Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Achilles and Icarus - Matt Harvey and Why We Watch Baseball

Last night Mets pitcher Matt Harvey had another disasterous start in what has, thus far, been a nightmare season for him. As much as it pains me to see him struggling, I do have to take a half-step back and remember that this is why we watch sports - this is, as frustrating as it is, sports fandom at its best. Why? Because the Matt Harvey saga is, at its heart, a classic story. He is the best kind of hero - one whose strengths and flaws mirror the city in which he lives and the fans who wish to love him. He has been at times beloved and maddening, a hero and an anti-hero. Perhaps even, for a moment, the villain. He is why we watch sports.

How it Began

In 2013, a twenty-four year old Matthew Edward Harvey was the undeniable star of a struggling New York Mets pitching staff. After the departure of fan-favorite RA Dickey, it was pretty easy to stand out in the remaining crowd, and stand out Harvey did. Fans greeted each of his starts as "Harvey Day" as he collected strikeouts, earned an all-star game appearance, and took his place in the pantheon of great Mets pitchers. He was a relection of our city - brash and proud, but able to back it up. He felt bigger than the team. He enjoyed the nightlife. He talked himself up on Twitter. He posed nude in GQ. In a near-anonymous starting rotation, he was a rising superstar, replacing the quirkier and more intellectual Dickey. 

Then, as the 2013 season ended, he suffered an elbow injury which would keep him out of baseball for a full year recovering from Tommy John surgery.

A Triumphant Return, and a Plot Twist
After a year away, he returned and returned strong, though sometime wasn't quite the same. Young fireballer Noah Syndergaard joined the team, and "Happy Harvey Day" gave way to "Happy Thorsday" (for his resemblance to the comic-book version of the Norse thundergod). Still, he pitched magnificently, helping carry the team to a national league penant, with sudden hope for a championship. That is where the story gets interesting. This is why we watch. 

In the final weeks of the season Harvey, through his agent Scott Boras, expressed concern about the number of innings he was pitching. Nobody had ever thrown so many the year after surgery, and Boras expressed concern for his client's long-term health. The playoffs beckoned, with what felt like the first real chance at a championship the team had seen in nearly a decade. Here was Harvey, the returning hero, threatening to withdraw to his tent, leaving his comrades in arms overmatched for the battle ahead. It was a moment which crystallized the changes which had been brewing all year: the contrast between the brash, loud, prideful Harvey and the more humble, "aw shucks" Texas kid with the overpowering fastball. We still loved Harvey, but he wasn't the only story.

A Storybook Moment 
After weeks of debate, Harvey's pride won out. He took the ball every fifth day, through the end of the season and into the playoffs, right up until a perfect storybook moment: with the Mets down three games to one in the best of seven series, Harvey was pitching to keep the season and the Mets increasingly slim hopes alive. He did his job, pitching eight shutout innings, preserving a slim lead which Mets manager Terry Collins could then hand to ace reliever Jeurys Familia. This is another moment in which we see pride - his tragic flaw - at work. Harvey demanded that he be given the ball to start the ninth inning. It was, after all, the perfect ending - after injury and absence, anger and controversy the returning hero was on the field of play. It was as a scene from a movie, but better than a movie. It was real. 

The crowd was chanting his name.
The manager handed him the ball for one final inning. 
He was determined.
He was strong.
He was Matt Harvey. 

And he failed, allowing two baserunners who would eventually score, sending the trophy to Kansas City, and sending the Mets home. Defeated.

Onward to today
It's a new year, and something in Harvey seems broken. He's been unable to pitch past the fifth inning, losing control and losing command. There were rumors and whispers that after his LAST bad start he was given the option to skip his next turn. To work on fixing what was wrong. To get stronger. To rest his arm. 

Harvey's fatal flaw is still hubris; nobody who has paid any attention would expect him to willingly skip a start. So he took the ball, against the Washington team who had humiliated him just a week prior.
And he lost.


This is where the story stands. Harvey is, as I said, like the city in which he lives. Strong, brash, proud, and flawed. He's perhaps reached a crossroad at which he will confront his demons, face whatever weakness has sapped his strength, and return better than ever.

Or not. 

Why do I watch sports? THIS is why I watch sports. For the story, and because I don't know what the next act will bring. Is it the tale of the brash young hero who overcomes his darkest moment, to arise phoenix-like and again become the hero we expect Matt Harvey to be? Or will he be a modern Icarus, who for one glorious moment soared overhead, almost reaching the sun itself before falling to earth, never to fly again?

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