Major League Baseball

Matt Harvey returns to face the New York Mets as an average Baltimore Oriole

May 12

By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

When Matt Harvey walked off the Citi Field mound for the final time as a Met on May 3, 2018, his head hung heavy.

As he trudged towards the dugout after allowing five runs in two innings of relief in a 11-0 drubbing against Atlanta, the man once known as "The Dark Knight" was treated to a symphony of boos from the fans who, just a few years before, cheered his every pitch.

The next day, Harvey was designated for assignment by the Mets and three days after that he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. A fallen titan of the franchise, gone for good. A tumultuous but unforgettable era of Mets baseball, mercifully over.

When Matt Harvey returns to the Citi Field mound for the first time in over three years on Wednesday afternoon, this time as the starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, he will do so as a different version of that same person.

 

He is not "back." He is no longer dominating hitters like he used to. His return to the arena whose attention he once commanded is not a victory lap as much as proof of life. 

If you google Matt Harvey’s name, the top result under the "People Also Ask" section is "Does Matt Harvey still play baseball?" The fact that question is asked at all shows just how bright Harvey’s star once shined and how different his life has become.

There was a time from, like, April 2013 to May 2016, when Matt Harvey was a top-three famous New York City athlete. He opened the 2013 season with an absolutely scintillating stretch, posting a 2.35 ERA with 147 strikeouts in 130 innings before the All-Star Break, earning the start at the Midsummer Classic at home in Queens.

His popular Batman-inspired nickname, "The Dark Knight," gained traction after he appeared on the cover of "Sports Illustrated" in May of that year and further promoted his dark, serious and intense image.

The Tommy John surgery that forced him out for all of 2014 only added to the mystique and enhanced his heroic persona.

When he returned to Citi Field on April 14, 2015, he received a hero’s welcome. 

Besides noting all the fans in the Batman regalia, just listen to them, going absolutely berserk as he strikes out the first two hitters of the game. Harvey was a cult hero, a fan favorite, a modern icon of Mets baseball. 

Harvey's defining moment as a Met, the peak of his powers, came at around 11 p.m. ET on Nov. 1, 2015. The image is infamous now; Harvey, with eight scoreless innings under his belt, a jacket over his right throwing shoulder, zipping across the dugout to confront his manager Terry Collins to let him throw the ninth. Harvey won the argument, let up two baserunners and a run to start the frame, got pulled, and the rest was history.

That look in his eyes when he’s talking with Collins is the look of a man at the top of his game, feeling himself, supremely untouchable. A look we haven’t seen from Harvey since.

But during this stretch, The Harvey Era if you will, he was more than just a star on the field. His face was constantly plastered across the back page of the city’s tabloids.

He wore fancy suits and was an ambassador for Fashion Week. He regularly sat courtside at Knicks games and against the glass at Rangers games. He dated a slew of models, including Victoria’s Secret Angel Adriana Lima. He was Derek Jeter, but with a greater lust for fame.

That thirst for the limelight didn’t do Harvey’s on-field performance any favors, but his fall from legend to has-been wasn’t because he partied too much. That would be oversimplifying the story. His thoracic outlet syndrome diagnosis in 2016 was the biggest blow. Very few pitchers have bounced back to their previous selves after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery, and Harvey is no different than Chris Archer, Phil Hughes or Tyson Ross, none of whom ever returned to their pre-Thoracic-surgery effectiveness.

Pitcher injuries are bad luck, an unfortunate if all-too-common reality of modern baseball. But even given all of that, there’s no denying that from 2016-2018, Harvey did not always put himself and his body in the best place to succeed. He’d probably tell you as much right now if you got the chance to ask him (Harvey chose not to speak with any media in the days leading up to his start in Queens, which I understand).

His last few years in Queens were marred by ineffectiveness, trips to the injured list and regular disagreements with Mets management. Harvey was suspended three games in May of 2017 after not showing up to the park on a Sunday afternoon after a night of partying at 1Oak in NYC until 4 a.m.

He got in more hot water in April of 2018 when he spent an off day in Los Angeles at the opening of a nightclub until the wee hours of the morning while the team was in San Diego getting ready for a series against the Padres. It was around that time he was moved to the bullpen, where he made four appearances before the DFA and trade to Cincinnati went down.

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Since then, Harvey has been average for the Reds, cataclysmically bad for the Angels, not good enough to get called up by the A’s and disastrous for the Royals. He is now at his highest point since the good Met days, pitching competently for Baltimore. 

He’s made seven starts this year for the O’s and lasted between four and six innings in all of them. His ERA is a respectable 3.60, but the peripheral numbers think that’s pretty luck-driven for a guy who has yet to notch two strikeouts in an inning this season. That said, Harvey has been the most reliable starter not named John Means for an Orioles rotation desperate for some stability

For a pitcher once synonymous with utter dominance, Harvey is now simply just another guy. A guy undeniably better and more effective than he was in Oakland, Kansas City or Anaheim, but a far cry from the showstopper he was in his heyday. His strikeout numbers and his high-90’s heat have evaporated with the sands of time; now he relies on command, sequencing, soft contact and crossed fingers. 

So the Dark Knight returns to Gotham without the superpowers that once made him the city’s most beloved sporting superhero (I know Batman doesn’t have superpowers, back off). He’ll most likely go like 5.1 innings on Wednesday afternoon with four strikeouts and three earned runs and the prevailing post-game narrative will be unclear and fuzzy. 

When his name gets announced over the loudspeaker during introductions, some Mets fans will cheer, many will certainly boo. Perhaps the club will play a tribute video and Harvey will step off the mound and tip his cap with a look of acknowledgment and contentment on his face that one can only gain with experience. Perhaps not. 

Either way, Harvey will remain a man humbled by the reality of his own physical limitations, by the sad facts of age and by the missteps he knows he made along the way. His comeback with the Orioles, while impressive when you consider how low he’s been, is devoid of glory. There are no accolades associated with being the second-best pitcher on one of the league’s worst teams. He won’t be a guest on Fallon or on the cover of "GQ" anytime soon.

But still, he pitches, and still, he gets outs. Not for the fame, or the models, or the city of New York, or really for the city of Baltimore, either. Matt Harvey pitches because he needs to make a living somehow and pitching is what he knows how to do, because it’s all he’s ever done. And even though Harvey is lightyears away from his supersonic peak of 2015, he’s a Major League-caliber starting pitcher, and there’s peace and purpose in that.

Whether he leaves the mound Wednesday at Citi Field to a sea of cheers or a chorus of boos, he’ll be back on the mound in a different stadium five days later, ready to pitch.

By the way, I'll be at Citi Field to watch him.

Jake Mintz is the louder half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz


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