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The Wilkman’s Matinee

By now Mets fans know who Adam Wilk [1] is. Prior to Sunday afternoon’s game at Citi Field, and not very long prior, the erstwhile Las Vegas 51 was a literal mystery. At the top of the Rotunda staircase, where nine Topps cards are arranged daily to represent the home team’s lineup, there were eight familiar images and one blank vertical rectangle. Not even a Mets logo was up in place of a player whose arrival wasn’t publicly forecast three hours before first pitch. There was no Adam Wilk on the radar, none. There was no card, no picture, no wisp of Wilk among the gamegoing populace unless they stumbled into the news. Some of us checked Twitter on the way to the ballpark and discovered who would be pitching (and who would not). Others passed through the turnstiles with literally no idea.

When, at 12:10 PM, Alex Anthony announced the identities of the competing starting pitchers slated to toe the rubber sixty minutes hence, there was this reaction from somewhere behind me in Section 515 regarding the identity of the Met entry:

“Adam What?”

No, Adam Wilk. Lefthander. Journeyman lefty acquired in the offseason, I could have informed the mystified; I remembered that from a passing transaction note during the winter [2] when the Mets were busy signing next to nobody, which I guess could also describe Adam Wilk. Wears number…actually, I didn’t know that much. As if to obscure the truth from their customers, the Mets didn’t post a batting order on the scoreboard until they absolutely had to. Maybe there was a computer glitch that wouldn’t allow an unfamiliar sequence like W-I-L-K to register. Maybe Adam’s jersey wasn’t yet back from Stitches of Whitestone [3] and nobody in Flushing yet knew his number was going to be 35. Those were digits that graced the uniforms of pitchers whose effectiveness while dressed as Mets few saw coming when they were first listed as probable pitchers. Rick Reed [4]. Dillon Gee [5]. Logan Verrett [6]. Each alighted with more warning than Wilk. Each acquitted himself successfully on the occasion of his first start. They were improbable pitchers, but their task wasn’t impossible. They weren’t pinged all about the continental United States [7] before being handed a baseball and instructed to face real, live batters. They didn’t materialize out of the not terribly clear blue never mind murky orange as Wilk did on Sunday.

There’s a reason for the phrase “probable pitchers”. Definite is best reserved for that which is past or present. Nothing is any more than probable in advance of occurrence. When I left the house en route to Citi Field Sunday morning, the Mets’ probable pitcher matched the identity — name and numerical — on the back of the t-shirt I decided to don, the t-shirt I bought with little hesitation in September of 2012 [8]. It couldn’t be seen underneath my hoodie and jacket in the stubborn chill and eventual drizzle of Promenade, but I was wearing HARVEY 33.

Nobody else was. Not even HARVEY 33 himself. As Wilk prepared for his first major league start in five years, Matt Harvey [9] was yesterday’s news. In truth, he turned into what was very much today’s news, but not for pitching. That was the one thing we definitely knew he wouldn’t be doing on Sunday. We didn’t know much more about what Matt was up to beyond he was suspended by the Mets for violating what the Mets called team rules. That was relayed by Sandy Alderson and disseminated through the media. That fact, like the lineup, wasn’t posted on the scoreboard. All we saw of Harvey at Citi Field was his fleeting presence in the pregame historical montage that is aired on the video screen between sponsorship announcements. Matt Harvey starting the 2013 All-Star Game. Matt Harvey shouting after completing an inning. Matt Harvey blending into the past.

At 1:10 WILK 35 took the mound. It couldn’t have been 1:20 before Giancarlo Stanton [10] took him into the Left Field Landing or whatever it’s called now. Two runners were on. Three Marlins scored. Four batters in, the competitive portion of Adam Wilk’s day was done. Same for the Mets. Wilk would throw eighty pitches. Another would be whacked by Stanton to distant precincts. Yet another met a similar fate from the bat of Adeiny Hechavarria [11]. By the time Wilk threw his eightieth pitch, his earned run average was 12.27, the score was Marlins 6 Mets 0 and the only mysteries remaining were:

1) Might the drizzle turn into full-blown rain and transform the three Marlin blasts into uncountable urban legend the way precipitation drowned Jay Bruce [12]’s home run in Atlanta last Thursday night [13]?

2) Would the Mets register as many as one hit against Marlin starter Jose Urena [14], who, by the way, hadn’t given up any yet?

3) What the fudge was going on with Harvey?

The answers were, in order: no, but it did keep drizzling throughout what became a 7-0 defeat [15], making a miserable afternoon that much more intolerable; yes, a René Rivera [16] single, which stood alone under the Mets hit column at day’s end; and who the fudge knows?

Adam Wilk did the best he could under the circumstances, which were on a par with the weather and score. Wilk shouldn’t have wound up (or been working from the stretch) on Citi Field’s mound Sunday. That was Harvey’s assignment. Harvey, in our own historical montage, wants the ball, takes the ball, throws the ball past batters and we roar with approval. Hard to cue up that image lately. Matt was battered in his previous start against the Braves. Said he was encouraged by how good the ball felt coming out of his hand [17]. I used to be encouraged by how good my pencil felt as I filled in the wrong answers on junior high math tests, but it didn’t mean the results added up. Matt’s was such a wan response compared to how he visibly burned to vanquish every hitter in sight when he debuted in 2012, when he insisted he should never give up anything when the ball came out of his hand [18], when he inspired t-shirt sales and the renaming of days in his honor.

The boilerplate Matt spouted about the ball coming out of his hand well after he gave up six runs in five-and-a-third innings reminded me of the diagnosis delivered to the titular characters by Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins) in one of my favorite movies, Step Brothers, at a juncture of the story when Doback’s son and stepson are no longer colorfully destroying his world. He should be happy at their feints toward maturity but he realizes something is missing:

“It just kills me to see you so crushed and normal.”

Of course John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell as Dale Doback and Brennan Huff weren’t coming off thoracic outlet surgery, so perhaps holding Matt Harvey to the standard set by dopey fictional characters was no more fair than continuing to cast him as the Dark Knight of Gotham. Calculating what standard to measure Harvey against has been difficult from the moment he showed he was different from other pitchers. Harvey has seemed determined to demonstrate how different he is. When he was striking out batters, it was admirable. When he’s not showing up and putting on his uniform as he didn’t Saturday — the team rule he violated in deference to a post-golf migraine [19], it was titillatingly reported before Sunday was over — his nonconformity isn’t easily written off as a lovable quirk. Or to quote from another movie I enjoy citing [20] regarding the distinction between bush and big league behavior…

“Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. Win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it only means you are a slob.”

I don’t care what’s on Matt Harvey’s shoes, who designed them, how much he paid for them or in which supermodel’s company he was wearing them as he canoodled. I used to think he’d win 20 or, more importantly, that the Mets would prevail whenever he pitched regardless of who got the decision. Matt Harvey has pitched to an ERA of 5.14 this season a year and a rib after pitching to an ERA of 4.86. I barely passed geometry, but even I know that’s good only when compared to a recently deplaned Adam Wilk.

Larger than life and an All-Star at 24; squirming at staying on the same page as management at 25 and 26; crushed and normal and a little too AWOL at 28. I still have HARVEY 33. It’s probable I’ll wear it again when next I’m supposed to see him pitch, whenever that will be. What the hell, the shirt still fits.