We should have known what we were witnessing. A hot July night in the Phoenix desert made only hotter when then 23-year-old Matt Harvey stepped onto a big league mound for the first time and delivered 11 strikeouts over 5.1 shutout innings. The flame-thrower continued his meteoric rise, culminating with his selection as the starting pitcher for the 2013 National League All-Star team. An elbow tear and ultimately Tommy John surgery derailed what was shaping up to be one of the best seasons by a Mets starting pitcher in club history, but it didn't dampen Harvey's brashness and spirit.
The New York sports landscape is littered with unique characters. Babe Ruth was larger than life on the diamond and off. The "Old Prefessor," Casey Stengel was a media darling as was Yogi Berra. Reggie Jackson was the straw that stirred the drink for the Yankees and "Broadway" Joe Namath played second fiddle to no one. The bright lights of New York have devoured many an athlete, but the special ones have thrived here. So far, Harvey has taken to the Big Apple like a moth to a flame, often to the Mets' chagrin.
The native of New London, Connecticut quickly made it clear that he not only wanted to pitch and succeed in the major leagues, but to dominate. In fact, Harvey was beginning to show his brash demeanor all the way back in 2011 when he told the Post:
"I play the game to win, I play the game hard, the way it should be played. I want to be great, and I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen. I’m never satisfied."
Is there a better description of Harvey's bulldog mentality than him pitching through a bloody nose in May, 2013?
But not all of Harvey's popularity stem from his pitching exploits. Never shy with the press or in the spotlight, Harvey is often seen at Madison Square Garden taking in a Knicks game or watching his beloved New York Rangers. Of course the press eats it up, photographing him and his supermodel girlfriends from every possible angle. Speaking of photography, Harvey left nothing to the imagination with his appearance in ESPN the Magazine's 2013 The Body Issue. Then came his hilarious skit on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon prior to last year's All-Star game, vaulting him into the national spotlight.
Of course it hasn't all been smooth sailing. As outspoken and spotlight-hungry as Harvey is, there are bound to be hiccups. An interview published in the August 2013 issue of Men's Journal quoted him as saying:
[Derek Jeter] is the model. I mean, first off, let's just look at the women he's dated. Obviously, he goes out—he's meeting these girls somewhere—but you never hear about it. That's where I want to be."
Harvey responded to the interview by saying he was "embarrassed" and that the piece didn't accurately portray who he really was. He also mentioned wanting to earn a $200 million contract, bold talk for a player who had just over one year of major league experience at the time the interview appeared in print.
Then there is Twitter, the darling of so many athletes who continue to use it as a sounding board without realizing how much trouble they can cause themselves. Harvey's Twitter account currently has more than 100,000 followers, but it was his infamous middle-finger tweet on April 22 of this year that temporarily caused him to delete his Twitter account when the Mets asked him to remove the photo. He has also taken to Twitter to loudly proclaim he plans on pitching in 2014, something he reiterated just recently after throwing off the mound for the first time since surgery last October.
All of this attention and buzz may have made him a fan favorite, but it has clearly caused the Mets' front office angst. General manager Sandy Alderson has all but definitively ruled out Harvey stepping on a big league mound this season and made it known back in February that his prized right-hander would not be the focus this year.
"The thing that maybe I should try to make clear at the very outset of this camp is that the story for 2014 is not Matt Harvey. The story for 2014 will be the other 25 players that we have active."
Things only got more tense between the club and Harvey when he threatened to go to the player's association after Mets public relations maven Jay Horwitz tried to stop him from conducting a one-on-one interview with Andy Martino of the Daily News. The incident stemmed from Harvey's desire to remain with the Mets when they were in New York and rehab there, as opposed to spending the entire summer in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
"I expressed that seven months in Port St. Lucie is a long time. For me, I strongly felt that my best opportunity, and my motivation to come back quicker, stronger, work harder would be to be with the teammates. That’s kind of what I have always said. I have worked so hard to get to the big leagues and be with this team, it just felt like all of a sudden I was shooed to the back."
Simply put, the Mets need to lighten up. You would think that a franchise that is on the edge of apathy in its relationship with its fan base would enjoy one of their own drumming up interest. Yet for some reason, the Mets' brass still quake in their collective boots from the memory of the hard-partying players of the mid-1980s, ignoring the fact those clubs constituted the franchise's most successful period in its 53-year history.
No, the Mets want their team to be boring, whether they admit to it or not. But continuing to muzzle and butt heads with a personality like Harvey is a mistake. Sure, there will be the occasional eye-rolling and throwing-hands-in-the air moments. You take the good with the bad, and compared to many of today's modern athletes, Harvey's outspokenness is nothing more than innocent fodder.
While David Wright still holds claim as the face of the Mets, he has always carefully chosen his words, choosing to go the route of the more robotic Jeter. There is nothing wrong with that. Wright is one of the classiest players in the major leagues, but when it comes to generating charisma and excitement, he falls far short of his teammate. Wright exudes the class and grace of Frank Sinatra. Harvey, on the other hand, is Elvis Presley: young, energetic, and rebellious.
The Mets would be wise to appreciate what they have in Harvey on and off the field and let him be who he is, before he himself becomes as bland as his bosses.