Few baseball surges of the 2010s were as electrifying as Matt Harvey’s. Few baseball shrinkages were almost that electrifying. And, after a few years of trying and getting not even close to back to where he once belonged, Harvey elected to call it a career Friday.
The former Dark Knight, who’d provoked Mets fans to declare “Happy Harvey Day!” on the days he started, announced his retirement on Instagram. “With all the amazing memories came a lot of injuries and tough times,” the 34-year-old righthander wrote.
The realization that those amazingly powerful moments that make me thrive as a pitcher and help my teammates and city win are no longer possible. Believe me I wish I could have done more and brought more of those amazing moments back to life. I have to say this is my time to say thank you, and goodbye.
Asking Harvey to retire with no regrets would be asking him to be superhuman. That’s an ask he can’t possibly satisfy. He’d tried that earlier and too often in his career, on the mound and off it, and he nearly fried himself alive trying.
In the Show, Harvey was last seen trying a comeback with the Orioles two years ago. He started with three shutout innings followed by a dicey fourth in his first Oriole start. He went on to post for the season a modest 4.60 fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate, a ghastly 6.27 earned run average, a 2.57 strikeout-to-walk rate, a 1.54 walks/hits-per-inning pitched rate (WHIP), and was hittable for 11.3 hits per nine innings.
That was double the transcontinental distance from his staggering second Mets season, 2013, when he led the Show with a 2.01 FIP, posting an 0.97 WHIP and a 6.16 K/BB rate, good enough to finish fourth in the National League’s Cy Young Award voting.
Those were the days when Harvey embraced New York and its white-hot heat as ardently as the city embraced him. “To the fans, most importantly the NY Mets fans: you made a dream come true for me,” he wrote in his retirement post. “A dream I never could have thought to be true. Who would have thought a kid from Mystic, [Connecticut] would be able to play in the greatest city in the world, his hometown. You are forever embedded in my heart.”
He’s had worse than that embedded in his heart. Harvey’s early ability to pitch like an executioner on the mound was equaled only by his ability to find and dwell among the demimonde as though it had his name on it.
He electrified the country when he started the 2013 All-Star Game and—having to shake off a leadoff double from future Hall of Famer Mike Trout followed by hitting Robinson Canó with a pitch—struck three out in two innings’ work and surrendering not a single run. (The American League went on to win, 3-0.)
He missed 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he electrified the country further when he all but ordered his manager Terry Collins to leave him in to pitch the ninth in Game Five of the 2015 World Series.
Uh-oh. Collins went with Harvey’s heart while misreading his fuel tank. He walked Kansas City’s Lorenzo Cain to open, then surrendered Eric Hosmer’s RBI double. Then Collins lifted him for Jeurys Familia. Two ground outs, one of which provoked Hosmer’s daring dash home while Mets first baseman Lucas Duda threw what should have been an easy double play ball offline to the plate (Hosmer would have been dead on arrival if the throw was accurate), tied a game the Royals won with a five-run twelfth as the rest of the Mets bullpen lost its wheels.
The Royals had bypassed Harvey in the 2010 draft. The guy they took instead, infielder Christian Colón, sent what proved the Series-winning run home. “I still have nightmares over that,” Harvey would tell the New York Post about the game. “One thing I’m most angry about is not getting it done.”
He’d have better reason to be angry the following season: he was hit with thoracic outlet syndrome in July 2016 and gone for the season. And, never again the same pitcher. TOS occurs when blood vessels and/or nerves between your collarbone and your first rib compress. That causes shoulder and neck pain and finger numbness.
“I had TOS,” Harvey’s former fellow Mets pitcher Dillon Gee once said. “I know how much that sucks. It definitely changes you. You start trying to tinker with things. It’s not natural anymore. You start being robot-ish. You start not trying to hurt one area and totally hurt another area. Your whole body is out of whack.”
Harvey’s body wasn’t the only thing going out of whack. Between TOS and a 2017 season interrupted nastily by another shoulder injury, Harvey melted down almost completely. The mound no longer elevated him; the city’s bright lights and demimonde no longer seemed to comfort him entirely.
Very publicly, he found himself dropped by a Brazilian supermodel with whom he thought a real romance was seeded—until she elected to return to her former beau, an NFL wide receiver, leaving a glittering party with the man. That was the night before he showed up late for a game against the Marlins claiming a migraine that was translated to mean a hangover.
Harvry had had such a big-timing attitude prior that now, when he needed empathy, aid, and comfort most, he had none. A year later, after refusing to try it out of the bullpen, perhaps out of stubborn lingering pride, Harvey’s days as a Met ended in a trade to the Reds. “Besides life on his fastball and bite on his slider, you know what was missing with Matt Harvey?” asked Joel Sherman of the New York Post after the deal. The answer:
Compassion. There was no empathy from a teammate or member of management for Harvey’s plight. They wanted him to rebound and do well, but that was about the team and their own selfish desire for success.
Tom Verducci, the Sports Illustrated writer who first handed Harvey the Dark Knight nickname (picking up on Harvey’s boyhood love of Batman), advised one and all that Harvey’s taste for New York’s night life wasn’t the reason he’d collapsed on the mound. “The truth is, for all the times he wound up in the tabloids other than the sports section, Harvey failed because his arm failed him,” Verducci began.
. . . His arm likely failed him because of how he threw a baseball. And when his arm failed him, he knew no other way. He couldn’t pitch without an A-plus fastball, he couldn’t embrace using a bullpen role as a way back, and he couldn’t believe in himself again.
. . . The Mets cut Harvey because his once-fearsome fastball became the almost exact definition of a mediocre fastball (MLB averages: 92.7 mph, 2,261 rpm). Because he couldn’t find another way to get hitters out, because he could not change his mechanics and because he could not buy into the bullpen, the Mets could not keep sending [him] out to the mound as a starter.
The decline in his stuff was obvious. And there was no way his fastball was coming back with the way he throws.
As a Red, Harvey finished his walk year into free agency with a respectable if unspectacular enough performance that the Angels were willing to take an $11 million flyer on him for 2019. He lasted long enough to be designated for assignment that July. The Athletics signed him but he never saw Show action. The Royals took a chance on him for pan-damn-ically shortened 2020.
A free agent again, the Orioles took a chance on Harvey for 2021. He re-signed with the organisation for 2022 but he spent the season at three minor league levels around a sixty-day suspension after testifying in the Eric Kay trial that he’d used painkillers provided by Kay while with the Angels.
Kay was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 22 years in federal prison, having been the man who provided the drugs that killed popular Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs. On the stand, Harvey admitted he’d given Skaggs (who was likely addicted to painkillers following early-career Tommy John surgery and subsequent other injuries), a few Percocets, perhaps unaware of the depth of Skaggs’s addiction. He didn’t shrink from it, he didn’t try to excuse it.
Harvey pitched in this year’s World Baseball Classic—for Italy, posting a 1.29 ERA in two starts before Team Italy lost to Japan and eventual WBC most valuable player Shohei Ohtani in the quarterfinals. It tempted him to try one more major league comeback. But it was just a temptation. Maybe the most important temptation Harvey resisted. He got to leave the mound permanently on a very high plane, at any level.
(For the record, his Team Italy manager, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, saluted Harvey upon his retirement announcement: “Look forward to teeing it up with you man..I want to Thank You for your awesome effort in the @WBCBaseball, You’re a warrior on the bump.”)
Back in 2020, he offered the Post something few who knew him as a Met might have accused him of having: introspection. “There are a lot of things I’d do differently,” he began, “but I don’t like to live with regret.”
There were just things I didn’t know at the time. Now, obviously, I’ve struggled the last few years. And what I know now is how much time and effort it takes to stay at the top of your game. I wouldn’t say my work ethic was bad whatsoever, but when you’re young, it’s not like you feel invincible, but when everything is going so well, you don’t know what it takes to stay on the field. It’s definitely more time consuming and takes more concentration.
Too many sports party boys don’t learn until their sports say goodbye to them first. Harvey learned soon enough, if sadly enough, that the party doesn’t always end on your terms. The Dark Knight who crashed and burned off the mound while his body betrayed him on it became something far more important before he retired: a man.