The street was quiet along Roy’s house this morning. Thirty years later, I still think of the old two-story in Aurora as his place. I pulled up to the sidewalk, sat in my vehicle, and stared.
I went past the grassy park where we played catch. I went to the baseball field where we were teammates. I stopped outside our elementary school, where we spent our recesses tossing a tennis ball against the wall, trying to throw as hard as we could.
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Lots of people knew Roy Halladay as perhaps the most dominant pitcher of my generation, the former high school kid from Colorado who went on to play 16 seasons in the major leagues and became the smolderingly intense pitcher who went by the gun-slinging nickname “Doc.” He won two Cy Young Awards as the best pitcher in his league; he threw the second playoff no-hitter in baseball history. He might have a bronze plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame someday.
But to me he was just Roy.
To me, he was my friend.
Roy called Arvada his hometown. That’s what television news shows and newspapers said when word came yesterday that he’d died in a plane crash, off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico. He was just 40 years old. For me though, we’ll always be two baseball-loving kids from Aurora—boys who bonded over a game and became close friends because of it.
The memories have come rushing back in the 24 hours since I got the text from my wife, delivering the news about Roy’s death. They were faded, gauzy moments from our early childhood together, but those bursts have suddenly become vivid and intense and—on a day like this—are so meaningful to me.
There was our first Little League baseball team, when we were kindergartners dressed in orange jerseys and blue jeans and Roy could already chuck a ball on a rope across the dirt infield and hit harder and farther than any kid in our league. When we got older and Roy moved to a team coached by his father, he became a pitcher. Obviously, he was pretty much unhittable. Before games, a couple teammates and I would see Roy on the field and chat him up. Basically, we were trying to talk Roy into not embarrassing us at the plate. Roy would smile that big, goofy smile of his. Then he’d strike us out.
At Sagebrush Elementary School, we were in homeroom together. We’d learn our spelling words and do our math together. My dad came in one time to talk about his job as an engineer. I thought his work was dreadfully boring. Roy told me afterward that my dad was a good public speaker.
We paired up for a school talent show in third grade. We looked for baseball books in the library. We pounded a tennis ball against one of the school’s walls. The teachers never tried to stop us. For Roy’s ninth birthday party, I remember shooting red, plastic water rockets in his front yard.
He was a quiet kid, unassuming and friendly and pretty much the kind of person everyone deserves in their lives. His blond hair stuck out everywhere. Even back then—before he grew to 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds—he was a big kid. He never lorded his size over anyone. He never picked on anyone. He never said a bad thing about anyone. He was always smiling and happy and I loved him for that.
It must have been 1985 when he came to school one morning with a black eye. You could see the imprint from the baseball stitches near one of his eyebrows. The black and purple ring, at least to me, was hilarious. I teased him all day. The baseball star couldn’t catch, I said. Roy didn’t say anything. He just laughed. That night, I got hit in the eye. I didn’t want to come to school, certain that Roy would enjoy giving it back to me in some kind of karmic comeuppance. Instead, he asked if I was OK.
Long after we moved apart, years after the Toronto Blue Jays took him with a first-round pick in 1995 and he started showing up on my television and in my sports magazines and on baseball cards, Roy became known for what I’ve heard described as his “quest for excellence.” As he blossomed into an eight-time All-Star, he rarely spoke publicly about who he was or what he was trying to achieve. In spring training, he was known for arriving at the baseball field at 5 a.m. He’d work his pitches and his body, always striving to get better.
Our bus stops were at the same small park in our neighborhood, probably less than 100 yards from each other. I can’t remember who made the suggestion, but one day it was decided: We’d bring our baseball gloves and a ball and we’d find a spot in the middle of our stops. For months, we’d arrive at that place 15 minutes before the bus arrived and we’d throw. He’d throw his fastball; every once in awhile, he’d try a curve. I’d try to make sure Roy’s pitches didn’t kill me. We’d throw and throw, not saying much, just enjoying the little pop in our leather gloves, enjoying the quiet company. Today, that’s my happiest memory of our lives together.
The condolences have come in from friends. I don’t know that I’ve earned them—Roy and I hadn’t talked in more than 25 years—but they are welcomed nonetheless. I moved from the old neighborhood first, with my parents to Parker. Shortly after, Roy and his family left for Arvada. Our parents weren’t close, so that was pretty much the end of our relationship. I saw Roy again about five years later, at a baseball tournament when we were both in the eighth grade. My team was just happy to be there. Roy came to dominate. He probably did. I walked up to him before one of his games and we talked. For the life of me, I wish I could remember what we’d said.
This morning, sitting in my vehicle and staring at his old home, it hurts that I can’t.