Sunday, May 7, 2023

Appreciating What You Have

Matt Harvey's star burned so brightly, it's hard to imagine that his greatness only lasted for 3 MLB seasons.

I've been working on another piece for several days, outputting about 1,800 words of prose, never coming close to producing something I wanted to share with my readers. That doesn't happen to me very often, but it's very frustrating when it does. It's a subject I care about very much, so I'll get back to it soon with a fresh start. In the meantime, the announcement on Friday night that Matt Harvey is retiring from baseball produced a slew of memories for me as a lifelong Mets fan. It also gave me something to consider in how I approach being a fan.

Matt posted a moving farewell to the game of baseball and Mets fans on his Instagram. He specifically mentioned the famous game against the Nationals and Stephen Strasburg in his sophomore season with the Mets:

April 19, 2013: A game I will always remember. I haven't gone back to really feel or relive some of the highest moments pitching in the big league, especially for the New York Mets. But this particular game hits me extremely hard, making this a very difficult thing to write.

I pitched to win. To fire up my team and more importantly, to fire up the fans in a city that I've always loved.

It is one of those feeling you know will never go away. It's something that will last forever, and will continue to be there and provide so much excitement for everyone.

There is nothing I loved more than getting out of a tough situation in the 7th or 8th inning, to finally let the emotions out, knowing I did absolutely everything I could to help my team win, and to give a powerful fist bump and scream!

That day will forever stay in my dreams. I know I pitched well and we were on our way to a win, and as I'm sitting in the dugout, all I hear is the chants overtaking Citi Field.

"Harvey's Better."

Even with aspirations to be great, or even the best, a moment like that hits your soul. It was a moment of success. I never wanted it to end.

I remember that day so clearly. It's hard to believe that it all happened a decade ago. Harvey came to the Mets during one of the true low points in their history. It began with the consecutive NL East collapses to the Phillies in 2007 and 2008. Then Bernie Madoff was arrested in December 2008, and it quickly became clear that the Wilpons would not be putting much money into their baseball club going forward.

The Mets endured losing seasons in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. It might have made sense if they tore everything down and did a full rebuild, but Fred and Jeff Wilpon couldn't allow the perception that the team wasn't trying to win, even though it was obvious. So the Mets fielded clubs that had virtually no chance of making the playoffs but could scuffle along and finish with mid-70ish win totals. Basically, the worst approach you could possibly have with a baseball club. Those Mets played bland, uninspired baseball. Worst of all, there seemed to be no great future payoff for enduring all of it.

The 2012 Mets were representative of that era. They would eventually finish 4th in the NL East, a whopping 24 games behind the first-place Nats. There were a few things to cheer about, however. David Wright enjoyed his last great full season with the Mets. R.A. Dickey won 20 games and captured the NL Cy Young — that was bittersweet, as we knew it virtually assured he would be traded away. Johan Santana pitched the Mets' first no-hitter that June — also bittersweet, as he would only pitch 10 more games that season and never was able to successfully return to MLB after that.

On July 26, the Mets promoted top prospect Matt Harvey to face Arizona on the road. They were already below .500 with the handwriting on the wall, but fans were excited to see the kid debut. It usually takes even talented kids a few games to adjust to the majors, but Harvey hit the ground running. He struck out 11 Diamondbacks in 5-1/3 shutout innings, getting the win and giving those of us who stayed up a bit late to watch him something to cheer about. Harvey had a successful rookie campaign with the Mets. He wound up pitching 59.1 innings over 10 starts with a 2.73 ERA.

By 2013, Dickey was pitching in Toronto, and Matt Harvey was the ace of the Mets' staff. Besides the great start against Strasburg, Harvey was good all season. He finished 4th for the NL Cy Young and started the All-Star Game at Citi Field, electrifying the home fans with two scoreless innings. But in late August, the Mets shut Harvey down, and fans were devastated to learn that he would need Tommy John surgery and miss all of 2014. 

Even in 2013, there was a lot of talk that Matt Harvey was enjoying being a young and single baseball star in New York City a little too much. It was hard for the media to jump on the young man too hard in those first two seasons. While the 2013 Mets finished in third place in the NL East, they were still 22 games behind the Braves and 16 games behind the second Wild Card team, the Cincinnati Reds.

Things changed when Harvey returned to the Mets in 2015. The Mets would go on to win the NL East that year, their first division title since 2006. While that outcome was a bit unexpected, the Mets were finally graduating some of their good, young pitching. They were expected to contend. It was hoped that Matt Harvey would return to his pre-Tommy John ace form and lead the Mets to the playoffs. While it was announced that Harvey would be on an innings limit in his return from surgery, there was no solid plan for the talented right-hander regarding how many innings he would pitch and when he would be shut down. There was growing controversy in New York all summer about when Harvey would be shut down.

Whatever worries we Mets fans had about Matt Harvey returning to his 2012-2013 form were quickly dispelled. Harvey was excellent again, and each Harvey Day was still an event. Unfortunately, the team struggled all summer. The club didn't look like a contender as the trade deadline approached on July 31. The Mets made a minor deal with the Braves for Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson a week before the deadline to breathe some life into their struggling offense. Three days later, they swung a deal for reliever Addison Reed. But still, they came into their game against the Nats on deadline day on a 2-game losing streak, carrying an uninspired 52-50 record. The idea of a Harvey shutdown no longer seemed like a big deal for a club that looked destined to watch the playoffs at home yet again.

Harvey pitched that game against the Nats. He had a 1-0 lead going into the eighth but gave up the tying run. The Mets would prevail in the bottom of the 12th when Wilmer Flores homered. Flores had famously cried a couple of days earlier, believing he had been traded to the Brewers for Carlos Gómez — whose career had begun as a Mets prospect before being part of the deal to acquire Johan Santana. The deal fell through, and Flores was embraced by Mets fans. It was a dramatic evening. Of even more consequence, the Mets traded for Yoenis Céspedes right at the deadline.

The Mets would go on a 7-game winning streak, beginning with the Flores game. Although they were still a far from perfect club, they were good enough to win 90 games and capture the Division. Harvey elected not to be shut down and pitched throughout the playoffs. He won his lone start in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Dodgers, although he wasn't great. Harvey was better in his Game 1 win over the Cubs in the NLCS that the Mets wound up sweeping.

Matt Harvey pitched in 2 games in the Mets' disappointing World Series loss to the Royals. He wasn't at his best but didn't factor in the decision in the Mets' Game 1 loss. Then Harvey pitched 8 electrifying innings in the final game. Unfortunately, he talked manager Terry Collins into letting him start the ninth with a 2-0 lead. It famously didn't work out, and the Mets would go on to lose that game. As disappointing as that loss was, what we Mets fans didn't know then was even worse than losing a World Series: Matt Harvey's run as a great pitcher was over.

Stories about Matt Harvey's personal life became numerous in 2015. Personally, I wasn't shocked that a 26-year-old single superstar ballplayer didn't spend every hour not on the field in Bible Study and prayerful contemplation. But these stories became a big deal in the media, with debate on whether Harvey's personal life was distracting him from being all he could be as a pitcher. The whole thing just gave me a headache, but there was no escaping it.

The real problem was the shocking lack of planning on the part of the Mets to try to ease Matt Harvey back into pitching in his return from Tommy John surgery. Harvey started 29 games in the regular season, then another 4 in the playoffs. All told he pitched 216 innings. We can debate until the cows come home whether this cost Matt Harvey his career, with no definitive way to prove things one way or another. I couldn't believe the Mets didn't just start Matt a month late into the season and silence all of the arguments from the get-go. But, of course, that would have cost the Wilpons a few bucks in lost revenue, and that wasn't going to happen. One thing I'm sure of, the current regime would have handled things differently.

Matt Harvey struggled out of the gate in 2016. With his velocity down and his command lacking, he lost his first 3 starts. By July, Harvey was 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA. He was allowing 10.8 hits per nine innings while only striking out 7.4/9. Harvey was no longer Gotham's Dark Knight and would never be again. Harvey went on the DL on July 6, eventually diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and undergoing surgery.

Harvey's personal life was still covered in the press. However, his mounting health problems made it a moot point whether he was getting enough sleep. Matt was awful in his injury-plagued 2017 season, pitching to a 6.70 ERA in 18 starts. 2018 began even worse. Harvey was demoted to the bullpen after 4 terrible starts, then traded to the Reds on May 8 for legendary catcher Devin Mesoraco.

Matt Harvey was a great pitcher for only 3 seasons, all with the Mets. He started 65 MLB games in this stretch, going 25-18 with a 2.53 ERA. In 427 innings, he allowed only 333 hits while striking out 449 batters. Although the eras were much different, the excitement Harvey brought to the mound was similar to the buzz around Dwight Gooden in 1984. Both young men brought life to a franchise that had been struggling for years, earning the appreciation of the fanbase. Of course, Gooden pitched much longer, both for the Mets and elsewhere.

Harvey's career after 2015 was much less remarkable: 115 games, 107 starts, 25-48 with a 5.92 ERA. He averaged 10.6 H/9, 1.6 HR/9, 3.0 BB/9, 7.0 K/9. It's astonishing that Matt received so many chances to recover the magic from those first three seasons. He never came close to doing so.

Harvey announcing his retirement comes as the Mets are playing wretched baseball this season. They've been painful to watch, seeming to validate all our worst fears about the team heading into the season. But it struck me that there is a lesson that Matt Harvey's career offers that has some applicability for today.

I wished I spent those 3 short years of Matt Harvey's greatness just appreciating it more. If I could go back, I would completely tune out all of the nonsense that abounded in the coverage of the phenomenon of Matt Harvey.

Come to think of it, I wish I could do the same for the peak of Jacob deGrom with the Mets, that period from 2015-2019 when Jake was pitching great and making a lot of starts. Unfortunately, those years coincided with the time when there was a growing uneasiness that the Wilpons were ever going to really do enough to compete.

I wish I could have enjoyed how well the Mets played for most of the season last year. Instead, I sweated all year about the Braves catching them. It always rankles me how the baseball media treat the Braves like the little engine that could — a sort of NL equivalent of the Rays — instead of a corporate-owned powerhouse floating in money thanks to the new park. Of course, none of that worry stopped it from happening. The Mets have had 4 100-win clubs in their entire history: 1969, 1986, 1988, and last season. For me, it should have been a real celebration of an incredible achievement. It would have been, had I simply let it.

The struggles of the current club, combined with the worry that key performers may have just aged out of their prime, makes last year's inability to appreciate the good in what I was watching seem a bit silly. I hope the 2023 New York Mets, which still has the potential to be a good baseball club, can turn things around. If they do, I think I'll be a bit smarter. I'll appreciate things more and perhaps not sweat the small stuff quite as much.

Yeah, I wish I could go back in time to one last epic Matt Harvey start. Perhaps that now-legendary game against Strasburg and the Nationals. I'd sit back in my armchair and watch Matt unleash that nasty stuff upon the Nats. I wouldn't worry about anything that I had no control over, anyway.

In his Instagram farewell, Matt notes how he never wanted that moment to end. As long as there are those of us that carry the memory of that greatness forward, it never will. And that's all that really matters.

Be well and take care. Wake up, Mets — please.

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