NEW YORK — There really wasn’t anything left for Matt Harvey to say, and that was the power of the moment. We live in a time when there are more ways to communicate with people than ever before — Tweet it, Instagram it, Vine it, Snapchat it, Pinterest it, Facebook it, Facetime it, blog it, comment it, text it, put it on a t-shirt — but in so many ways it seems harder than ever to actually get across what you really want to say. Saturday night, Matt Harvey understood that. He didn’t say anything. He just pitched.
A month ago, Harvey found himself in the middle of what he calls “lots of speculation and talk going around.” That’s one way to describe it.
“HARVEY TWO-FACE,” is how the New York Daily News described it, with a photograph of Matt Harvey looking like the Batman villain who cannot make up his mind.
“Go ahead,” wrote the New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro. “Be mad. Be furious. Boil all your venom and aim it all at Matt Harvey, who’s got it coming.”
“Mr. Mutt,” was the general takeaway of New York radio callers.
Well, what happened was that Harvey found himself at the crux of baseball’s great money riddle. Harvey gets paid $600,000 or so dollars this year, a tidy sum by almost any other measure. But according the baseball site Fangraphs or any reasonable valuation of a player who helps pitch the New York Mets into the postseason, his actual worth was north of $35 million. This is not a scandal, however. This is how baseball works. You pay your dues while you’re young and you get your money when you’re in decline. In Washington, 22-year-old Bryce Harper just had a season for the ages, a $75 million dollar season. He will get paid for it in 2019, probably by another team. That is: Assuming he stays healthy.
Harvey will also become a free agent in 2019, which means he too will wait until then to rake in his winnings — again, assuming he stays healthy. In Harvey’s case, however, health is a complicating factor. He just missed an entire year recovering from Tommy John surgery. Nobody has a clear idea how to protect pitchers’ elbows and shoulders, but the prevailing wisdom is that fewer innings and fewer pitches is a sensible policy after major surgery. A month ago, Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, went public and, quoting Harvey’s surgeon, demanded that the Mets keep Harvey at a strict inning count.
You couldn’t blame Boras. They call Harvey “The Dark Knight,” but that’s really Boras. His job is to get a healthy Harvey to the money store. That means three more years of keeping that elbow and shoulder sound. Boras had successfully negotiated the shutdown of Washington’s Stephen Strasburg under eerily similar circumstances three years ago. The Nationals shut down Strasburg after 159 innings, perhaps costing themselves their best shot at the World Series.
But what Boras and Harvey found, to their dismay, is that Washington ain’t New York. Washington is used to government shutdowns. New York … well, let’s just say that Mets general manager, Sandy Alderson, was a marine in Vietnam. He wasn’t about to let an agent tell him how to run his baseball team. And he knew just where New York would come down.
So that’s what Harvey meant when he talked blandly about “lots of speculation and talk going around.” He wanted to play, but he also wanted to give himself the best chance to stay healthy. He wanted to listen to his surgeon, the guru of Tommy John surgeries — Dr. James Andrews — but he also wanted to be New York’s Dark Knight. It was a touchy situation to be in. Harvey thought he could explain himself well enough to get across his feelings.
Uh, no. Harvey has long tried to use all the new technologies of communications to say what he wants to say. He once Tweeted a photo of himself with the middle finger up, which he deleted after he said it was misunderstood. He once sent out what the papers called “a fawning thank you to Donald Trump,” which he deleted after he said it was misunderstood. He once posted on Instagram a photograph of himself chilling on a private jet, which he later countered with an angry rejoinder that seemed a shot at the media for making too much of it.
“It really sucks how words can get used and completely taken out of context,” Harvey Tweeted back in July, months BEFORE the whole innings thing blew up.
And when it blew up, he tried to say whatever it is that he wanted to say — and it was a disaster. He might have been trying to get across the thorny predicament he was in, but all what most people in New York heard was that with the Mets in position to go to the postseason for the first time in almost decade and a chance to win the World Series for the first time since before Harvey was even born, he wanted to check out and protect his arm for that payday down the road.
The more Harvey tried to talk, the more muddled the message, the worse it got. “I will pitch in the playoffs,” he assured everyone in an essay in the Players Tribune, but even this explanation left people cold (“Harvey does 180” the headlines said). It’s one of the great ironies of our time. Everybody’s talking at us. And we don’t hear a word they’re saying.
Saturday night, the talk ended. Matt Harvey started NLCS Game 1 against the Chicago Cubs, and he had a plan. The Cubs crush fastballs. Harvey is a fastball pitcher. So for one night (and, as they say in New York, one night only) Harvey would alter the very way he pitches.
He threw change-ups. He threw sliders. He threw curveballs. Harvey always mixes in these pitches but on Saturday night, in the cold New York air, he baffled and irritated and frustrated the Cubs with bending stuff on the corners. In the first two innings, he threw more of those pitches than fastballs.
And the Cubs were stifled. They swung and missed a lot. When they hit the ball hard, it was generally right at a perfectly placed Mets defender. “His command was outrageous tonight,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I mean, the changeup was outstanding, curveball was there. Heck, he didn’t just throw that many fastballs all night, and if he did, he didn’t want to throw it for a strike.”
He did throw plenty of fastballs on the night but almost all of them to the bottom of the Cubs order. The Cubs’ core guys who feast on fastballs — Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler — got instead an exasperating array of slow stuff. Of the 29 pitches those four saw Saturday night, only 10 were fastballs and one of those was a see-if-you-can-hit-this fastball he threw to Kyle Schwarber in the eighth with nobody on base and the Mets comfortably up three runs.
The fact Harvey was pitching in the eighth inning said more than all the photos and comments and essays he could ever post. Between the seventh and eighth, Mets manager Terry Collins went up to Harvey to ask how he was feeling. Harvey said he wanted to go back out there. Collins let him.
“I try not to get involved in some of that stuff because it’s really nothing I can control,” Collins would say of the inning limit storm. “But I talk to this guy every day. I know exactly what he’s about, and he wants the baseball. He wants it.”
“I wanted this game bad,” Harvey confirmed.
But those, again, are words. And those don’t always get through. Harvey has every right to protect himself for the big payday that waits. But in the passion of this National League Championship Series, he asked to go back out for the eighth inning. And when he reappeared on the mound, with the Mets leading, with the city believing, the crowd chanted his name. He got two outs, then faced Schwarber, threw that challenging fastball, watched Schwarber hit it 12,000 feet and then left the game up two runs. Everyone shrugged and cheered like mad as the Dark Knight made his exit.
“I give him a lot of thanks for trusting me,” Harvey said. He meant manager Terry Collins. Or he might have something more.