Several days ago, I grew nostalgic for baseball season and subjected several of my sorority sisters to the movie Field of Dreams.
The Kevin Costner classic is one of those feel-good movies that’s basically a surefire way to test the quality of someone’s soul character. (If they cry at the final scene, their soul’s doing okay. If they don’t cry, they don’t have one.) None of the sisters who I forced to watch the movie were baseball fans, which led to widespread surprise from all of them when they found themselves bawling as the credits rolled.
The film centers around a farmer, Ray, who follows a divine message and builds a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield in Iowa. Over time, the baseball greats of the past — Shoeless Joe Jackson, Buck Weaver, Eddie Cicotte — visit the diamond to play the sport they loved so dearly. Every night, they disappear into the cornfield, beyond which, we can only assume, is the afterlife.
At one point, a starry-eyed baseball player looks at the picturesque diamond, then turns to Ray and asks, “Is this heaven?”
It’s one of those lines that hits you in the gut much harder than you expect. There’s something surreptitiously poetic about the idea of some eternal game of baseball for the star players who devoted their lives to it. It’s an even more poignant symbol when, all too often, we lose these stars too soon.
On Tuesday, news broke that Roy Halladay — a well-loved former pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies — died in a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. He was 40 years old, a two-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher enjoying his fourth year of retirement.
This might not have affected me at all if it weren’t for the fact that I spent last summer as an intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My Twitter feed, which grows increasingly eclectic and diverse every year, is now dominated by about 30 percent Philadelphia sports news. When Halladay passed away, it seemed that the only news that mattered on Twitter had to do with his death.
When we lose an athlete, the thing that’s hard to explain to those who aren’t fans of sports is what exactly we are mourning. Sure, Halladay was an eight-time All-Star with a stellar ERA. He threw a perfect game for the Phillies in 2010, then followed it up with a postseason no-hitter in the NLDS, notching his own sidebar in the history books of the sport.
But as fans, we mourn more than just statistics and record-setting performances. We mourn the people, the players who put on the jerseys and somehow lift the pride of our cities onto their shoulders. Perhaps the greatest flaw of sports fans is the way that we put so much stock and hope into these players who we hardly know. When they win, we win, and when they lose, we lose. We follow them on Instagram and bug them for signatures and obsess over their shoes, their hair, their taste in food and music and politics.
And then, when these players die, we feel a loss and a trauma almost too large for the relatively small impact they should have had upon our lives. I watched this as the fans of Philadelphia posted tributes and erected memorials to the former pitcher, congregating around Citizens Bank Park in crowds larger than many of those that attended the games I covered last summer.
I understand the pain that the city of Philadelphia is feeling, mainly because it was my pain only months ago. I was walking to the Daily Trojan office when I learned that Yordano Ventura, a young, loud-mouthed, hothead of a pitcher for my Kansas City Royals, had died in a tragic car accident. Months later, I still come close to tears when watching tributes made in Ventura’s honor.
The loss of Halladay had the same effect on the city of Philadelphia. There’s a pain that comes from losing these athletes, mainly because we see them as invincible. Halladay, in particular, was indomitable on the mound, this towering 6-foot-6 testament to a pitcher’s ability to exert ice-cold control over a baseball.
He was unflappable, nicknamed “Doc” because of the almost surgical way he could pick apart even the strongest team’s batting lineup. Halladay was a leader, and then a legend, for a Phillies team stuck in a down-on-its-luck period that many teams skid into after winning a World Series. He gave the city something to cheer for.
When I think of this loss, the idea of that diamond in Iowa is comforting. Because the thing about sports fans is that we’re terrible at letting go.
These players live on in memories and highlight reels, and their names and numbers are emblazoned in halls of fame and retired jerseys hanging from the rafters of stadiums. Great athletes may pass away, but their impact on the game hardly ever leaves.
I hope Halladay joined in on that eternal game, in some baseball diamond that looks a little like heaven. The game will always remember his life; and in that way, I hope he will live on in the game as well.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Thursdays.