Baseball is difficult and contingent and deeply cruel under the best of circumstances, and playing baseball for the New York Mets is not the best of circumstances. It is a big-league job and pays commensurately, and when things are going well it comes with a gaudy suite of perks and sweeteners, but there are ways in which it is both much harder than it should be and much harder than other big-league jobs. These are not the ones that the city’s gassy and unappeasable tabloids or sports-talk gabagool aficionados tend to cite—The Biggest Stage and The Brightest Lights and whatever—and they’re not solely the product of those tabloids or radio creatures, either. It’s tough to play for the Mets because it’s tough to play baseball at a high level anywhere, and because the Mets tend to make it very tough in large and small ways that other teams just don’t, and maybe can’t. It is difficult to explain, but if you followed Matt Harvey over his six years with the Mets—which came to end on Friday afternoon when the team designated him for assignment after he refused to go to Triple-A Las Vegas—you at least understand what that difficulty looks like.
Both the Mets and their erstwhile ace brought a great deal of dysfunction to a relationship that was, by the end, truly and pyrotechnically fucked. The Mets are unique among Major League teams in fighting a constant catty dirty war, with the help of the aforementioned gassy unappeasable tabloids and through a constant series of weirdly tangy leaks from the owners suite, against their most prominent players. This was once not all that rare—George Steinbrenner spent most of the 1980's running covert ops against his best-paid players seemingly on sheer ulcerous principle—but has become so as the league has settled into its current bloodless/shameless efficiency era.
The tragicomic Long Island weirdos that own the Mets are the last holdouts in this not-so-proud tradition, and they have never missed an opportunity to carp about the players they pay. When this pissy grousage has concerned former stars like Carlos Beltran (or, for a while, Harvey), it has looked like the owners resenting not being the most important people in the conversation. In the case of, say, anonymous post-DFA digs at Justin Turner—a utility infielder with the Mets before he became an All-Star with the Dodgers—it just looks like weird petty assholes being weird petty assholes. The Mets’ most ardent leakers have, throughout his rapid rise and even quicker diminishment, never been anything but very disappointed in Matt Harvey, and have seldom missed an opportunity to anonymously express their deep concern with his attitude and approach and various micro-peccadillos and nightlife-related bloopers. There is no angle from which any of that qualifies as a good look, both in terms of management best practices and as a general approach to being human, but everyone at least knows what it is.
For Harvey, though, the diagnosis is more complicated. The Mets made him the seventh overall pick in 2010 out of the University of North Carolina, and despite some dubious scouting reports—one famously described him as “Mike Pelfrey without the split or the breaking ball”—Harvey pretty much instantly became a star. He was baffling hitters in the bigs by the end of the team’s lost 2012 season and started the All-Star Game as a 24-year-old in 2013. His 2014 season was erased by Tommy John surgery, but when Harvey returned in 2015 he looked strikingly like the ace that he had been before he went down. There were a pair of other aces in the Mets’ rotation by that point, and the team went all the way to the World Series. It was in the fifth and final game of that World Series, in a move that characteristically split the difference between heroic and heroically buttheaded, that Harvey bum-rushed Terry Collins into letting him pitch into the ninth inning after having been lights out for the previous eight.
Harvey had been brilliant despite being miles past his post-Tommy John innings limit, but was clearly gassed in the ninth. The Mets lost the lead, then lost the game and the series three innings later. He has not been an effective pitcher since, and has never meaningfully come back from the rib-removal surgery he underwent in 2016 to relieve his thoracic outlet syndrome. The Mets moved him to a relief role last month after Harvey was kicked around in four starts, and he was even worse out of the bullpen. His last appearance with the team, most likely, will have come in relief of Jason Vargas during a blowout loss to the Braves on Thursday. The home crowd booed him when he entered and booed him when he left, six outs and five earned runs later. His ERA this season rose to an even 7.00. Harvey clearly still believes that he should be a starting pitcher, and he clearly pitched out of the bullpen only under duress. It’s no surprise that he did not take well to the team’s suggestion that he head to Triple-A to try to work out the many things that are no longer working. He is still just 29 years old, and while it’s unlikely that any team will claim him on waivers, it is a virtual certainty that some club, somewhere, will remember how brilliant Harvey was and take a flier on him at the league minimum.
And that’s the baseball stuff, more or less. Harvey was one of the best pitchers in baseball before refusing to come out of Game 5 and has not really been a useful major-league pitcher since. It may be that simple or it may not be, and while the Mets people who have spoken on the record about the end of Harvey’s time with the team have said the right things in the right tone—GM Sandy Alderson, days after a vinegary aside about Harvey partying in Los Angeles before a game in San Diego, was reverent, and manager Mickey Callaway and pitching coach Dave Eiland were something like mournful. The bitchy-sour leaks will come, as they always do, but none of that will really scan as anything new, both because it is simply What The Mets Do and because, in Harvey’s specific case, all that picayune pettiness and curdled ill will long ago came to define the relationship between him and the team.
And this is the complicating factor, beyond all those breakable parts giving out in the way that pitchers’ bodies do—for all the Mets’ dysfunction, Matt Harvey was always kind of a prick and seldom anything but a grouch. How that played generally depended upon how he was playing. When he was one of the best young pitchers in the sport, Harvey’s glowering dickery scanned as ace-grade competitiveness; his propensity for bottle service and array of butt-grooves in various area nightclubs was a superstar doing superstar shit. When he couldn’t do it anymore, the frame was tilted such that he was now a high-handed lout.
He slid and his story slid with him. The superstar shit took on a darkly comic cast and acquired that crocodile-tear veneer of concern that he was not taking his breakup with Adriana Lima well or that his partying had Become An Issue. Harvey has been an ace and something like the opposite; before his 30th birthday, he has spent full years as both one of the best and one of the worst starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. The whole humpbacked arc of his strange short career is not there to find in his career stats, really, which look quotidian and—after three straight years of getting hit around with ever-increasing impertinence—rather vexingly normal.
For all that he has been in his career, though, Harvey was never normal. He has never really been anything but what or how he is. He rode the huge wave that his talent kicked up until it threw him off; he is maybe at or near the end but characteristically unwilling or unable to acknowledge it. Being an ace is not an easy thing, and it is not necessarily for easy people. It’s safe to say that Harvey will not give up any of what he has left until all of it is gone, and today as in Game 5 there is something both heroic and damning in that.
So it’s a baseball story, then, with a dumb and reliably self-defeating baseball team and an impossible and perhaps ultimately self-defeating baseball player. You are familiar with it, most likely, and familiar with all the ways it could go from here. But if you remember what Matt Harvey was before he and his career came to this, you know that this baseball story is comprised of other, smaller, brighter stories—games and moments, sequences and streaks, various things that could not possibly last for a host of very obvious reasons. On April 19, 2013, on a misty night at Citi Field, I watched Matt Harvey out-pitch Stephen Strasburg in what wound up being a 7-1 Mets victory. It was Harvey’s fourth start of the season and his fourth win; his seven brilliant innings lowered his ERA to 0.93. None of it seemed likely to last, even then—no one pitches like that forever, and a veiled and sparkling night like that invariably gives way to either clearing skies or rain. I was in awe of Harvey that night, both of what he was and what he might become. An ending like this one was always there as a possibility for him, because of the way the game works and the way that bodies break. But of course no one was thinking about the end, then.