Harvey recovers while Mets prepare for season
Star pitcher may stay behind in Florida when club returns to New York
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Nothing in Matt Harvey's appearance betrayed him. He looked like any other Mets pitcher on the eve of the team's first spring workout, clad head to toe in royal blue athletic gear. He spoke with his hands clasped in front of him, relaxed, apparently at ease.
But make no mistake: Harvey was pained.
"It's hard seeing all the guys, seeing them put their uniforms on and realizing that Spring Training is going to go a little differently this year," Harvey said Sunday. "Today has definitely been a little bit of a struggle."
This was the day Harvey did not want to face back in September, back when he was wrangling with the decision of whether to undergo Tommy John surgery -- all but ending his 2014 season, said the doctors -- or to attempt to defy the medical odds and rehab his partially-torn right ulnar collateral ligament.
At the time, Harvey was Superman, or at least Batman if a national magazine cover had any say in it. He was leading the league in strikeouts with a 2.27 ERA, establishing himself as a leading candidate for the National League Cy Young award. His girlfriend was a Russian supermodel. He partied with celebrities in Manhattan. He seemed as close to invincible as any athlete can.
But he was fallible, as it turns out, and slowly Harvey came to grips with the realization that his most prudent strategy was to undergo surgery. So he did.
"I needed that time to make the decision and make sure that it was the right one, and the one that I wanted to go with," Harvey said. "I'm happy that I did things on my own time. Mentally moving forward, I think that was a big thing for me to do."
Up in the Mets' front office, the news of Harvey's injury was not overly shocking. Though no one expected Harvey's meteoric rise -- it was not so long ago that many scouts considered him a No. 2 starter at best -- to end so rapidly, the Mets knew that even baseball's best pitchers are ticking time bombs when it comes to their various capsules, labrums and ligaments.
So rather than sulk, the Mets mapped out a plan to replace Harvey and augment the organization's pitching depth.
"You can't curl up in a corner and just pretend it didn't happen," said Mets assistant general manager John Ricco. "I remember that first day. My main reaction was disappointment. But while it's not like I was expecting it to happen, I wasn't shocked that it happened."
If the gravity of the injury didn't fully sink in for anyone at the time, it will for Harvey now. Over the next six weeks, the 24-year-old will rehab in Port St. Lucie while his teammates participate in more intensive baseball drills around the complex. Harvey initially said that he would like to start throwing on Feb. 22, the four-month anniversary of his operation, but he admitted Sunday that such timetables are not in his hands. And that's the sort of thing that could be thorny for Harvey, who seemed to bull his way into national prominence last year through sheer force of will.
Admitting his physical limitations will be difficult. Understanding that he cannot alter his rehab plan, even when he feels wonderful, will be excruciating. Potentially waiting until next year to return, even if he feels capable of pitching in September, could be tough.
"I've come to the realization that I have to listen to them and I can't push too much," Harvey said. "There's going to be a time where I can do that, and that'll probably be later down the road. Right now, I've got to take things slow and do what they say and just make sure we have no setbacks."
Toughest of all might be what happens in April, when the Mets ship up north and perhaps leave Harvey behind. Though Harvey lives full time in the East Village and wants to rehab at home if he can, most of the Mets' rehab staff works in Port St. Lucie. Ricco said he was unsure where Harvey will spend the bulk of his summer, but there's a chance it may be away from Citi Field, miles from his teammates.
One of Harvey's teammates, Dillon Gee, recalls mostly avoiding Mets games when he was seriously injured two years ago, simply because he could not stomach being so removed from them. While one half of Gee wanted to support and root on his friends, the other half smoldered.
"You're a part of the team, but at the same time you're not," Gee said. "That's tough to take. When you watch the games, that just makes you miss it that much more."
Harvey will miss the Mets in that way, and the Mets will miss Harvey. They signed 40-year-old Bartolo Colon to replace him in the rotation, and they have high hopes both for him and a cadre of far younger pitchers. But they also know that even a superb season from Colon, or a breakout from someone else, will not completely cover for what they lost.
What the Mets lost will be working his way back to the Majors, swallowing his pride, searching for what he seized so quickly and desperately wants back.