Brad Arnsberg heard the news at 4:17 p.m. Mountain Standard Time: The late Roy Halladay, his best student in more than a decade as a pitching coach, had been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Arnsberg could be sure of the joy he felt, and of the sorrow, because he had known this moment would come. He considered it over the year and a half since Halladay crashed his Icon A5 plane into the Gulf of Mexico. And he could be sure of the time because on his left wrist he wore, as he does every day, the silver Rolex that Halladay gave him a decade ago.
The inside reads simply
“How are you going to make me better this year?” Halladay asked Arnsberg each spring. In 2009, he followed his question by handing the coach a box wrapped so beautifully that Arnsberg joked Halladay could not possibly have packaged it himself. Arnsberg gasped and tried to return the gift when he saw the gleaming watch that cost more than many players’ signing bonuses. Halladay, whom they called Doc, never could stand shows of emotion, so he just sighed and said, “Take it or I’ll give it to your wife.”
The irony, says George Poulis, the trainer for the last seven of Halladay’s 12 years with the Blue Jays, is that Halladay’s friends probably get to praise him more because he is not here to tell them to stop. “He would’ve been so mad” at the compliments, Poulis says with a laugh. He chokes up imagining the only people Halladay would have allowed to celebrate: his wife, Brandy, and sons, Braden and Ryan.
“To know he was going to receive an award on the biggest stage, and for his two sons to be old enough to understand that,” Poulis says, “There’s no doubt in my mind of the joy he has.”
Halladay became the first player posthumously elected by the writers since Roberto Clemente, in 1973. (Clemente also died in a plane crash.) There is no real protocol for this scenario. Enshrinement in the Hall of Fame is supposed to be purely jubilant. There are MLB Network cameras set up to capture honorees’ reactions, calls with reporters that night and press conferences in New York the next day. The newest Hall of Famers begin crafting their induction speeches and practicing their new autographs, the ones with “HoF” underneath. Their loved ones are supposed to cry only from joy.
Poulis heard of Halladay’s election when his plane landed in Tampa. He had tried to watch the results come in on the flight, but he couldn’t connect to wifi. So he was relieved when he got service and saw the text from Toronto traveling secretary Mike Shaw: “Very happy but a little bit of sadness but super happy.” Poulis called Shaw, then former Blue Jays and Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter, one of Halladay’s best friends. Carpenter had watched the announcement on MLB Network. Arnsberg spoke with former pitcher A.J. Burnett, another close friend. Everyone texted Brandy. “Roy Halladay was your favorite player’s favorite player,” pitcher Brandon McCarthy said after the plane went down, and perhaps no one in baseball engendered more respect than Doc. But he kept his circle tight, and those who knew him best took Tuesday to think about what he meant to them.
Carpenter loves when people bring Halladay up to him, he says, because “it really gives you an opportunity to lift him up and talk about the good things, not just in the game but outside the game.” The days that can cause the most pain—the anniversary of his death, his birthday, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony—also give his loved ones an excuse to talk about him.
They talk about the two Cy Young Awards and the two more second-place finishes; the eight seasons of at least 220 innings; the no-hitter he pitched in his first playoff start, when after a dozen years laboring for the moribund Blue Jays he got a chance at relevance with the Phillies; but they also talk about the depths of the pain he felt in 2001, when he thought his career might be over.
The first-ballot Hall of Famer, chosen on 85.4% of ballots, endured the worst season in history by a pitcher with at least 60 innings: a 10.64 ERA in 19 appearances. The following spring, the team demoted him all the way to Class A Dunedin. He reworked his delivery and his mentality, and a year later was an All-Star. A year after that he won his first Cy Young.
Arnsberg has found himself thinking about time recently. He is only 55, but he knows how tenuous our hold on tomorrow can be. He still climbs aboard his Harley without a helmet, but he also hugs his grown sons tighter when he sees them. Kaden, 25, is a flight attendant for Delta. “Fifteen seconds in a man’s life,” Arnsberg whispers, his voice breaking. That’s all the time it took for Halladay to lose control of his plane, to break through the surface of the water and begin the outpouring of grief.
The induction ceremony is not until July 21, in Cooperstown, N.Y., but Halladay’s friends are already looking forward to another opportunity to share memories of a life well lived. Arnsberg will be there, if he can get a few days away from his job as rehab coordinator for the Diamondbacks. The ceremony will start at 1:30 Eastern. Arnsberg will be wearing his watch.