All-Star Game Starter, Mets Ace Harvey a Connecticut Kid With Big Heart
AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill
Standing in front of his locker facing a crush of reporters and a porcupine-like array of microphones, Matt Harvey isn’t happy as questions fly at him faster than his 98-mph fastball.
“Are you hurt, Matt?”
“Has this happened before?”
Harvey answers politely but wearily. At 6-foot-4-inches tall, he towers over the media masses assembled before him. The light from a TV crew basks him in an iconic glow—fitting for the Mystic native whose dominant pitching for the New York Mets this season has warranted comparisons to all-time greats.
He’s flirted with a no-hitter four times, has been among the league leaders in strikeouts and earned run average (ERA) and was voted to the All-Star Game. He’s been compared to legendary Mets pitchers Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver, actually logging better statistics than either did at the start of their careers. He was featured on the May 20 cover of Sports Illustrated, which hailed him as the game’s most promising young pitcher and dubbed him “Gotham’s Dark Knight.” In addition, the 24-year-old right-hander has accomplished a task that would be a challenge even for Batman—when Harvey pitches, he makes watching an otherwise dismal Mets team enjoyable.
But today isn’t one of the good days for the rising superstar. Today, the Dark Knight is brooding.
The Mets have just lost an epic 20-inning, six-hour-and-25-minute battle. Harvey started the game what seems like ages ago, but in the eighth inning a cloud fell over Gotham, Mystic and Mets fans everywhere when Harvey had to leave the game because of tightness in his lower back.
The injury is minor and the pain in his back goes away after a chiropractic alignment, but the perfectionist isn’t happy about his performance or having to leave the game early. Harvey also isn’t happy that after 20 innings, all his team has to show for the day is a loss.
“Obviously I’m frustrated to give up a run, because if I didn’t, the game would have been over a long time ago,” he says.
Harvey seems taller in person than he appears on TV. His build is trim but powerful; he has dark, slightly wild hair that looks slicker when not topped by a baseball cap. This is the Matt Harvey who strikes out baseball’s best hitters and reportedly dates swimsuit supermodel Anne Sergeyevna Vyalitsyna. But he’s also the quiet, amiable small-town Connecticut boy who loves to play golf and fish in the waters around Mystic—the kid who friends say worked his tail off to get where he is, but who has never let his success go to his head.
As the media circus at his locker disperses, I ask Harvey about growing up in Connecticut. The young pitcher is approachable and his mood instantly brightens as he talks about the way state residents have rallied behind him.
“It’s been awesome—the support that everybody’s been giving, through the tweets and at the local bar in Mystic (The Harp and Hound) that my dad goes to. It’s exciting and I’m trying to make Connecticut as proud as possible,” he says. He speaks longingly of the maritime moorings of his home. “I love water, love boats and miss being around those settings. The water was always a big part of my life.”
This is the Bruce Wayne part of Harvey talking; it’s his laid-back, affable side. He earned the Dark Knight nickname for the fierce competitiveness he shows every time he steps on the pitcher’s mound, treating each game into his own personal crusade.
“I hate to lose,” he says, simply stating something that has been apparent to those close to him since the day he first stepped on the T-ball field as a 6-year-old in Mystic.
“HE’S NEVER CONTENT”
“Matt wanted to play in the big leagues from the day he could say big leagues,” says Tom Doyle, a family friend who coached basketball at Groton’s Robert E. Fitch High School, where Harvey was a star on the baseball team.
It’s a dream lots of kids have and one that usually doesn’t come true. But Harvey was different. “He’s got a gift,” Doyle says. “Some kids look like they’re going to be ‘All World’ at 10, but by the time they’re 14, everybody else has gotten just as big as them. But that wasn’t the case with Matt. He threw hard at 10, he threw hard at 14, he threw hard at 18, and even among big-leaguers, he’s throwing harder than most.”
Harvey is the son of two schoolteachers, Ed and Jackie Harvey, and has two older sisters. His baseball and Connecticut roots run deep. His grandfather, Tom Harvey, spent 40 years working at General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton. His father, Ed Harvey, played center field at UConn in 1972, the year the team went to the College World Series. Ed Harvey then went on to coach the varsity baseball team at Fitch for 28 years, including four with Matt on the roster. During Ed’s tenure, the team won three state titles and more than 400 games.
“He’s a legend” is a phrase you hear over and over again about Ed Harvey in the Mystic area. In addition to his son, he coached Jesse Hahn, a pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, and Matt Browning, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. Since retiring from Fitch, he’s worked as an assistant coach at UConn Avery Point.
Ed Harvey’s friends call him “Hawk” because of his intense, hawklike gaze. He has white hair and a proud, old-school, pay-attention-to-detail swagger. “His lawn is more lush than a fairway, his woodpile just so,” wrote Wayne Coffey in a recent New York Daily News story.
The coach never forced baseball on his only son. He didn’t have to.
“Matt wanted to get on the mound at 6 or 7 years old when he was playing T-ball,” the elder Harvey recalls. “His main goal was always to be on the mound. I never had to push him to get out and practice or anything like that. In fact, it was the other way around; he pushed me. He’s always had that drive to be a baseball player.”
Ed Harvey studied pitching at coaches’ conferences and read books on the subject. He would constantly catch for Matt in the family’s backyard. Focusing on mechanics, he helped his son develop the graceful and compact pitching motion that has became his trademark.
He also taught him to keep a level head in the face of both success and failure. “I use a coach’s attitude: Matt’s doing a great job but you’ve got to keep doing it, and then when it’s all over you look back and see what you’ve accomplished,” he says.
It’s a lesson Matt Harvey still carries with him. In May he told reporters that after each start he gives himself 24 hours to enjoy the success or beat himself up about mistakes.
“Good start or bad start, you can be mad or you can be happy,” he says. “But when I throw my next bullpen, it’s time to move on to the next start.”
Harvey is his own biggest critic and he’s constantly striving to get better. When he prepares for a game, he is straightforward in his approach. “I’m not a big film guy. I watch opponents in person and just worry about executing my pitches,” he says.
Kevin Carlow—a Fitch High teammate who just graduated from Brown University, where he was a standout pitcher—says Harvey “is never content. He’s the first one to the field and works hard every day. I think that’s what’s going to make him good for a long time. He’s going to keep trying to find ways to fool batters and always have the upper hand.”
“STRIVE FOR THE MOON”
Harvey never got special treatment from his dad when he began playing in high school, and he quickly earned the admiration of those around him.
“He’s got that pit-bull mentality on the mound. He just wants the ball, he wants to compete and that hasn’t changed,” says Marc Peluso, who was an assistant coach at Fitch when Matt played there and took over as head coach after Ed Harvey retired.
“His fingers are just huge. When he grips a baseball it’s like he’s throwing a golf ball,” says Brian McGugan, a close friend who was Harvey’s catcher at Fitch and was the state Player of the Year before he became a helicopter mechanic for the National Guard.
His friends recall that in high school Harvey was always humble, and that hasn’t changed. “He won’t big-league you. He’s still a normal guy; I send him a text and he texts me back,” Peluso says.
During the off-season Harvey hosted an autograph-signing event for McGugan’s son’s local youth baseball team. “He didn’t have to do that but he’s all about where he came from, his family and his friends,” McGugan says.
When Harvey graduated from Fitch, he was expected to sign a Major League contract and enlisted firebrand agent Scott Boras. As the 2007 draft approached, it looked like he might get picked up late in the first round by the New York Yankees, the team he had rooted for growing up, but things didn’t go according to the Hollywood script. The Yankees passed on Harvey and he ultimately fell to the third round, getting drafted by the Los Angeles Angels with the 118th pick. Harvey felt he should’ve been selected earlier, and although the Angels offered him $1 million, he turned it down, instead accepting a scholarship to play at the University of North Carolina.
It was a difficult time for him and his family. “It was tough for him to give up an opportunity to play pro ball,” says Ed Harvey. “Matt had to make an adjustment and I think it took him a while.”
At North Carolina, Harvey had a good freshman year but struggled during his sophomore year and was demoted from starter to relief pitcher. His father was convinced the problem was a change in mechanics. His son had lost the easy pitching motion he’d had as a kid.
“His lower half was fighting his upper half,” Ed says. That summer, while Matt was playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League, Ed drove up to the Cape early one Saturday morning to have Matt pitch to him like he used to do in their backyard in Mystic.
“I took him back to things that we did when he was 10 years old,” he recalls. The rest of the summer his son worked on regaining his old pitching form and bounced back in his junior year. In the spring of 2010, Harvey pitched a 157-pitch complete game and rekindled interest from big-league scouts.
That summer he was selected seventh overall by the Mets and signed for $2.6 million. He made his Major League debut on July 26, 2012, striking out 11 and allowing only three hits into the sixth inning. Ever since, he’s been making highlight reels with his electrifying stuff—his fastball is regularly in the high 90s and sometimes tops the 100-mph mark, and he possesses some devastating secondary pitches including a Bugs Bunny change-up that seems to hang suspended in air.
Through it all, Harvey still remembers the lessons his dad taught him. “The biggest thing he told me was ‘never let anybody tell you you’re not good enough’ and I take that with me every time I do anything,” he says. “He told me ‘keep your head down, keep focused and strive for the moon.’”
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
On an overcast muggy day in June, Harvey has his father’s words in mind as he takes the mound against the Miami Marlins at Citi Field. If Harvey is the Dark Knight, then the Marlins have been his Bane up to this point. The last time he faced them he endured one of his worst games in the big leagues. He lasted only five innings—his shortest outing of the season—and gave up a season-high 10 hits and four earned runs. The performance caused his ERA to balloon from 1.87 to 2.17.
“These guys have been giving him trouble because they’ve been coming out swinging aggressively early in the count and obviously he’s a fastball pitcher,” explains Mets catcher John Buck.
It’s clear before the game that Harvey wants revenge for the last outing. “If I don’t do well against a certain team, I’m excited to get back out there and get better against them the next time,” he says. “It’s the kind of person I am.”
Ed and Jackie Harvey are in the stadium, but on days like this it’s hard for them to watch their son pitch. “The stomach turns over a few times,” Ed says, not happy being on the other side of the fence, powerless to help. “The Major League hitters are the best in the world, so if you make a mistake on one pitch you can lose the game.”
Matt Harvey takes the mound, staring down opponents with dark eyes that, like his father’s, are hawklike in their intensity.
Never let anybody tell you you’re not good enough.
With his calm, relaxed throwing motion, Harvey begins to tear through the Marlins lineup. Over seven innings he allows only six hits and one run. He also strikes out six, becoming the National League leader in strikeouts.
“I think he showed them today that he’s able to adjust,” Buck says after the game, which the Mets ultimately lose.
Mets manager Terry Collins acknowledges his team has wasted a strong effort from the young pitcher. “We’re coming to expect a lot out of him and he continues to deliver,” he says. “When he gives up a run, it’s almost surprising.”
Standing by his locker, Harvey seems oblivious to the hoopla around him. He follows his dad’s advice, keeps his head down and strives for the moon. So far, the soundtrack to his journey has been the loud wallop his fastball makes as it smacks into his catcher’s mitt, followed by the deep-throated yell of umpires across the league: “S-T-R-I-K-E THREE!”
“It has been kind of crazy, all the stuff that has happened [this season], but I have not lost focus—baseball is still number one,” Harvey says. “I just want to be the best pitcher I can be.”All-Star Game Starter, Mets Ace Harvey a Connecticut Kid With Big Heart