So Here’s How It Happened

I GOT OFF the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands … big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

It didn’t take long, the first time I read Hunter S. Thompson, to recognize a new favorite. This was a year and change ago, in January 2017, when I was looking through the syllabus for a class on Sportswriting and trying to find something worth reading. There was some Angell, some Plimpton, a few Bill Simmons columns. But then I came across a title I couldn’t ignore. “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Well, you just know that’s going to be something interesting.

It was, sure enough. It wasn’t until later that I learned that this was a landmark piece of sportswriting and all writing, the birth of gonzo journalism and some of the most groundbreaking work of the century. But I loved it from the first time I read it. It was almost perfect. Favorites have a way of presenting themselves. You see them and you just know.

It is with that principle in mind that I write today, not as a reader but as a watcher of baseball and a Mets fan. I cannot say that I have a new favorite player, because until further notice David Wright remains a member of the Mets roster and his slot at the top of my list is guaranteed and without expiration. But I can say this much: the queue has a new member, who will be my favorite active player until the captain returns, and then, hopefully, for a long while after he hangs it up.

Among those who know me, this will come as no surprise. I’ve always been somewhat old-fashioned, in tastes if not in views. When I played baseball, I wore my socks high. The music I listen to is dominated by the years between 1953 and 1989. I have seen the entire Honeymooners Classic 39. And every once in a while, I still get upset that the Dodgers left. How old fashioned am I? Hell, it’s the name of my drink of choice, one that I’ve had only a few times in my life, but still bears an inscrutable attraction. And now I can make one with Jim Beam, Official Bourbon of the New York Mets!

Given Brandon Nimmo’s strict religiosity, combined with my complete ignorance of whatever he happens to believe, I’m not quite sure whether or not he’s allowed to drink at all. If he did, though, I have to think he’d enjoy an Old Fashioned, just as he wears his pants high and — I assume — enjoys old music and TV shows and at least the idea of Ebbets Field. And this is part of why, as you’ve inferred by now, Brandon Nimmo is quickly becoming my favorite Met.

Arizona Diamondbacks  v New York Mets

We all have our own tastes in favorite players. Mine was Mike Piazza, then he left and Reyes and Wright shared the honor for very different reasons. Then Reyes left and Wright took sole possession, and now Wright has been on the sidelines for what will be, on Sunday, two years exactly. So, at least until Wright’s rumored upcoming meeting with his doctor, someone else will fill the role. This is not automatic: for most of the time since David hit the DL two years ago, I have gone without a favorite active player. But recently, I realized that Brandon Nimmo was my favorite Met and had been for a while now, just about since Opening Day 2018. And this is strictly an emotional decision, so trusting my gut was the extent of my decision-making.

How did it happen? I don’t think it’s too hard to say. Brandon Nimmo plays the game the right way — not the obnoxious Chase Utley right way, nor the puerile Bryce Harper right way, but the real right way, the way the game should actually be played. He’s got all the exuberance of Reyes in his prime with the cerebral plate presence of David Wright at his best, and a smile that beats them both. He’ll steal a few bases, hit a few bombs, walk every second at-bat, hustling all the way.

And that smile, that godforsaken smile…it may not be hyperbole to say that Nimmo could have smiled his way into the hearts of Mets fans even if his On-Base Percentage was significantly lower than his current .423 mark. The smile is merely the most outwardly noticeable element of Nimmo’s larger approach to baseball: playing the game like a child. Having fun. Always hustling. Waiting for your pitch. Wearing the uniform right. And so on, and so forth…you name it, and Brandon Nimmo does it the right way.

“I can’t play being mad. I go out there and have fun,” Ken Griffey Jr. once said. “It’s a game, and that’s how I am going to treat it.” It’s nice to have a player to root for who’s not a pitcher, one you follow even more closely than the rest of the team, one whose every at-bat you follow pitch by pitch hoping for a hit, or in Nimmo’s case, a walk. It is even nicer to have one who is 25 years old and works the count to a tune of an OBP north of .400. And it’s nicer still to root every day for a player who plays like Ken Griffey Jr. and never leaves the children’s game behind. Brandon Nimmo is here, and he’s a heckuva ballplayer in every sense of the word. Let my fandom commence.

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Adieu to Gotham’s Knight

I wasn’t home the first time Matt Harvey pitched for the Mets. I was away at camp, in a big wooden cabin with the 18 other guys who made up my group that summer. We were the oldest group, the seniors, which meant that our cabin had a TV. But there were 19 of us, which meant that no one could ever agree on what to watch. Which meant that the TV was usually tuned to ESPN, which was usually a fair compromise.

ESPN wasn’t showing the Mets game that night, but through correspondence with the outside world, I knew that Harvey was making his debut. So I sat in a chair in front of the TV, distracted by whatever ESPN was broadcasting that night, and followed the bottom line. Literally: that’s how excited I was. I watched the scores and stats scroll by, and each time the Mets game came by, I called it out to the one other Mets fan in the group. My excitement, it turned out, was completely warranted, and then some.

Two strikeouts through one inning. Four through two. Seven through three. Eight through four. Ten through five. 5.1 innings pitched, no runs, three hits, 11 strikeouts. I was young and ignorant of how baseball worked — or maybe I was more observant than anyone else. Either way, I was convinced: we had a new ace.

That’s what Matt Harvey was, to my generation of Mets fans: an ace. Zack Wheeler, who came along a year later, was the Robin to his Batman. Jacob deGrom, who showed up the year after that, was a model of consistency and reliable excellence. Noah Syndergaard, another year later, was a Norse God, a superstar, an icon. But Harvey was still the ace.

He was the guy who wanted the ball. The guy who would run through a wall to get through another inning. He wasn’t David Wright; it became clear, fairly quickly, that he wasn’t captain material. He was an old-style ballplayer: he seemed to aspire to be pitching’s Ted Williams. He wanted to play — period. He wasn’t quirky or gregarious: he was almost a machine. He would take the mound and pitch well. Beyond that, he would do what he wanted.

The Dark Knight, the nickname that he picked up fairly quickly when it became clear that he was the closest thing we had to a superhero, seemed to fit him well. He certainly wasn’t a lighthearted, wisecracking Avenger: Christian Bale’s brooding, introverted portrayal of Bruce Wayne summed up Harvey on and off the field. He wasn’t a guy you wanted to spend the day with. But like Ted Williams, it was beyond question that you wanted him on your side.

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Later in the summer of 2012, after I’d come home from Maine, my dad and I went to see Harvey pitch against the Rockies. We bought tickets from a scalper in the Citi Field parking lot, but didn’t realize until we’d reached our seats that we were dead-center in the outfield, as far from home plate as could be. Immediately, we began making plans to move.

We couldn’t move until almost the middle of the game, though. Harvey struck out five of the first six batters he faced, and took a no-hitter into the fourth, and we certainly weren’t going to risk jinxing things by changing our seats.

***

One afternoon, early in April 2013, I was listening to WFAN on my transistor radio as I left school after baseball practice. Mike Francesa was on, and as I walked through the parking lot, he took a call from someone who thought Matt Harvey was the best pitcher in New York.

“After one start?” said Francesa, sarcastically. “Yeah, okay, after one start. Okay.” The media, on the whole, never came around to embracing Harvey, even as he pitched himself into legend one start at a time. The media always hated Ted Williams too.

Earlier that week, Harvey had started the second game of the season. He’d gone seven scoreless innings, striking out ten and allowing only one hit. I, of course, agreed with the caller. Francesa was a buffoon (both in that moment and as a matter of course). And soon enough, we’d be proven right. By the end of April, Harvey was 4-0; his ERA was 1.56. He’d just beaten Stephen Strasburg, as chants of “Harvey’s better” had filled the stands. He was the best pitcher in New York — that much was obvious. Debatably, he was the best pitcher in the league.

I didn’t get to see Harvey live again until June of that year. Pitching against the Cardinals, Harvey went seven, and gave up one run. But it was 2013, and we had no offense to speak of. The seven inning, one run performance went down in the books as Harvey’s first loss of the season.

By then, he’d already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was already making himself known in national circles. And he was already a fan favorite. I bought a Matt Harvey t-shirt, and wore it every time he pitched that summer. I went into each Harvey start expecting a perfect game — and Harvey came close often enough that the expectation never really disappeared.

2013 was different than 2018. My phone flipped open, and didn’t have the MLB app. When I got in the car one night after a cross country workout, and my mom told me that Harvey had gotten hurt, I assumed, given that he was the Dark Knight and nothing could possibly be wrong with him, that it was no big deal.

In fact, I’d just been back to Citi Field to see him pitch for the second time. He’d pitched into the seventh against the Tigers, and given up only two runs, but maybe something had been off. Maybe he’d pulled something, or whatever the current in-vogue minor injury was. As I got into the car, I was confident that everything was fine. But the radio quickly disabused me of this notion. Matt Harvey would be on the shelf. For a long, long time.

***

Matt Harvey’s story is one of two big rises, and two big falls. And on a cold winter afternoon in February of 2015, the second rise began. Harvey was making his 2015 Spring Training debut. And somehow, he looked as if he’d never left.

We all remember the lowest moments — or moment — of Harvey’s 2015. What I don’t think we remember is just how good he was. When you go back to some of Harvey’s 2015 highlights, he doesn’t just look like a good pitcher. He looks dominant. Unhittable. When I took a break in the middle of writing to remember Harvey’s 2015, I was shocked to see just how electric his arm looked as recently as three years ago.

Obviously, Matt Harvey was good. That’s not the point. The point is remembering just how good. Matt Harvey was elite good. Dominant good. For the better part of three seasons, he was Seaver-ian. Gooden-esque. And I’m not exaggerating. At his peak, Matt Harvey was better than any Mets pitcher has been since Doc Gooden in 1985. Even in 2015, a small tic below his 2013 dominance, Harvey turned in what was, among other things, likely the greatest return from Tommy John surgery of all time. He pitched almost 190 innings, not including several postseason starts. Returning from Tommy John surgery, he became a #2 starter on a team with a World Series rotation. That’s not easy to do.

Obviously, we remember the failures. We remember the elation and anxiety when he came out of the dugout to pitch the ninth inning of game 5 of the 2015 World Series, and the anger that almost immediately followed. We remember the nervousness of March 31st, 2016, the date we can retrospectively point to as the beginning of the end of an era, when Harvey, pitching on Opening Day against those loathsome Royals, started the game throwing 94 instead of 98. We remember the bad PR moves and the scandals: the parties, the models, Qualcomm, the anger, the comments. And, of course, we remember the near-6.00 ERA that Harvey has posted since then.

But somehow, I can’t help but think that we’re all remembering Matt Harvey wrong. John Updike wrote of Ted Williams:

It may be that, compared to managers’ dreams such as Joe DiMaggio and the always helpful Stan Musial, Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me best suited to accommodate, and be ornamented by, a loner. It is an essentially lonely game. No other player visible to my generation has concentrated within himself so much of the sport’s poignance, has so assiduously refined his natural skills, has so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.

When Williams hit a home run in the last at-bat of his career, Updike wrote:

Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Matt Harvey wanted to be Ted Williams. He wanted to be the greatest, and he didn’t seem to care what the fans or the media thought of him. He didn’t want to be a captain or a role model: he just wanted, it seemed, to be the greatest pitcher of all time. For some time, it seemed that he might have the raw talent to accomplish the feat, but then the raw talent left him, even though the mentality didn’t. Matt Harvey has been brought low by the same traits that brought him to the top. His mind and ego, it seems, are unable to cope with the fact that his arm can no longer make him the greatest pitcher who ever was.

But Matt Harvey never got to be Ted Williams, because injuries got in the way and tore his legend down. Harvey has never come off well to fans, even when he was pitching at the top of his game. Today, it’s even worse. He is churlish and rude, dismissive of any suggestion that he has done anything wrong, unwilling to accept that he no longer deserves a spot in a major league rotation. At best, he comes off as overly stubborn; at worst, he is selfish, petty, and deluded. But it’s worth remembering that the personality that today is on full display developed for one reason. Matt Harvey just wanted to pitch. And that’s far from the worst thing in the world.

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