When Roy Halladay announced his retirement last fall, being the huge baseball fan that I am, I went directly to his Baseball Reference page, curious to see if he had the credentials to make it into the Hall of Fame. We’ll get to that in a little bit but for now I want to highlight a special game in his pre-rookie season. We probably all remember Halladay for having inhuman stamina, rarely missing the strike zone, and even more rarely missing a start. But the way he kicked off his career should not be forgotten.
September 27, 1998, the 162nd game of the season. The Tigers entered the game 65-97, miles away from playoff contention, as were the Blue Jays. They entered the game 88-74, which is quite good and would have been good enough for a half game out of first in the Central, and tied for first in the West. However, since the Yankees went off for 114 wins, the poor Jays good season was for naught, putting them in third in the East. At this point in the season, both teams had nothing to lose, so the Jays decided to bring up 21-year old Denver native named Roy Halladay (I assume hundreds of people called him Holiday by mistake for a year or two). Halladay’s Major League debut was good, not great, pitching five innings against the Devil Rays, giving up 8 hits and 2 earned runs. It was his second career start that set the pace for his workhorse of a career.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon at 78 degrees in Toronto, actually a record warm for this late in the year. 38,000 fans filed into the Rogers Centre to see the finale of the 1998 campaign against the international rival Detroit Tigers. Doc began the game smoothly, striking out two of the first three batters, likely from his nasty cutter. On the other side of the ball, Tigers starter Justin Thompson also had a relatively smooth inning, walking leadoff man Shannon Stewart and then retiring the next three. The subsequent innings showed that Halladay meant business in the game of baseball. The top of second brought the heart of the Tigers order: Tony “Tall Glass of Water” Clark, Luis Gonzalez, and slugging Robert Fick. Two easy groundouts, and a strikeout looking on only 8 pitches.
The rest of the start was much like the first two innings. Halladay was so dominant, he only had one 3-ball count. In fact, out of 29 batters faced, only six of them had an at-bat long enough to get to ball 2. Only three innings required more than 10 pitches to retire the Tigers.
All in all, he racked up 8 strikeouts, 5 swinging, 95 pitches, 0 walks, and one hit.
It is that one hit that would prevent Halladay from achieving history. At 21 years and 4 months, he would have been the second youngest pitcher to throw a no-hitter in American League history, second to Vida Blue. He would have joined Bobo Holloman and Wilson Alvarez to be the only pitchers throw a no-hitter in his first two starts (Clay Buchholz would join that group in 2007).
It wasn’t just any hit. It wasn’t a third inning line drive. It wasn’t a sixth inning bloop that would draw some disappointment from the more attentive fans. It wasn’t an eighth inning bunt that would draw booing and jeering from the Toronto faithful. Oh no, it was an absolute dagger that resulted in sheer anger and exasperation: a ninth inning, two out, opposite field home run.
In the top of the fourth inning, Jays second basemen Craig Grebeck was taken from the game and replaced with Felipe Crespo. Crespo botched the very first ground ball he saw, allowing Clark to reach first on his error. Had Crespo fielded this ball cleanly, Halladay would have had a bid at a perfect game going into the ninth. Instead, he had to settle for a no-hit bid. Ho hum.
Halladay was not phased; he struck out five more batters and allowed only two balls out of the infield from the 4th to the 9th innings.
At this point late in the game, Halladay took the mound only three outs from history. The Tigers had 8-9-1 coming up to try to stave off the embarrassment of a no-hitter. Gabe Kapler lined out sharply to left fielder Shannon Stewart to lead off the inning.
Paul Bako, pinch hitting for the smiley and young Deivi Cruz, weakly grounded to second after a relatively respectable at-bat (he was one of the few to work a 2-ball count).
Two out, and one more relatively easy out in Kimera Bartee who had already struck out twice and was only hitting .194 on the season.
Manager Larry Parrish, grasping at straws for any type of offense, then called on Bobby Higginson to pinch hit for center fielder Bartee. Higginson was having a solid season, batting .284 with 24 home runs to this point. He had never faced this young stud in Halladay. None of the Tigers had, and boy did it show.
The lightly goateed slugger toed the plate and calmly served the first pitch he saw to the left field bleachers. All 38,000 fans at the Rogers Centre assumably sat down in disbelief that this kid had just been robbed of a golden opportunity to assert himself as one of the best rookie performances in history.
I have scoured the internet to find any hint at how he reacted. The New York Times merely says the rookie pitcher was one out away from history. The free Detroit Free Press archives do not go back far enough to include this game. Similarly, the Detroit News archives begin January 1, 1999. In a postgame interview, the Toronto Star reported Halladay saying “I’m going to feel that there’s a lot of pressure next year, probably some more expectations.” Did he throw his glove down in disgust? Did he shake his head out of incredulousness or upset that he threw a bad pitch? Did he curse into his glove? Probably not, Halladay is a classy guy. But as a 21-year old, who knows.
Knowing him, he probably shook his head, asked for a new ball from home plate umpire Jim McKean, and threw his nastiest pitch of the afternoon to nail Frank Catalanotto, who lined out to short on the next pitch to end the game. The game took only an hour and forty-five minutes.
Jays 2, Tigers 1. Halladay’s one mistake and Higginson’s 379 foot rocket cost him a place in history.
As always, thanks for reading. I’ll do another post in the near future about his Hall of Fame credentials and why he was the last of a dying breed.