For Harvey, pitching is the easy part
The Mets right-hander is learning to tap his intensity when he needs it
NEW YORK -- Ten weeks before his first start of the 2013 season, Matt Harvey is firing a baseball in the batting cage underneath Citi Field. If not for the hissing fastball and humming fluorescent lights overhead, there'd be a still silence.
A New York Mets PR staffer walks in. It's a slow news day, he says, and he needs some photos. He squats to the side of the mound, snaps a few and groans about the dim lighting. It's messing with his digital magic.
Harvey seems to take a subtle satisfaction in this -- not the staffer's inconvenience, but the dimness and slight despair of the setting itself.
"This is my dungeon," Harvey says. He's joking, sort of.
You could say Harvey has voluntarily spent a large portion of his 24 years in a dungeon of his own, a place of remote existence and comfort for him. That decision carries a certain detachment, a price true believers pay for being addicted to high ambitions.
Harvey paid -- he still does, in some ways -- and it was essential to his rise to the big leagues. Like Harvey himself, the cost takes time to understand.
As Harvey prepares to take the ball against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday, he represents a future and a vision. The club is feeding fans youth and hope, and Harvey is the first spoonful. He feels home in New York.
"Even as a kid, I always wanted to live here," Harvey says, steering his black Escalade through the roaring horns of First Avenue earlier this offseason.
As a kid, he and his father, Ed, would make the trip from Mystic, Conn., to Yankee Stadium. New York represented more than a magnificent metropolis. The city's energy and limitless sensibility intoxicated Harvey, as it does to most, and was a symbol for big league life. Harvey wanted that, so Manhattan became the lighthouse of his youth, directing him to the place he wished to go.
Harvey arrived last season with great expectations. The 10 starts, 2.73 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings with the Mets, dominant in stretches, drove those even higher.
"There were already high expectations for him, which is never really fair," Mets GM Sandy Alderson says. "For his youth, he was very professional in his approach. He was self-confident but not self-indulgent. He knows what he wants to be and has the kind of maturity that suggests he may achieve everything he desires."
Everything he desires.
That's the double-sided deal Harvey made with himself long ago. His intense desire to capture professional greatness is one of his most admirable traits, but like any pursuit of elite achievement, there most surely is a sacrifice. To grip the top rung of your life's work, what must you give up?
Harvey sees that now, but he couldn't possibly as a kid. He blindly committed to the chase.
Here's the complex thing about Harvey: His personality has an edge that is vital to his work but also can make him hard to know.
"He's a little standoffish at first," Ed says. "He surveys the field."
When you break through the barrier, you find a thoughtful guy with an easy sense of humor. But it's a thick barrier.
"He can come off as intimidating, because he's [6-foot-4] and his personality isn't to go out of his way to talk to someone he doesn't know," says Colin Bates, one of Harvey's close friends and former college teammates at North Carolina. "But once you get to know him, he's outgoing and cares more about other people than he does himself."
The other part of that edge, the one that matters for his job, is his toughness. It comes from growing up around older kids -- he has two sisters, Jessica, 32, and Jocelyn, 35 -- and Ed, who taught his son to answer challenges and challengers. Harvey prefers to keep that part of himself private, but you can see the pride he gleans from his toughness. He wears it like a family crest.
"Matt was very stubborn as a kid," Ed says, sitting in the living room of the family's home, a two-story near the end of a sleepy Mystic road.
I put so much pressure on myself to get [to the majors]. I didn't look around, and I didn't want to look around. I didn't even care if I had any friends.” -- Matt Harvey
It's not a mystery where that stubbornness comes from. Ed played baseball and football at UConn, and played in the 1972 College World Series before becoming a high school baseball coach at Fitch HS in Groton, Conn. His first two seasons were terrible -- lots of losses. So he gave himself a third, promising to quit if his team didn't have a winning record. He just didn't have time for losing. His third team won, and Ed stuck around for 25 years and coached his son.
His mother, Jackie, a second-grade teacher, tells a story about "Matthew" in elementary school. Each student kept a journal and wrote their life's dreams at the start of every year. Harvey's journal had few words and one dream: I want to play professional baseball.
He never wrote or talked or read much as a child, but he scribbled those six words in his school journal every autumn. Given how his mind works -- "Things need to bake for a while," Ed says -- each passing year reaffirmed a little more to Harvey what he was meant to do.
Of course, to reach that goal the talent had to be there, and Harvey's stood out. As a high schooler he pitched in a workout for pro scouts, throwing 25 pitches to one hitter, who finally put the 25th in play, a dribbler to first.
The fastballs buzzed at 90-91. When Harvey threw breaking balls, Ed felt bad. Ed was a baseball survivor, wringing his talent like a soaked rag. He related to the hitter fighting for his shot. Ed watched his son, pitch by pitch, destroy that shot. This would be it for the hitter, 22 and a college grad. Harvey was 15.
"Yeah Dad, ya think?" Harvey responded afterward when his father said he did well. It wasn't sarcasm; Harvey never quite understood his talent. He viewed his goals through a straw, narrow and closed off, and his parents weren't gloaters.
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"We never thought, 'My kid is going to be a star,'" Jackie says. "We never did special camps, we didn't spend money traveling. We just told him he did great, he'd say, 'Yeah, it was fun,' and that was it."
By the time the 2007 draft rolled around, Harvey had been grouped with Rick Porcello and Madison Bumgarner as the top prep pitchers in the class. When Porcello and Bumgarner went off the board in the first round and Harvey kept falling -- all the way to the Angels at No. 118 -- he was insulted.
"It's hard to explain to people how tough that day was," Jackie says. "That feels wrong to say, because he was picked in the third round, a dream many boys have. So how could that be bad? But you can't explain to people the disappointment of it."
Some speculated his affiliation with agent Scott Boras -- and the bonus demands Boras clients typically carry -- caused his fall, but Ed isn't sure that's true. Regardless, Harvey didn't understand the ruthlessness of the business, only the smoldering hole in his heart caused by the feeling of personal failure.
"All I wanted was to play in the big leagues," Harvey says. "I put so much pressure on myself to get there. I didn't look around, and I didn't want to look around. I didn't even care if I had any friends."
The disappointment of falling in the '07 draft lingered until midnight Aug. 15 -- the official signing deadline -- when Harvey had to choose between pro ball or UNC. Ex-major league pitcher Bill Caudill, Harvey's advisor who worked for Boras, came over to the house and helped craft an email back to the Angels after they offered $1 million.
"Our job is to optimize a player's entry into professional baseball, and we viewed [Harvey's] value as much higher than that," Boras says. "We wanted something in the $2 million range."
Midnight approached, and Caudill sat Harvey outside on the deck, knee-to-knee, and told him it was time to make a decision: the Angels' $1 million or UNC.
Harvey didn't decide. He internalized, watching the minutes tick by until he had none left. After the clock struck midnight, he said simply, "Well, I'm going to Carolina." His parents were shocked, sure he'd choose pro ball, the only thing he ever wanted.
Within five days of having to decide his future, Harvey moved into an empty dorm -- Porcello, another UNC recruit, was his scheduled roommate but signed with Detroit for $7.28 million. There was no time for Harvey to accept where he now was, and he immediately resented his decision.
"Matt grew up thinking he was going to sign [out of high school] and be in the big leagues in 2-3 years," UNC pitching coach Scott Forbes says. "That's just how it was going to be. It took him a while to get over that."
Harvey's freshman season had bumps. He struggled with the Division I demands of class and athletics. He was unhappy and considered transferring, and after copping an attitude once, Forbes told him "he should feel free to."
But that was the exception. Forbes says Harvey always practiced hard, and he pitched well, earning freshman All-America honors for his 2.79 ERA in 67 2/3 innings. He still showed the $1 million upside.
It was his sophomore season when he'd begin to look more like a fringe prospect than a first-rounder.
"It's a little tough to explain," Harvey says of his sophomore season. "Everything just got completely out of whack."
Harvey had changed his workouts over winter break, becoming bulky and tight when he needed flexibility and fluidity. It wrecked his delivery, his fastball, his command.
"He was trying to throw with his muscles instead of his delivery," Forbes says. "He was mechanical and didn't have that good loose arm swing."
Harvey slogged through the season, posting a 5.40 ERA with 42 walks in 75 innings, and did what comes instinctually: Flip the switch and bull-rush his problems.
He hadn't realized the distance that can create between himself and others. Because of his talent and the seriousness with which he approached his work, Harvey's teammates looked up to him, but he didn't see that. He was so consumed by the pursuit of his ambitions that he was devoid of perspective.
Mark Fleury, Harvey's catcher and a senior that season, decided to give him some. Walking home from a late-spring dinner, Fleury cautiously ripped Harvey, telling him he was hurting himself and the team.
"I wanted to say, 'Wake up and get it together,' but I also didn't want to break the guy," Fleury says. "From then on we were more open with each other, and I think he appreciated I took the time to say that."
"I really needed that," Harvey admits.
It wasn't some magical fix, but it was a step toward the solution. That summer in the Cape Cod League, as Harvey's inconsistencies on the mound continued, Ed drove up to Chatham and got his son in the bullpen on a quiet Saturday morning. They turned back time.
Harvey heard the same words his dad told him a dozen years ago in the driveway: Land in line to the plate, get over your front side, just let it go, don't fight yourself.
"At that point, I finally believed him," Harvey says. "I really didn't know what else to do."
The adjustments took time, and Harvey recommitted with Forbes, working through repetition after repetition back at UNC rediscovering his natural mechanics and rhythm. He tweaked his workouts and regained his flexibility. By mid-fall, the fastball popped in the mid-90s.
Ed told his son to "pitch like you forgot what happened," and Harvey did that spring, going 8-3 with a 3.09 ERA, 102 strikeouts against 35 walks in 96 innings. On April 23, 2010, at Clemson, he threw 157 pitches in a complete game, striking out 15. It was a breakthrough.
"That night I realized I could do this for a long time," Harvey says. "I threw a lot of pitches but got stronger. I felt pure power."
When the 2010 draft arrived, many questions about Harvey had dissolved. That morning, UNC head coach Mike Fox told his team, "From the time he got here to the time he's leaving, Matt Harvey has matured more than any player I've ever had."
The Mets selected Harvey No. 7 overall and signed him for a $2.525 million bonus. He spent the next two years in refinement, adding coats of sealant at each minor league stop. His slider went from good to plus. He threw his curveball and changeup more often, knowing these seeds sown now would bear fruit later.
He didn't love that process. He preferred simple: Get the hitter out. In the big leagues, that's what mattered, not how many off-speed pitches you threw. So when Harvey arrived in Phoenix last July for his MLB debut, he was relieved. No more thinking about development, no more waiting on his dream. Harvey struck out 11 in 5 1/3 innings that night, and through the summer he'd alter perceptions within the organization.
"I was hoping he'd get his feet wet and understand what it would be like to be a major league pitcher," Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen says. "He more than exceeded our expectations."
Says Alderson: "In retrospect, we got more out of Matt and a stronger first impression than we could have expected. That first [start in Arizona] was electric and suggested he could be everything people hoped he would be."
What was the cost?
As we walk through Manhattan's East Village, Harvey reflects. He probably missed some moments and friendships because of his competitive nature. He certainly struggled more than he needed to.
"But I wouldn't trade anything, and I mean anything, for going through that," he says.
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That's because he's gained a lot, too. He adores pitching and playing in New York, but the game doesn't consume his entire life like it used to. He's an uncle and thoroughly enjoys it. He laughs at the competitiveness of his almost 2-year-old niece, jokingly wondering where she gets it.
But Harvey's edge remains, and this is the most honest thing about him: In order to arrive where he has, as a ballplayer and person, he needed to leave a wake behind him. When he says it's time to "prove I belong in the big leagues," you feel the intensity that burns in that statement.
The difference now is, he sees there's a time to be distant in the dungeon, and there's a time to step out and see what else is around.
Editor's note: The author was teammates with Harvey for one season at North Carolina.