strode in from a bullpen; we watched Harold Baines, never spectacular but a quiet guy who was simply there with and for you. And we watched Roy Halladay, who dismantled hitters with deadly aplomb.

But we had no clue what animated or haunted these men. The Mariano—nicknamed “Mo” and “Sandman” in the game and on his plaque—kept an active faith in God and family; the Moose kept one foot planted firmly in his small-town root refusing to forget its value; Gar likewise kept one foot planted firmly in the Puerto Rican soil and mind that forged and supported him.

Lee Smith didn’t carry a nickname but, instead, a gratitude to a sibling who nurtured him and an awareness of what it meant to black children to see one of their own as a shutdown relief pitcher that was as calm as his presence on the mound wasn’t to many a hitter. Harold Baines also lacked a nickname, and he played the game the way he remembered his brickmason father supporting a family: “You work at it, you put your head down, you keep your mouth shut and work at your craft day in and day out.”

Roy Halladay pitched the way Baines played. He worked at it. He put his head down (or kept it up). He kept his mouth shut, most of the time. He worked at his craft day in and day out, from boyhood under the guidance of a perhaps too-overbearing father, too bent on turning his son into a pitcher and a pilot, until his shoulder finally told him it went to the enemy side.

He proved the most inwardly compromised of all six new Hall of Famers when baseball ended but the sky still seduced him. He’d been a solid husband, father, and friend seeking improvement as a man, peace in his inner being, desperate relief from his depression and the addiction it delivered. The one place above all where he found them if only for brief spells killed him.

When Brandy Halladay took the Cooperstown podium to speak on her husband’s behalf, in a speech that left few if any dry eyes including her own, she spoke for something more than a pitcher and his game, even as she thanked the living Hall of Famers present for being “such a good example” to her husband.

She spoke for a still-young man who lost his life looking for his freedom from an insidious inner condition that rudely and persistently interrupted the otherwise embracing husband, father, friend, student, man.

“I think that Roy would want everyone to know that people are not perfect,” said his widow, a woman whose pretty face is also as friendly looking as the day is long. “We are all imperfect and flawed in one way or another. We all struggle. But with hard work, humility, and dedication, imperfect people can still have perfect moments. Roy was blessed in his life and his career to have some perfect moments.”

The one man who couldn’t see the blessings for the curses was Roy Halladay himself.

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