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Looking Out For No. 33

I’ve never run through a brick wall, not even figuratively, but an advance viewing of the E:60 documentary Matt Harvey: The Dark Knight Rises [1] filled me with the impulse to follow the title character through one. Seriously, where he throws, I will follow. The same film also convinced me that Matt probably put his head down and stormed a few brick walls to make his rehabilitation regimen as rigorous as possible.

And I mean that literally.

ESPN may have wanted to track Harvey from Tommy John surgery forward to illustrate “the high-stakes comeback of a pitching phenom,” as the Worldwide Leader’s promotional material puts it, but my interest was purely parochial. Somebody made a movie about a Met and invited me to a screening. Of course I wanna see it.

If this provides you with proper impetus to watch or DVR when ESPN airs its good work Saturday night at 7:00 (or reairs Monday night at 10, after the network’s tripleheader coverage of Opening Day), then you’ll have chosen wisely. This is ace pitcher porn, never mind the callbacks to his Body Issue photo shoot [2]. It’s Harvey being Harvey, reminding us why we fell in love [3] with some combination of him, his performance and his persona. It’s additional reassurance — coupled with what he’s done all spring [4] — that this guy is as seriously ready to go as could be.

Because Harvey’s career to date has totaled only a little more than year and change of playing time, there wasn’t a ton of archival game footage for producer Ben Houser and reporter Jeremy Schaap to rely on. I’m tempted to suggest this E:60, textured as it is, could’ve been E:45 given that some already familiar notes are struck repeatedly. Ultimately, though, that’s OK, because it means you keep seeing Harvey 2013 over and over, and personally, I can’t see Harvey 2013 enough (save for his final game that summer against Detroit, when the sense that something was wrong [5] with his golden arm permeated the Promenade).

There’s Harvey striking out batters from coast to coast.

There’s Harvey at the center of the Citi Field All-Star bonanza.

There’s Harvey putting away White Sox even as blood trickles from his right nostril…as if a little blood can stop such a big talent.

Matt’s path since he exited the stage and emerged from elbow repair has been well documented but never as deeply as in this film. As Dr. James Andrews attests, the hardest part of the Tommy John process, once the patient has put away his middle finger [6], comes after. Indeed, nothing looks easy, mostly because it is a physical challenge to consistently throw a baseball when your arm is in pristine shape, but partly, I get the feeling, because like the Ike & Tina Turner Revue [7], Matt Harvey never does anything nice and easy.

So we see the rough stuff. We grunt along with Matt. We bundle up and run the vacant ballpark in winter when nobody (save for the cameras) is looking. We also get our backs up against the recurring drizzle of criticism Harvey attracts for being Harvey, the parts where maybe he made being Matt Harvey — out and about and all that — look a little too nice and easy.

To which, in so many words, Harvey still takes out his middle finger. Metaphorically, that digit seems to be in All-Star condition.

The man’s a little defensive about his lifestyle? Listen, pitching is the first line of defense. It would be an exaggeration to glean from The Dark Knight Rises that Harvey doesn’t give a fig what you think of his post-5 o’clock activities. If he didn’t give a fig, he wouldn’t have expended quite as much energy defending them to Schaap, explaining that he was spending his days working his sculpted behind off, so leave the Knight his nights.

One of the themes of the movie is Matt’s potential place in the pantheon of New York Legends of the most glamorous order. In modern terms, that’s interpreted by the filmmakers as Mantle, Namath and Jeter. (I might have thrown in DiMaggio, Gifford and Frazier as well.) The Mets, if you think about it, have been vastly underrepresented in the league where on-field incandescence meets off-field ooh-la-la. Seaver wasn’t a nightlifer. Hernandez was more sophisticate than playboy. Gooden and Strawberry did their worst damage behind closed doors. Piazza was seen at the China Clubs of his time but he brought his star with him from L.A.

Matt About Town is sort of a new breed in our ranks. I doubt most Mets fans would begrudge Harvey his comely companions, his pauses for paparazzi on various red carpets, the great seats he gets at non-baseball sporting events. We’ll take whatever went into making him Matt Harvey, New York Mets ace, and whatever returns him to his rightful station. In the film, we meet a high school kid who considered the offer of a million-dollar signing bonus (Angels, third round, 2007) something of an insult and a college athlete who basically chased his UNC coach off the mound when he tried to preserve his arm for future endeavors. Self-confidence does not appear to have ever been a problem for Matt Harvey. Self-regard, either. That he sort of dismisses the idea that maybe the team’s owners don’t approve of all his activates isn’t gonna lose him any points with us.

Is the Matt we meet via E:60 lovable? Not particularly. Not a “bad guy,” especially considering the high-fashion threads we’re elated to see him wear between the white lines, but not exactly America’s sweetheart, either. Temperamentally, perhaps he can be framed as following in the footsteps of a different set of larger-than-life sportsmen.

• Future Mets attitude coach Bob Gibson is revered for barking Tim McCarver back behind the plate (“the only thing you know about pitching,” Gibby told his catcher, “is you can’t hit it”).

• Early Wynn legendarily reserved the right to knock down his own mother “if she were crowding the plate”.

• Leo Durocher pointedly preferred “ballplayers who come to kill you”.

We’ve had our share of fellas who, in the Durocherian parlance, who when “they lose a ballgame, they go home, they have a nice dinner, they put their heads down on the pillow and go to sleep.” It’s not mentioned in this production, but Matt’s reaction to his first encounter with pitching a solid game but the Mets losing — “In my eyes, if we scored one run, I should have done my part and gotten zeroes, but I didn’t do that tonight. I didn’t do my job.” — told me he takes his pitching as seriously as any Met who’s ever dropped and driven. Take that attitude to the mound, you can take whatever attitude you like to go high-end clothes shopping.

The feelgood payoff of The Dark Knight Rises is when we see Harvey return to action in Port St. Lucie…and do so for our favorite team. The haunting undertone arrives with the realization that Matt Harvey’s favorite team is Matt Harvey. Never mind that he rooted for some other New York ballclub as a kid or that he detoured to the Bronx one infamous evening last September to take advantage of his celebrity access to the hottest tickets going. (No, I didn’t care for his appearance at Jeter’s farewell, but I tried to look at it as him serving as the Mets’ special envoy to a veritable state funeral.) Matt Harvey, so relatively young, seems to have long ago shed his innocence as others might take off the baby weight. He has clearly figured out baseball is a business. When he speaks of his struggle to come all the way back, we relish that he’s a Met and we hope he’ll always be a Met, but you can feel him first and foremost looking out for No. 33.

You can’t blame him, but you wouldn’t mind maintaining a little illusion that when free agency eventually looms, he wouldn’t think of being ready to go.

***

While you’re waiting to watch Matt Harvey: The Dark Knight Rises, may we suggest a couple of entertaining features to enjoy in the interim.

Unhittable: Sidd Finch and the Tibetan Fastball is a 30 for 30 Short on Grantland.com that revisits the Siddsteria of right around this time of year in 1985. When we talk about Mets aces, it seems we only recall Finch’s unmatched exploits in early April. This delightful film [8] will explain why.

Crain’s New York Business Presents New York Stories presents one of the best going via a visit with Jay Goldberg at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse [9]. Watch this interview [10] and you’ll be rounding third and headed to 67 E. 11th St. in Manhattan to partake in Jay’s exquisite slice of our National Pastime. I realized on my last stop at his shop that when you approach his front door from the Broadway side, the awning that greets you says, simply, BASEBALL. Who wouldn’t want to run inside a store like that?