The past several years have not been kind to baseball. On-field accomplishments have taken a back seat to investigative reports, congressional hearings and lawsuits over the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. The historic 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, an event that re-invigorated the sport after the player strike of 1994 led to the cancellation of the World Series, leaving the game without a champion for the first time in history, was revealed to be a fraud, and both players have since become poster boys for steroid abuse. The two best players of the past twenty years, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, have been charged with perjury (in Clemens’ case as the result of his testimony before Congress), and both face criminal trials and possible jail time.
Yet occasionally something happens on the field that reminds me of why I fell in love with the sport as a child and why, despite its obvious failings, baseball remains the source of much pleasure. That something occurred last night, when Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay pitched only the second post-season no-hitter in the 140-year history of the sport.
For the past decade, Halladay has been one of the top hurlers in the game, winning twenty games on three separate occasions, and receiving the Cy Young Award, given annually to the best pitcher in each league, in 2003. Halladay’s numbers have been dominant, particularly the past three seasons, which have seen him achieve a strikeout to walk ratio of 6 to 1 in a sport where 3 to 1 is considered outstanding. His poise and pinpoint control have long earned him universal acclaim.
Yet something was always lacking in “Doc” Halladay’s resume. Until this season, his achievements had been attained in Toronto, which for the past ten years fielded competitive, yet unspectacular teams. Until this year, Halladay had never pitched in the post-season, and many viewed his accomplishments on the field with reservation, arguing that true sporting greatness is achieved when championships are on the line.
Before the start of this season, Halladay was traded by the Blue Jays to the Phillies, a team which appeared in the past two World Series, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008 and losing to the New York Yankees in 2009. The Phillies, considered by many the best team in the National League, marched to yet another division title in 2010, a season which featured a Halliday perfect game against the Florida Marlins, and which will likely culminate in Doc’s second Cy Young Award.
Yet when Halladay took the mound yesterday afternoon against the Cincinnati Reds in game one of the Divisional Series, the question remained: How would Halladay perform in the post-season spotlight?
The question has been answered. Halladay’s performance yesterday ranks with the best in the history of the game, and only one pitch (a full count slider to Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce which fell just below the knees) kept him from completing his second perfect game of the season and the second post-season perfect game in baseball history.
There are no longer any questions about Halladay. He is the best pitcher in the game, and will have a plaque in Cooperstown when his playing days are done. Years from now, fans will speak of Halladay with the same reverence that long-time fans use in referring to such past stars as Whitey Ford, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson.
Despite everything that baseball has endured over the past decade, I remain a strong believer in the game. The purity of the one-on-one matchup between pitcher and batter remains, in my opinion, unsurpassed in any sport. Baseball is the only professional American sport that is not limited by time; the game will continue until the final out is achieved, irrespective of how long it takes.
That is why I remain an optimist. Baseball will eventually overcome its present state of malaise. And when it does, it will be led by such soon-to-be legends as Roy “Doc” Halladay, who yesterday attained greatness on a field of grass, in a boys’ game played by men.