Matt Harvey, Young Gun in the Big City

Mj 618_348_young gun in the big city change issue to august 2013
Photograph by Peter Yang

“Man, do I fucking love this city,” Matt Harvey says, stretching out in an expensive French bistro in downtown Manhattan. He sips his coffee and flashes a drowsy, laid-back smile. Having called a secret number to get a last-minute table, Harvey now sits among the restaurant’s mostly female clientele; lithe, stylish creatures waxed and tweezed in that particular New York way – in total anonymity. Tonight, Harvey is slated to pitch his first start against the Yankees – a career-defining moment, according to this morning’s sports pages – though if that’s anywhere on his mind, he’s not showing it. It’s still May, but the 24-year-old Mets pitcher is in the midst of a logic-defying season, and is already drawing comparisons to the game’s greats for his 98-mile-an-hour fastball, gravity-resistant curveball, devilish change-up, and irresistible slider that routinely leaves batters chopping at air. Lately, whenever Harvey, 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, is on the mound, the improbable occurs: The Mets tend to win. Earlier this morning, he passed newsstands featuring himself on the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated‘ with the headline ‘The Dark Knight of Gotham.’ “Pretty awesome,” says Harvey, his smile widening.

Unlike his teammates, many of whom sequester themselves in McMansions out in the suburbs, Harvey lives in a bachelor pad in the East Village, a downtown neighborhood known for its raucous bar scene, which he indulges in on occasion. “I’m young, I’m single,” he says. “I want to be in the mix.” Harvey has lived in the sleek one-bedroom almost a year now, and every time he comes home, he experiences a thrill not unlike, say, pitching a near-perfect game while fighting a bloody nose, as Harvey did in early May against the White Sox, an outing that further cemented the burgeoning Harvey legend. “I’m on the 10th floor, with a perfect view of the Financial District,” he says. “The whole thing is windows, so as soon as I walk in it’s like: Yes. New York. I’m here.”

In uniform, Harvey tends to look burly – his jowls puffed out, his face bejeweled with sweat, a bulge of chew in his lower lip – but in person he is endearingly boyish: clean-cut, his jet-black hair neatly parted, a placid glow in his blue eyes. In an era when so many athletes hide behind veils of false modesty or manufactured swagger, Harvey projects a veteran’s confident cool: He’s having a great time, and he wants you to know it. He may not quite be a freewheeling Joe Namath sporting a mink coat on the sidelines – at least not yet – but Harvey represents a welcome shift from, say, Derek Jeter, who has managed to dominate New York sports without ever displaying evidence of a personality. Not that you’ll catch Harvey dissing Jeter. “That guy is the model,” he says. “I mean, first off, let’s just look at the women he’s dated. Obviously, he goes out – he’s meeting these girls somewhere – but you never hear about it. That’s where I want to be.”

Ever since Harvey was in middle school in Mystic, Connecticut, scouts have had their eye on the pitching prodigy. In 2007, when he was a senior in high school, Harvey was expected to be a top pick in the major-league draft, and planned on entering the majors in lieu of going to college. But then his stock dropped, due to a handful of lackluster performances, and he had to wait until the third round, when the

Angels snatched him up with the 118th pick. They offered Harvey $1 million – a hefty sum for that draft slot – but it was less than the $2 million figure he already had in his head. He turned it down and headed instead to the University of North Carolina – where his pitching alternated between the electric and erratic. He has had a chip on his shoulder ever since. “For a long time,” he says, eating his eggs Benedict, “I had an anger toward major-league baseball.”

But after leaving UNC as a junior, signing a $2.5 million contract with the Mets, and playing on their minor-league team for over a season, Harvey finally made it to the majors last year – where something curious clicked inside him. So far, Harvey has proved to be the rare being who thrives on the biggest of stages, shines under the brightest of lights – a player, in short, whose game needed New York to reach its full potential. “At first, when I got drafted, I was just relieved,” he says. “But then, after I made all the calls and had a moment to myself, it hit me: I’m going to be playing in New York! Let’s do this!”

As Harvey finishes his breakfast, he notices an unsettling development outside. The sky has turned gray, giving way to an increasingly heavy rain. “Shit,” he says. “I can throw in this, but if it gets worse? They may cancel the game.” In nearly two hours of conversation, this is the first time he’s mentioned tonight’s matchup: his debut outing against the Yankees – his beloved childhood team – in what is always a fiery and scrutinized rivalry. A momentous occasion, and one Harvey is marking by…well, by doing nothing out of the ordinary. “I shave,” he says. “I let it grow out, and on game day, I shave. But otherwise, my prep is basically to not prep. Go out and have fun, you know?”

With two hours until Harvey has to be at Citi Field in Queens, he decides he has time for some quick shopping. “Do you know the store John Varvatos?” Harvey asks, saying the name of the menswear designer as if describing a friend he met recently. “So cool.” Since moving to the city, Harvey has formed a tight, Jedi-apprentice bond with Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie for the Rangers – a man known as much for his style as his ability to keep the puck out of the net. “Matt’s very funny,” says Lundqvist. “He calls me sometimes and says, ‘Let’s go shopping, teach me some stuff.'” Harvey has no shame in admitting that his fierce competitive streak extends far beyond the pitching mound. “He always makes the best-dressed lists,” he says of Lundqvist. “Well, I want to be on those lists.”

Harvey strolls into the store and seeks out Gerry, a salesman who dresses most of the athletes that come through.

“We’re flying out Thursday, going to Miami,” Harvey tells Gerry. “Normally we wear a suit, but this week, Mets management switched it to some sort of white shirt. I want to go all white. Maybe, like, white linen? Freak everyone out a bit.” Harvey eyes a linen blazer with about a million buttons running along the seam and a funky, upturned collar – a baroque garment more befitting a general in Napoleon’s army than a ballplayer. “Think I can pull this off?” he asks.

Gerry gently pivots Harvey away from the coat. “Might be a bit much,” he says, delicately. “But I think I’ve got just the thing for you.”

Many have traced Harvey’s combination of skill and discipline to the fact that his father, Ed, is himself a former college baseball player and current junior-college coach. While Harvey doesn’t dismiss this notion, he credits his father with supplying an equally important lesson: that having fun is as important as anything else in life. “Dirty martinis and music – that’s the big motto in our family,” he says, describing his extended Italian-American clan as a rowdy tribe, fond of letting loose as often as possible. “We get the booze going, and the music starts playing. Always old-school hip-hop. Jay-Z. Tribe Called Quest. The Pharcyde. My parents love that stuff.”

New York, of course, offers countless ways to re-create such scenes, something Harvey learned soon after being drafted in 2010, when the team took him out for dinner at the STK steakhouse in the Meatpacking District. Before he knew it, it was four in the morning and the bar was announcing last call. “Amazing how easy that can happen here,” says Harvey, joking that he chose being a pitcher because it provides more time off than other players get. He’s made headlines for club-hopping with Anne Vyalitsyna, a Russian blonde whose achievements include nine straight appearances in the ‘Sports Illustrated’ Swimsuit Issue. (After tabloid photos of the two surfaced, Harvey’s teammates gave him a round of applause when he walked into the Mets locker room.) Still, Harvey is quick to add that he curbs such nightlife indulgence leading up to a game. “I have a 48-hour rule,” he says. “No drinking two days before a start. But those other days? Yes, I’m gonna go out. If I was locked up in my house all week, I don’t know what I’d be like on the baseball field.”

Gerry emerges with an outfit for Harvey to try on: tight white jeans, a collarless white button-down, glossy white oxfords, an off-white blazer. Harvey retreats into the dressing room, emerging moments later. He looks at himself in the mirror, momentarily unsure of the bold outfit, and then doubles down.

“Let’s do it,” he tells Gerry. “This is an outfit that takes a lot of confidence to pull off.”

At Citi field, Harvey hears the announcer say his name – “…and, at pitcher tonight, Matt HARRRR-VEEEEY!” – and he morphs into a different, almost rabid animal, as the home crowd screams a little louder than they do for everyone else. With his feet planted on the mound, Harvey is firmly, immutably “locked in.” He doesn’t hear a thing. Doesn’t see anything except the batter – no matter who’s in the box, Harvey pretends it’s “Babe Ruth, the best hitter in the world.” Sportswriters have a tendency to frame baseball games as duels between two pitchers – as they did when Harvey outpitched the Nationals’ ace Stephen Strasburg earlier this year – when in reality it’s a matchup between hitter and pitcher. “I don’t care who’s pitching,” Harvey says. “Who’s at bat? It’s me versus you. Let’s see who’s going to win, buddy.”

Despite a two-hour rain delay, Citi Field is far more alive than it was the previous night, for the start of the series, a game the Mets surprised the city by winning. Attendance always spikes when Harvey is pitching, a fact he takes pride in. “I love the idea of coming into a struggling franchise and seeing if I can help them win,” he says. “First off, I hate to lose. At anything. Secondly, who doesn’t want to be the guy to help turn something around?”

Harvey looks sharp from his first pitch. The mellow meal, the shopping excursion, the text messages with the model throughout the day – it all kept his mind clear, free of worry, ready to dominate. By the top of the sixth, neither team has scored a run, and Harvey has given up only two hits, both tepid singles, and has struck out eight batters while keeping his pitch count low.

Then, Brett Gardner, the Yankees left fielder, pops one of Harvey’s fastballs into right field and makes it to second. Harvey grounds out the next batter, but Gardner reaches third. Harvey takes a deep breath and forces the next batter out, but a single soon brings Gardner home: Yankees 1, Mets 0. Harvey gets out of the inning with a strikeout, but he’s inconsolable when he returns to the dugout, throwing his glove and cursing loud enough to be heard a few rows back.

Except then, late in the game, the Mets batting lineup undergoes a miraculous rally: Mets 2, Yankees 1. Game over. The stadium erupts. Harvey runs out of the dugout. Since Harvey left the game when the team was behind, he may not have added a win to his résumé, but once again he’s shown that the impossible becomes possible when he plays.The night after his team’s win against the Yankees, Harvey sits with seven buddies and a trio of svelte women with unplaceable accents in the back of a bar in the West Village: not the sort of swank, conspicuous spot that he sometimes favors, but a dark sports bar that, in a twist of irony Harvey doesn’t seem to notice, is decorated mainly with Yankees paraphernalia. “I love this place,” says Harvey, a portrait of satisfaction in jeans and a crisp, pinstriped button-down. “You need a spot where you can just be yourself.”

While his regular crew includes Rangers players like Lundqvist and Brian Boyle, Harvey mostly hangs with finance and marketing guys in their twenties and thirties. “Baseball is my job, and I love it,” Harvey says, sipping a vodka soda, “but it can’t be the only thing I’ve got going on.” Still, with its 162-game season, baseball is the most time-consuming of professional sports, so Harvey often settles for living vicariously through his friends. “Last weekend they were up in Newport, right?” he says. “A beach party where everyone wore white. I can’t do something like that with my schedule, but I still like it when they show me the pictures.”

At one point in the evening, Boyle, a 6-foot-7 forward, sidles up to Harvey. “Dude, you gotta try this,” Boyle says, offering Harvey a new brand of chewing tobacco. “It’s really smooth.”

“Nice,” Harvey says, sliding some dip into his lower lip. “That is smooth.”

It’s getting late, closing in on two in the morning. Harvey leans back, buzzing on the high of being on a team that is, at least for now, winning. Still on a rookie contract, he knows he may soon have to renegotiate with the team for a long-term deal (online sportswriters speculate he could get a seven-year, $70 million deal). The Mets, of course, would be insane to let him go – but the Mets are the Mets, so anything can happen. Still, one thing Harvey knows for certain: “No matter what, New York is now my home,” he says, finishing the night’s last drink. “I could buy a place now, but I’ve gotta wait for that $200 million contract. If I’m going to buy an apartment, it has to be the best apartment in the city.”

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