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That Harvey

Throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, if I had to see the dentist, I was dragged from Long Beach to some deteriorating section of Brooklyn. We stayed loyal to our family dentist even though our family had left that deteriorating section of Brooklyn six months before I was born (later I’d find out that my mother dated the dentist before she met my father, which might explain the endless drives she was willing to endure to continue these appointments). Probably the last time I visited the dentist in question, it was the spring of 1978. I was 15, close to finishing ninth grade. While sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I picked up a copy of Esquire, then known as Esquire Fortnightly. Flipping through, I found an article about the Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill [1]. I was never terribly interested in Dorothy Hamill, figure skating or the Olympics, but something about the article — or how I recall it — stayed with me.

The headline was, “The Exploitation of Dorothy Hamill,” and it suggested, two years after she won her 1976 gold medal, that the innocence was gone. America’s winter sweetheart was now, according to reporter Philip Taubman, “a lonely frightened figure, lost on the road to fame and fortune.” Those who handled her squeezed her into unflattering costumes and disregarded her true skating talent in service to the showbizzy routines of the Ice Capades. It wasn’t a happy fit.

Dorothy was making a nice living from the arrangement, but it just wasn’t what it once was. She was an athlete, first and foremost, but to her sponsors, she represented a corporate bonanza. The shift in priorities didn’t make for a smooth transition. “Sure, it seemed so wonderful at first,” she reflected [2] in 1979, a year after the Esquire piece came out. “I was famous. I was going to be rich. But then the lawyers came rushing in, telling me what I ought to do and with whom. I was depressed, confused. I ended up in the hospital with a bleeding ulcer within a year.”

I’ve been thinking about the state of post-Olympic Dorothy Hamill, not just this weekend but really the whole season. I’ve thought of her when I’ve watched Matt Harvey [3] being Matt Harvey away from the mound. I think back to the Matt Harvey with whom we all fell in baseball love. I think of those first starts in 2012, when if he gave up two runs, he’d berate himself because the Mets scored only one, and one should have been enough for him. If the Mets scored no runs, then he insisted his job was to keep them in the game by putting up zeroes. It was unrealistic, but it was endearing.

No pitcher could put that much pressure on himself and succeed across the long term, but when 2012 became 2013, we got the sense that Matt Harvey could do anything he set his mind and his right arm to. He put up zeroes almost exclusively. He allowed his team every chance to win, and for a while the Mets never lost when he pitched. He threw an almost perfect game while his nose bled. It was revealed he stared down a bully of a veteran teammate. When he needed a run, he drove it in himself. We created a cause around him and we rallied to it.

That Matt Harvey was one of the most awesome Mets I ever rooted for. I adored that Matt Harvey. I miss that Matt Harvey.

If you saw ESPN’s documentary profiling Harvey’s comeback [4], you’ll realize that an easy, Hamillesque narrative — it was all so simple when it was just Matt and a baseball, before there was money to be made off him — doesn’t quite click here. One of the most compelling segments of The Dark Knight Rises was how Harvey, a high school kid, wouldn’t sign with the Angels, the club that first drafted him, unless they met his price. It was almost heroic the way he didn’t take a lot of money because he thought he was worth a whole lot more money.

Heartwarming, eh?

It worked to our benefit because Matt went to college, was drafted by the Mets, signed with them and we benefited. We’re still benefiting. No matter the explanations he seemed to ship to Guantanamo Bay for enhanced interrogation, he’s been a terrific pitcher for our first-place New York Mets all year. You couldn’t fill your palm with the number of bad starts he’s made.

But even before he expressed poorly timed concern for his future self’s earning ability, this Harvey wasn’t that Harvey, the one from late in 2012 and early in 2013. Frayed invincibility on the field is one thing. We all get that. Nobody’s elbow is repaired and rehabilitated and expected to come back as good as was right away. In that regard, Harvey appears to be a medical miracle. If he hasn’t been invincible, he’s been close enough.

What I miss is his belief that he’s supposed to be invincible, his not accepting setbacks as inevitable. It was ridiculous that he thought he shouldn’t ever give up a run, but I swooned at that kind of talk. After a generation of pitchers excusing their shortcomings on the altar of having done all they could and being satisfied with wherever the chips fell, Harvey didn’t take “no decision” for an answer.

Maybe he couldn’t go on like that. What am I saying? Of course he couldn’t go on like that. But even a wiser, more mature, literally scarred Matt Harvey could have given us the impression that nothing mattered to him but him and the baseball and the winning. I liked that he acted the part of the privileged character. I liked the defiant tone he set, informing us he planned to operate and succeed on a higher level. I liked that he stood out from his talented peers. Let deGrom and Syndergaard and Matz be amiable and amicable. Let Wheeler camp out in St. Lucie for a lost season. I wanted Harvey to stare down everything that was brought at him…including innings limits.

That aura was altered over the course of 2015. The Matt Harvey who said whatever occurred to him now spoke in bland platitudes, as if Dorothy Hamill’s old lawyers came rushing in, telling him what he ought to do and with whom. The Matt Harvey who you figured was His Own Man seemed to have gone through some (rather ineffective) media training. The Matt Harvey who would give up a start only if you pried it from his cold, dead fingers, gladly stepped aside for Logan Verrett [5] a couple of weeks ago.

It was the sophisticated way to be, not rocking the division-leading boat, being on board with management, maybe keeping an eye on a workload that lurked in the back of our minds, so it probably lurked a lot closer to Harvey’s frontal lobe. But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed that Matt didn’t raise a fuss when he was bypassed in Colorado and agreed to cool his heels for an extra five days. That wasn’t the Harvey I developed a Met crush on. It may have been a saner, safer Harvey, but it wasn’t that Harvey.

I didn’t dwell on it, but deep down, I think I suspected something was awry — though I surely didn’t imagine the Dark Knight voluntarily receding [6].

Not my arm. Not my payday. I keep reminding myself of that. Matt Harvey’s life intersects with mine only in that I began rooting for the enterprise that employs him two decades before he was born. Sure I want him to strike out the moon. Sure I want him to shut up and pitch for me. But it’s not my arm and it’s not my payday.

It’s his life [7].

But it’s our team. There’s an implied provision in the fan-team covenant that says we care about your well-being if you perform for us. Even if you don’t perform all that well for us, we’ll probably be decent to you, provided we’ve gotten the chance to feel we know you. We make exceptions, but we’ll usually remember you’re human. We sort of get that you can’t be the best every time we watch you. We just want you in there trying.

Or trying to try. Or insisting you’ll try if only you were physically able. There’s nothing shameful about being physically unable. Most of us are physically unable to throw a baseball hard enough for our elbows to notice our exertion. Major League pitchers have very different anatomies from us. We’re surprisingly perceptive on that count. If you’re Harvey and something’s bothering your arm — if something’s making you literally sore — speak up (softly, so the Nationals can’t hear you on the eve of a major series). A diminished version of yourself yields diminishing returns. I think back ten years ago to Braden Looper [8] hiding some kind of injury for six months, preferring to pitch through the pain to help the team. It didn’t help the team. It did the opposite. That’s the kind of thing that makes me feel indecent toward you.

If Matt Harvey is aching, then cater to the ache. Work to soothe it, to heal it, to possibly function with it. If a limb is about to fall off, take it back in for repair and get Verrett up in the pen. Proceed with utmost caution.

If Matt Harvey is thinking that nothing aches unusually now but you can’t be too careful, the winter of 2018-19 is practically around the corner, I wish he’d think about something else.

Not my arm. Not my payday. But it is our passion. Don’t you or your agent go out of your way to screw with that. And for your own good, consider what you signed up for. This is the business you’ve chosen, the business of pursuing championships (the riches tend to follow). When I’ve been in the presence of champions or just heard or read them talking about what being a champion meant and still means to them, they rarely if ever mention the check that accompanied the ring.

I haven’t been asked to pitch since I played tee ball, and if you know tee ball, you can infer what kind of pitching ability I was blessed with, so don’t listen to me. Maybe somebody who won a Cy Young [9] Award and a world championship knows the subject better. Maybe Dwight Gooden [10], who has said, in essence, take the ball and pitch [11], Matt. Maybe T#m Gl@v!ne, who has said, in essence, the exact same thing [12]. Hell, take somebody like Shaun Marcum [13], a former Met attached to no trophies and no jewelry. He went through Tommy John [14] surgery. We haven’t seen him up close since 2013, but he’s still trying to catch on and hang on. He’s just one pitcher, but like Gooden and like Gl@vine, he lands [15] on the side of “sacrific[ing] the long term to try to get to the World Series.” Another former Harvey teammate currently at liberty, the recently DFA’d David Aardsma [16], threw in his veiled two cents [17] as well: “I’ll pitch…just saying.”

Just saying isn’t the same as just doing. Harvey, in his attempt to Qualcomm a question that had only one answer appropriate for mass consumption, finessed it to a crisp and got rightly burned. It sounded so out of character to hear him say anything other than a slight variation on “give me the ball, I’m here to win.” Finesse is for changing speeds, not derailing Septembers. Agents are for negotiations, not surrenders. Call off your mouthpiece, Matt. Let Scott Boras blow hard on your behalf behind the scenes. Him hinting you wouldn’t pitch come hypothetical October, and you kinda, sorta confirming it without actually saying so, was neither a good look nor sound.

Nevertheless, so what? New York has long been graced by marquee players who were just saying things that played very badly in the moment. Reggie Jackson [18] insulted the captain of his team during his first Spring Training in pinstripes. Darryl Strawberry [19] advised us Los Angeles sure looked like a nice place for him to play full-time on the eve of a playoff showdown with Los Angeles. They were more accomplished than Matt when Matt deferred all relevant questions in the same manner Wimpy promised to pay Popeye for his hamburger [20]: to “Tuesday,” the date of his next scheduled start (sporting of him to concede he’d keep his appointment). Reggie and Darryl shook off whatever heat they took for aggravating their teams and fans by coming up big when it mattered. That’s all that matters. But to come up big, you have to show up big.

You have to show up in October if October presents itself. You don’t fool around with that. If you can’t make it, we’ll worry about it then. But don’t give us the idea it’s of secondary importance to you a month in advance. Don’t break our covenant.

Harvey, having failed the oral portion of his exam on Saturday, took to his handy Players Tribune perch Sunday and announced in headline form, “I Will Pitch in the Playoffs [21].” Since he’s the New York City Bureau Chief, I assume he writes his own headlines. He can write his own ticket by helping ensure there are playoffs for him and his less controversial colleagues to pitch in. The Mets encountered another Martin Prado [22]-shaped speed bump on their way out of Miami [23], so they can use all the help they can get.

Our overly branded young man has enough formal advisers on the business end and medical side, but I’ll extend a second opinion nobody requested. Matt: Talk like you pitch; don’t pitch like you talk.