Eight years ago today, there was no doubt in my mind the game I was watching would emerge as another chapter in Philadelphia sports history.
The contest in question was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Chicago Blackhawks. The Flyers were in the midst of a miracle postseason run, which commenced when they punched their playoff ticket on the last day of the regular season with a shootout victory over the New York Rangers. After dispatching the New Jersey Devils in 5 games, the Orange and Black overcame a 3-0 series deficit to knock off the Boston Bruins in 7 games. Peter Laviolette’s squad skated past the upstart Montreal Canadiens in five games (never forget the shift), leaving the Blackhawks as the only team standing between the Flyers and the Cup.
It wasn’t meant to be on that night or in that series for the Flyers. But something special was brewing on a baseball diamond in Miami.
Roy Halladay, the Phillies’ prize acquisition of the offseason, was on the mound facing the Florida Marlins. The Marlins countered with Josh Johnson, a righthanded flamethrower whom the Phillies never seemed to hit. It was likely to be a low-scoring pitcher’s duel, but otherwise a nondescript baseball game in May. When the alternative is a Stanley Cup game featuring the hometown Flyers, there wasn’t much of a decision in terms of what to watch.
That calculus changed at some point during the first or second intermission, when it became clear that the Phillies’ ace had a chance at perfection. Philadelphia’s regulars had spotted Halladay a 1-0 lead with an unearned run in the 3rd, and that’s all he would need:
Halladay’s gem would become the 20th perfect game in baseball history, and the second for the Phillies franchise; Halladay took his place alongside Jim Bunning, who accomplished the feat as a Phillie on Father’s Day in 1964.
Only three times in 27 at-bats did the Marlins make a serious threat to occupy first base. Cameron Maybin nearly beat out a chopper he hit to shortstop, but Wilson Valdez threw him out with a half-step to spare. In the 8th inning, Jorge Cantu hit a bullet to third base that was plucked out of the air by the glove of Juan Castro, who made the easy toss across the diamond to retire Cantu. In the 9th, pinch hitter Mike Lamb drove a Halladay offering to the warning track in centerfield that probably would have been a home run in any ballpark except pitcher-friendly Sun Life Stadium.
Other than the aforementioned close calls, the Marlins were woefully overmatched. In a league where nowadays every pitcher seems to be throwing 95 mph fastballs, Halladay’s heater mostly sat in the low 90s. However, his fastballs were never straight; every pitch either sunk or cut. He used his fastball to establish both corners of the plate, and complemented these pitches with off-speed options – a curveball and a changeup – to keep hitters off balance.
Chris Coughlan, the Marlins’ pesky leadoff hitter, struck out twice on cut fastballs that started at the middle of the plate and darted to the outside edge of the strike zone. Power hitters Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla were also punched out twice. For the game, Halladay recorded 11 K’s. He induced 6 fly outs, 2 infield pop-ups, and 8 ground outs.
Halladay was dominant. He was clinical. If it weren’t for the humid Miami weather, he might not have broken a sweat.
But that was the magic of Halladay. He put in an incredible amount of effort to make his pitching outings appear effortless. Halladay put himself through an intensive predawn preseason routine and extensive in-season workouts in order to stay at the top of his game. His mental approach was so impressive that the Phillies invited the retired pitcher to spring training to share his secrets. Halladay, an adherent of the teachings of Harvey Dorfmann, had an unparalleled ability to stay locked in the present and focused on executing the next pitch.
The perfect game was simply a precursor of what would become a special season for Halladay, who claimed the Cy Young Award and tossed a playoff no-hitter. Not even a groin injury in the NLCS could slow down the Phillies’ workhorse.
Contemplating the accident that claimed Halladay’s life in November remains a bit surreal. The determination that Halladay was under the influence of a cocktail of drugs when he crashed his private aircraft in the Gulf of Mexico only adds to the incomprehensible nature of his untimely demise.
Who knows what he was thinking. It would be easy to speculate. Often, we get a glimpse of a few pages of a famous person’s life and pretend as if we’ve read the entire book. Ultimately, none of us is immune to making mistakes and destructive decisions.
But for two hours on a May evening in Miami in 2010, Roy Halladay was able to slip the bonds of human fallibility and attain one of the most extraordinary feats a pitcher can accomplish in baseball. Given the evolution of the game, focused as it is on matchups and increasingly relying on relievers, the perfect game will only become rarer. It will be another entry on what should be a Hall of Fame resume for the best pitcher in the game in the first decade of the 2000s.