It takes a special confluence of conditions to make someone like Matt Harvey. There must be a void in the celebrity market, a thirst for it to be filled, and a place with the history and mystery of New York City.
So along came Harvey, to a Mets team starved for his talent and temerity, and a city large enough to handle and promote it. Once Tom Verducci slapped that "Dark Knight of Gotham" title on him, and lathered his visage on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a hero (or antihero) was sprung from the unforgiving concrete of NYC, which rarely sprouts more than a few weeds from its cracks. But Harvey seemed to boom from some underground laboratory, his power blowing every pothole sky high. His intense, angry glare from mound to batter, and the supernatural speed and movement of his pitches, made him an instant star.
Think of him as Linsanity but longer and more sustainable. He also had comic-book cover looks and contours, his naked body pretzeled for the pages of ESPN Body Issue. He was just macho enough for the boys to admire him, and manly enough for the women to want him. In the era just before the Hipster Takeover, Harvey was among the last to be unapologetically muscular.
If we think back, it lasted longer than we should have expected. A few years in the high orbit of superstardom known by very few, sustained by even fewer. Derek Jeter was fading as the face of NYC baseball, and Harvey seemed the logical choice. We saw him brooding at Knicks games, a new runway model on his arm every time. He was accepted as a man who lived his life with a velvet rope wrapped around him as long as he produced.
And he did, for several years. He started with the Mets in 2012 but blew up in 2013, when he fanned 191 batters in 178 innings, while allowing just 135 hits, and finished the season with a laughable 0.931 WHIP. He fanned 5.08 batters per nine and made the NL All-Star Team, finishing fourth in the NL CY Young voting.
Then he got hurt - Tommy John, of course - and missed 2014.
Yet Harvey worked obscenely hard to return in 2015 - making him even more popular, if possible – and won 13 games whole posting a 2.71 ERA and yielding just 156 hits in 189 innings pitched, while punching out 188.
Then the Mets caught up to Harvey, landing Yoenis Cespedes as their Bunyan-esque batter to match Harvey's superhero arm. On the days Harvey couldn't pitch, Cespedes would blast homers, scale walls, and chuck lightning bolts back to the infield – until that last night in October of 2015, when he could have graduated from superstar to a future statue.
But instead of closing that game he pitched so brilliantly - eight iconic innings of Game 5 of the World Series, yielding no runs and notching nine strikeouts - Harvey faltered in the ninth. It was a game and series in which the bullpen blew every single loss, with the Mets leading after eight innings in every game. So for those who blame Harvey for choking out there, or Terry Collins for leaving him out there, go take a hike. Arcades don't carry such somber games. Even some zombie stories can have happy endings.
Even those who love the Yankees and loathe the Mets could get behind the suddenly cool Amazins, who shocked the favored Cubs in the NLCS and should have won it all, while producing several unlikely heroes - Harvey, Cespedes, and Daniel Murphy - who seemed perfectly suited for the Big Apple, able to bask in Broadway's glow without burning in its glare.
Yet it rarely works long term, does it? The strange alchemy that makes stardom so wonderful also makes it impossible to sustain. We fall for it every time, despite our subconscious warning us that these things never last very long. We can't help it. We're suckers for the story, the skyward arc that gets lost in the cloud and rises like a rocket until it joins the stars.
Like so many men or machines that leave the atmosphere, those Mets burned up and flamed out. Especially Harvey, who was just bigger than the rest. He landed with a natural magnetism of so many greats. They walk in a room and own it.
They show you a car and you buy it. They charm you into believing that wherever they're going is where you need to be. But with all the hubris must come the performance. They have to wow you with production, with stats, sales, dates,
In business, and sports qualifies, it's not enough to look good doing something – you must do it well, and Harvey stopped pitching well. So by 2018, the Mets gave Harvey the boot. He was done at 28, with a 9-19 record over his last three seasons. Instead of morphing into Tom Seaver he became something worse. Much worse.
Four teams took a flier on him because he's Matt Harvey. First it was the Reds, Angels, and Royals who crapped out on the Harvey casino. Now it's the Baltimore Orioles, trying to squeeze one more drop of magic juice out of him. The Dark Knight will join a minor league club, and will seize upon his fifth (and final) shot to dazzle a once awestruck baseball nation. Has he earned this shot? Doesn't matter. We'd like to see some last sizzle from a former superhero who was felled by the most common foe of all, arrogance.
Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel