Thursday, May 29, 2014

Remembering Doc's No-No on Anniversary of Perfection

For Phillies fans, it was not that long ago that our team was at the top of the National League, with the best starting rotation in baseball leading the way.

Three years ago on this date the Fightins were in the midst of a franchise record-setting 101-win season, and that vaunted pitching rotation included four pitchers who had been collectively nicknamed "The Four Aces" by fans and media.

Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and arguably the Ace among Aces, Roy 'Doc' Halladay. It all seems to be drifting further and further into the rearview mirror now. Oswalt has been gone for a couple of years. Lee is on the Disabled List, and heavily rumored in trade discussion. Only Hamels remains, and is likely to remain, for the foreseeable future.

Halladay finally retired following the 2013 season, one that was frustrating and painful for himself and for fans of both the team and the man whom we had all come to love over the final four years of a brilliant career that spanned parts of 16 seasons, mostly with the Toronto Blue Jays. In what was his 2nd consecutive ineffective season cut short by injuries, Doc Halladay's gifted right arm finally was spent.

But Halladay left behind a tremendous legacy in just those brief closing seasons here in Philly. There was the Cy Young Award that he won following his first season here in 2010, a 21-win campaign that included that 'Perfect Game' on May 29th. There was that magical 2011 season in which he was the Cy Young runner-up for the record-setting Phillies who won their 5th straight NL East title. And there was that 'Perfect Game' against the Florida Marlins on this night, four years ago now.

For my wife and I, there was also a special night with Doc. It came on a cool, damp night at Citizens Bank Park in the 2010 playoffs, in what was the very first playoff game of Roy Halladay's illustrious career. It was what he had come to Philly for in the first place, a chance to win a World Series, in front of a ballpark packed to the rafters with rabid, knowledgeable fans. It was Roy Halladay's dream.

We are 'Sunday Plan' season ticket holders with the Phillies, and back in 2010 our seats were in section 208, row 6. On that night of October 6th, 2010, however, because it was a playoff game, we had been given tickets in section 313. So we were seated up above left field in foul territory, a little ways beyond first base. They were good seats, as are most at the gorgeous ballpark.

The Phillies were up by 1-0 in the series, and as this game unfolded the team staked Halladay to an early lead, scoring a run in the 1st and then 3 more in the 2nd to go up 4-0. Halladay himself had knocked in the 2nd run, and then scored the 4th. It was now up to him to hold that lead, and put the Phillies up 2-0 in the series, within one of advancing to the National League Championship Series.

On this night, there was nothing to worry about. Not only would Halladay hold that lead, he would make history. Somewhere around the 6th inning my father called my cellphone from his home in Florida, asking if I knew what was happening. Did he really think that we were not all aware that Doc Halladay was tossing a no-hitter? I told him brusquely: "Yes, and don't say anything!"

A lifelong baseball fan, as my Dad well knew, I was not going to be the one to jinx our hero.

So the game continued into the 9th inning with Halladay just three outs away from Major League Baseball's first post-season no-hitter since Don Larsen's legendary 'Perfect Game' in the 1956 World Series. That Larsen perfect effort was the only no-hitter in MLB playoff history up to that point. Halladay was going for history here, and we were there to see it.

I had been attending Phillies games since Veteran's Stadium opened back in 1971 in my old South Philly neighborhood. I had attended hundreds of games between the years at 'The Vet' and then at Citizens Bank Park once it opened in 2004. I had never, ever been this close to experiencing a no-hitter 'live' as a spectator. It was thrilling to feel the electricity in the air, and to be experiencing it with my best friend, my wife Deb.

The first two batters of that 9th and final inning went down fairly easily, both popping out. So there was just one batter between Doc, we Phils fans, and the no-hitter, the Cincinnati Reds tough and talented 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips. Doc got the first two strikes, and the fans, already on our feet the entire inning, roared for that final strike to end it.

But Halladay did not get a strikeout. Instead, Phillips barely got a piece of the 0-2 offering, and the ball dribbled out in front of home plate. You could see the entire sequence with perfect clarity from our seats, and a baseball fan who was once a catcher himself could see that this was trouble. Phillips was a speedy runner, the bat had been dropped right on top of the ball, and catcher Carlos Ruiz would need to pounce out and find a grip on that ball quickly, keep from tripping on that bat, and make a difficult-angled throw to get him.

The man known lovingly in Philly as "Chooch", one of our remaining heroes from the 2008 World Series championship team, did just that. Ruiz pounced quickly from behind the plate, barehanded the ball, and fired just over Phillips left shoulder to 1st baseman Ryan Howard, getting Phillips by a stride. No-hitter! History!

As my wife and I hugged and high-fived both each other and everyone around us, the entire ballpark was in bedlam. Fans roared and rocked the place, and the Phillies players streamed out to mob Halladay and Ruiz, who had met in a joyful embrace in front of the mound.

I will never forget that night at the ballpark for so many reasons. It was the first playoff win that I had gotten to experience at Citizens Bank Park, only the 2nd playoff game that I had ever been to there. But mostly I will remember the gift that Doc Halladay gave to Debbie and I, the gift of true baseball history.

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