Roy Halladay and the Kobe Bryant Aftershock

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

First let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way.  Yes, Roy Halladay was a fantastic pitcher.  A Hall of Famer.  A wonderful part of baseball history; an indelible part of Phillies history, even.  His #34 should be retired (at least by the Blue Jays).  Okay, done.

Now let’s talk.  While a Hall of Fame pitcher for Toronto, Halladay was a great pitcher for all of two years here in Philadelphia.  He won a total of 55 games in pinstripes – two more than Don Carman.  Of course, he won a Cy Young Award in 2010 and pitched two no-hitters – one of them perfect – but other players have had excellent albeit abbreviated stints here, too.  We remember those seasons and those players but we manage to keep it all in perspective.  Hell, John Denny won a Cy Young Award here in 1983.  He even started two World Series games in pinstripes.  The Phillies seemed to have had a steady handle on Halladay’s tenure here, at least until Kobe Bryant’s tragic helicopter crash.  Then something changed.

After Halladay’s awful death in a 2017 plane crash the Blue Jays did the right thing and retired his number.  The Phillies did the right thing as well by honoring him on their Wall of Fame.  It was the appropriate honor for someone who unquestionably touched the city’s baseball fans during his short time here.  The Phillies Wall of Fame is an eclectic collection.  There are the all-timers, of course — Schmidt, Carlton, Ashburn, Robin Roberts, but there are also those who resonate only with Phillie fans – Juan Samuel, Darren Daulton, Pat Burrell, John Kruk.  And then there’s John Vukovich, who is perhaps there to remind everyone not to take the whole damn thing so seriously.  Halladay fits nicely here.

Halladay gave the city two indelible moments and for that he deserves to be remembered. The Wall of Fame honor did that even though the Phillies turned the page from Halladay pretty quickly after his arm finally gave out in 2013.  They issued his #34 to A.J. Burnett the next season.  Then Aaron Harang wore it, followed by A.J. Ellis, Brett Oberholtzer and, finally, Andrew Knapp in 2017.  After Halladay died Knapp switched numbers, which was appropriate – it would have been jarring to see #34 in 2018 and think of anyone other than the pitcher who thrilled the city just a few years before. 

Then Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash.  And for some reason a week later the Phillies decided not only that the Brett Oberholtzer’s of the world wouldn’t wear #34 next year or even for the next few years but that nobody, ever, would wear it again.  Fair enough, but Halladay has been retired since 2013 and deceased since 2017.  Which suggests that this move has more to do with Kobe Bryant than Roy Halladay. 

Interestingly, the number Knapp switched to in 2018 was 15.  There’s another guy in Phillies history who wore that number for a long time, thrilled fans with his otherworldly ability, and holds the record for enduring more crap than any player in club history: Dick Allen.  The Phillies not only won’t retire Allen’s number, they sometimes appear to go out of their way to scrub him from their history.  Sure, they’ll bring him back for a Wall of Fame event once in a while but you get the feeling they sort of wish they didn’t have to deal with him and his legacy.  Every time his name comes up so also arises a discussion of what absolute ogres so many within the organization and fans in the stands were to him when, on the field, he was the Roy Halladay of his time – the pinstriped Übermensch who could seemingly perform feats on a baseball diamond nobody else in the game would even contemplate. 

If the Phillies want to retire Halladay’s number, fine.  Even though the event itself seems to bear a closer relationship to Bryant’s death under similar circumstances and the club’s calculated eagerness for a large gate in a season that promises to be challenging when it comes to ticket sales, so be it.  But it should now be clear that they’ve opened the door when it comes to this honor.  Yes, Halladay is a Hall of Famer but he’s not a Phillies Hall of Famer.  Joe Morgan’s in the Hall of Fame too and he was not only a Phillie for a short time like Halladay, he was instrumental in accomplishing something as a Phillie Halladay never could – strapping the club on his back and seemingly willing it to a World Series.  But there’s no rush to retire his #8 down at Citizens Bank Way.  Allen may never had led the Phillies to postseason glory but he was the club’s first black superstar and paid a hefty price for being so.  Some might say he’s still paying that price, over a half-century later.

If the Phillies are interested in doing the right thing they ought to tell Andrew Knapp it’s time for him to switch numbers one more time.

Mitch Nathanson's biography of the former Yankee and "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton is coming out in May.  Follow him on Twitter.  Or don't.  Either way he'll survive.

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