Roy Halladay: The cold, hard truth

Mariano Rivera couldn't let it end on a warning track in Kansas City. Roy Halladay couldn't let it end with a 2 1/3IP-4H-9R-9ER-4BB-4K box-score line from hell.

Players play. Pitchers pitch. Stars reach for the sky. That's what they do. That's what they are.

And that's why Roy Halladay found himself sitting in a dugout in San Francisco on Wednesday, spinning the word that he needs arthroscopic surgery to fix a bone spur, a frayed labrum and a partially torn rotator cuff as great news.

Well, it beat the alternative, I guess. It beat reconstructing his rotator cuff, or fusing together a completely torn labrum, or having that dreaded Johan Santana re-torn-shoulder-capsule surgical nightmare.

But the truth is, it might not beat any of that by much. Certainly not by as much as he'd love to believe it does at the moment.

"They're not going in and trying to reattach the rotator cuff, which would be a year and a half [recovery time] and has a very low success rate," Halladay said Wednesday, three days after his seventh start of the Philadelphia Phillies' season turned into a seven-out nightmare. "This is a lot better option. And a lot quicker. And, at my age, a lot better for me."

But "better" is a relative term when a guy like him gets to a point like this.

The truth is that, when any pitcher is looking at having shoulder surgery of any kind for his 36th birthday (which Halladay will celebrate next Tuesday), his future is ominous.

Over at FanGraphs, Eno Sarris did the math. What he found was news Roy Halladay wouldn't want to hear.

Sarris didn't study this particular surgery. Or even shoulder surgery in general. He studied the broadest possible area that can possibly be studied involving a case like this.

He looked simply at all pitchers, age 35 or older, who merely went on the disabled list for a shoulder injury. Period.

He zeroed in on every pitcher who fit that description since 2002 -- and found that only six of them threw more than 100 innings over the rest of their careers. (Those six: John Smoltz (106), Pedro Martinez (153.2), Kenny Rogers (173.2), John Burkett (181.2), Tim Wakefield (424.1) and Orlando Hernandez (438.1).)

More than half of the pitchers he looked at (32 of 62) never threw a single big league inning again. And the group as a whole lasted an average of 59 innings before calling it a career.

Think about that: 59 innings? That's a month and a half in the life of the old Doc Halladay.

So that's what this man is up against. Cold. Hard. Medical. Reality.

He is undoubtedly going to choose one of the finest orthopedic surgeons in the world to perform this surgery. And modern orthopedic surgeons work medical miracles every day.

He is also far from your average patient. As ESPN injury guru Stephania Bell put it Wednesday, "You always have to consider the context of the player. And Roy Halladay, with his work ethic, is one in a million."

But even when the best orthopedic surgeons alive go to work, there is only so much they can do with the human shoulder. Especially when that shoulder has delivered more than 40,000 pitches. (Halladay's current total, counting the postseason: a staggering 40,605.)

"It's not like a sprained MCL in your knee," said Bell. "You do that, you rest, it heals. With a shoulder, you go in and clean it up, and try to prevent the problems from reoccurring. But you're not restoring it to its original state. … It's not going to be as good as new."

So face it. This surgery is just setting him up for a fascinating final chapter to his career.

Maybe he comes back in mid-August. Maybe he comes back in September. Maybe he spins off four or five starts that at least give the world a taste of what Roy Halladay used to be.

That would just propel him into free agency next winter, where his name alone would generate the sort of curiosity that the post-Atlanta John Smoltz once did, even though he wasn't nearly the same guy.

I asked one NL executive the other day, before we even heard Wednesday's medical bulletin: "Would you sign Roy Halladay next winter, to an incentive-heavy deal, and bet he might have something left?" The exec never hesitated.

"Of course. Why not?" he said. "If there's one guy like that you're going to bet on, wouldn't you bet on Roy Halladay?"

Now maybe Halladay never even makes it to the market. I asked him this spring if he could envision himself testing free agency. He said at the time he didn't want to be a free agent. He wanted to be a Phillie. He never wanted to leave.

But when that question was asked again Wednesday, he gave a different answer:

"You know, I don't know," he said. "I really want to get through this, come back and see how strong I can be and see how effective I can be, and see if I can help us. … I'm not going to make any decisions right now about down the road. I'm going to focus on the here and now and this process.

"I've always told you guys I love Philadelphia, love playing here. It's a great place to be. But there's a lot to be determined. I want to be effective. And I want to be a part of the team. I don't want to be a hindrance."

So we'll have to wait to connect all those dots. Wait until the surgeon goes in next week and gets a full picture of the extent of the damage. Wait until August or September, to see if Halladay makes it back at all.

Wait until he's back on a mound, assuming that happens, and see how much better he looks. Wait until we see the state of the Phillies team around him late this season: Will they be contenders at that point? Or will they be unrecognizable?

All of those answers will unfold in the months ahead. But for now, what we have here is a two-time Cy Young winner who believes there are more good days ahead -- and will do everything it's humanly possible to do to make those good times roll.

He may have to ignore all the powerful medical history that says his odds are long. But "never count out who the guy is," said Bell. "There's a component to this that remains mysterious. And that's why I don't count him out. But I don't think he's facing an easy road, by any stretch."

"Nobody wants to go out on a bad note," said Roy Halladay on Wednesday. "If you had your choice, you want to go out strong. Ideally, you want to go out as a world champion. But some of those things aren't in your control.

"I have no regrets at any point in my career," he said. "So if things don't work out and they do end on a sour note, I'm not going to look at it that way. But I really don't feel that's going to be the case. I really feel I have a shot to come back and help our team."

Maybe he's right. Maybe he's wrong. Maybe he's dreaming the same dreams all the great ones dream when the end nears. But if those 40,605 pitches have earned him anything, it's the right to dream of a happier ending than 2 1/3-4-9-9-4-4.