Matt Harvey was selling something. It was a mild August evening, and two hours earlier the Mets had completed a four-game sweep of the Colorado Rockies to open up a four-and-a-half-game lead in the National League East. I was part of a gaggle of journalists watching the Mets ace getting his hair washed in a West Village salon. Such is the life of a sports star in the Big Apple, and such is the life of a journalist covering him.
Maybe more surprising than the Mets' rise to the top of their division is the fact that Harvey, along with his rotation partners Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, are the most desirable pitchmen in a city traditionally dominated by the other New York baseball team. The winning helps, of course, but it also takes charisma and character to knock the Yankees off their pedestal. The two New York baseball teams have almost identical records, but the Mets have something that the Yankees don't: a rotation with extremely good hair.
DeGrom and Syndergaard get most of the attention in this category, which makes sense given their lush, long locks. "I told both of them this past week I was going to rag on them during these interviews and tell everyone that my hair is way better than theirs will ever be," Harvey said. It isn't, and yet it was Harvey getting paid to get Axe product massaged into his scalp. We are, again, dealing with ineffable things.
Harvey, the Dark Knight, is the undeniable leader in the clubhouse when it comes to commercial viability. He's the one that can appeal to a national audience in a MLB ad or as a late night talk show guest. If Axe is going to pay someone to get his hair washed while people take notes, Matt Harvey is who they're going to pay.
And Harvey's taking the cash from Axe, in turn, is understandable given that his salary is less than what the Mets are currently paying 2001 retiree Bobby Bonilla; he won't be eligible for free agency, and the nine-figure payday that he's already earned, until after the 2018 season. With his Tommy John scar clearly visible, who is he to argue that his hair isn't worth an endorsement deal? This awareness of, and insistence upon, his own value is part of what gives Harvey his star power. During the recent flurry of ill will over his innings limit this season—and his possible unavailability in October—it has also made him a polarizing figure in a way that the game's most marketable players usually aren't.
"I believe the Mets have surpassed the Yankees with their young players," Don LaGreca told me over e-mail. LaGreca co-hosts the Michael Kay Show on 98.7 ESPN New York with the Yankees play-by-play man, and is the Mets fan in the city's most cordial on-air baseball rivalry. "New York always loves home-grown players, and the Mets have a ton. Plus the Mets have an underdog quality that is very marketable."
Kay agreed, crediting the characters in their clubhouse. "Harvey is the Dark Knight, deGrom has the long hair, and Syndergaard is Thor, so yes, it's all there. But," he continued, "they have to win first." As he pointed out, the Yankees culture doesn't tolerate characters. "Their players become marketable by adding titles."
I was sitting with Harvey in the back of the salon, and, given the short allotment of time for our conversation, I stuck to the important topics. Like if he knows how to spell Syndergaard.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I don't think he knows how to spell it the same way twice."
He told me, without hesitation, that deGrom has better hair than Syndergaard; that he himself lacks the calves to pull off stirrups; that Juan Uribe is probably the funniest guy on the team. "He came in the other day and he had these lace shorts on," Harvey said in a tone of wonderment. "They looked like basketball shorts, but they were lace. He's probably the only person in the world who can pull those off. "
Harvey dressed more conservatively, looking the part of the alpha male bro to a tee—or, more literally, to the Dior polo shirt. He's intelligent, self-aware, and extremely confident. He joked with his publicist that my rapid-fire interview approach was a "PR no-no," then mentioned that he did the exact same thing "on the red carpet." It could be seen as cocky or boastful—and would be by the contingent of the New York press that Harvey has always rubbed the wrong way—but it also felt genuine and unperformed. I firmly believed him when he told me he didn't binge-watch any TV shows during his recovery from surgery.
"Not in this day and age," Harvey said when asked if Nolan Ryan's career strikeout record will ever be matched. "Considering the amount of complete games, shutouts that he had, innings pitched, I don't see it happening."
Unlike most pitching records, which date back to an era when pitchers pitched until they quite literally couldn't pitch anymore, Ryan's record is a modern-era marvel deserving the same attention as DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games played. Harvey's personal pitching goals are different. What was an anodyne answer in a splashy SoHo seafood place—this was the sushi portion of the Matt Harvey New York junket—will look loaded and ironic in a few weeks.
"I think certain number of innings: 2000 innings, 2500 innings," Harvey said. "I think if you've pitched that long and that many innings it means you've been healthy and successful."
This was the first hint that Matt Harvey may be trying to sell something other than shampoo.
It was a perfectly fair response, given that the talk of innings pitched haunted Harvey's first post-Tommy John season even before it exploded onto the back pages of the tabloids. Harvey is a competitive person, but he is also a rational economic actor. His long-term financial health depends on his physical health; he and his agent, Scott Boras, would be negligent if they weren't thinking about it. Harvey's answer to the question was not weird or wrong, then, but it did feel coordinated.
Over the past week, it has come to seem even more so. Boras expressed public frustration with the way the Mets have handled his pitcher's workload. Using the name of the most famous surgeon in professional sports, Boras insisted publicly that the Mets stick to Dr. James Andrews's strict 180 innings cap. Going public with this sort of thing is usually something done for leverage in contract negotiations, but makes little sense given Harvey's arbitration status and Boras's resistance to signing long-term deals buying out arbitration years.
The concerns for Harvey's health are legitimate. So is questioning where Boras was when the Mets suggested going to a six-man rotation earlier in the season, only to have Harvey balk at the notion. If a hard cap of 180 innings this season was the agreement all along, the Mets could have done any number of things to stay within that range. It's hard to imagine they wouldn't have.
"I'm not saying what the Mets can or can't do," Boras told the New York Times. "That's not my job. I'm letting them know what the medical opinion is, and that's it. And when they receive notice of the medical opinion, who's accountable for that?"
To be fair to Boras and his client, they offered a hint of things to come when Harvey was skipped in the rotation three weeks ago. "The innings are adding up, we have kind of been discussing that," Harvey told reporters after the decision was announced. "I told them I was completely on board with whatever they wanted to do. I just kind of preferred it would be sooner rather than later." Now, it seems, that moment is just about here.
Two of the loudest voices arguing that innings limits and pitch counts are the main culprits in baseball's ongoing plague of arm injuries belong to Nolan Ryan and Tommy John himself. Pitching more, Ryan insists, helps build up scar tissue around the little tears arms absorb over the course of a career. It's essentially the same concept as weight lifting. John agrees that "more is better."
"Starting in 1975 with the White Sox, when Johnny Sain was my pitching coach, I would throw six days a week and it was the best my arm ever felt," John told me. "For the next 13 years, I never missed a start, except once when I had the flu."
It would be wrong to dismiss Ryan and John as a pair of "back in my day" grumps. At least some studies have shown that pitcher injuries are in fact pretty random. When it comes to preventing them, no one knows anything for sure. Or, as the physical therapist William Reilly, who works with both the Yankees and the Mets' team doctors, put it, "Pitching is just bad for you."
"It might have been Harvey," Michael Kay said, "but after what just transpired, I wouldn't touch him because everything we thought he was—tough, honest, high character—really has to be questioned. It makes Harvey look bad and I think it really hurts his marketability."
Harvey still has star quality to spare, and the sort of talent that will—with a little bit more luck—make him extremely rich when he signs his first multi-year contract. Few expect that contract to be with the Mets, in part because of the team's ongoing financial problems and in part because, as LaGreca said, "Boras has laid the groundwork for the Mets to be the bad guys. A relationship with the Mets is no use to Boras in four years."
In what will likely be one of his final starts of the 2015 regular season—and perhaps the most important game of the year for both the team and its pitcher—Harvey took the mound on Tuesday night against a Washington Nationals team desperately trying to save their season. The Mets began the evening with a five-game lead, and were looking to slam the door on the Nats. They handed the slamming duties to an angry ace who put up a 0.98 ERA with 24 strikeouts in his previous four starts against the Nationals.
Harvey would leave the game after giving up seven runs on eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. The Mets were trailing 7-1 but scored six runs in the following inning, then won the game on a Kirk Nieuwenhuis pinch-hit home run in the eighth. Incidentally, Niewenhuis, who spent much of the season in Triple-A and has scuffled badly in the bigs, also has a fine head of hair.
After the game, Harvey said little about his plans for the future, and insisted that he'll be there when the Mets call on him. Again, placing the onus on Mets brass. "Whatever they decide moving forward, I'm ready, and I'll make sure I'm ready."
Back in the salon, I had time for one last question. Even though I was pretty sure I knew the answer, I asked Harvey how many, out of the numerous products he endorses, he actually uses.
Harvey looked down, then looked me in the eye. "All of them," he said.
It was the right answer, whether or not it was an honest one. I still believed him.