NEW YORK -- This mound used to belong to Matt Harvey, who stomped around it and snarled atop it and built his legend upon that 18-foot-wide circle of dirt at Citi Field. At Harvey’s peak, no one commanded more attention. Few had more success.
So much had changed by the time Harvey stepped atop that mound once more on Wednesday, digging a hole there with his spikes for the first time in nearly three years. The situation was different. The pitcher was, too, and any visions of past grandeur dissolved within moments. About an hour and a half after his outing began, Harvey abdicated his old throne slowly, his stare fixed on the ground in front of him, head bowed despite the standing ovation from an appreciative Citi Field crowd.
This was no longer the Dark Knight of comic-book legend. This was simply Harvey as he is today, at age 32, capable of allowing seven runs to his old team in a 7-1 Mets win over the Orioles. The defeat didn’t erase Harvey’s long, bumpy and brilliant history here. It never could. It was nonetheless a reminder that baseball, time and change wait for no one.
“Obviously, there have been so many ups and downs here at this ballpark and with this organization that I didn’t really know what to expect,” Harvey said during a raw, honest, at times almost apologetic postgame interview. “And what the fans gave me out there was pretty incredible. I was holding back tears. I’m not going to lie about that. It was pretty hard holding them back. It reminded me, really, of a lot of the good memories.”
Harvey’s latest act at Citi Field was in distress from the start. He allowed hits to the first four batters he faced in the second inning, including a two-run triple by Kevin Pillar and an RBI single from José Peraza. Harvey gave up another run in the third inning on a Dominic Smith hit, then three more in the fifth. The outing bloated his ERA from 3.60 to 4.81 and made a winner out of Mets starter Taijuan Walker, who delivered seven innings of one-run ball to give the Mets their seventh straight victory.
Years from now, that is not likely what Harvey will remember from this day. What he will remember is the ovation the Citi Field crowd of 8,035 gave him when he took the mound in the bottom of the first inning, and again when he came to bat in the top of the second. As Harvey stepped into the batter’s box, Citi’s speaker system blared out “Sunday Bloody Sunday” -- his old entrance music for years with the Mets.
Finally, when Harvey walked off the mound with one out in the fifth, fans again serenaded him with a standing ovation.
“That was a class move on their part,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I’m sure he wishes that the results were different, but I think it was a big deal for him to pitch here.”
Over parts of seven years in Flushing, Harvey was a supernova, a 2010 first-round Draft pick who arrived in the Majors in July 2012 not only as a heralded prospect, but also the one truly must-watch player on a series of bad teams. In 2012 and ’13, the Mets did not come close to making the playoffs. They were nonetheless appointment television once every five days, when Harvey claimed the mound for his own. Upon recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015, Harvey cemented his legacy through a brilliant season that culminated with him standing on the Citi Field mound, with a lead, in the ninth inning of World Series Game 5.
Mets fans know how that one ended, and progenitors of both sides of the debate -- let Harvey pitch or take him out? -- have long since entrenched themselves in their respective camps. Harvey himself brushed aside talk that his 2015 contributions led to the arm troubles that ultimately drove his career from New York to Cincinnati, Southern California, Kansas City and Baltimore -- a supernova in his 20s, a journeyman in his 30s.
Yet arm trouble is not why Harvey feared a negative reception from fans upon his return to Flushing. Harvey understands that he was, is and will forever be polarizing. As he blazed a path to success in 2013, he also carved out the rare type of celebrity persona reserved for only a precious few. He dated supermodels and hung out with the New York Rangers. He rented an apartment in the West Village and posed nude for ESPN The Magazine. He was a frequent subject in tabloid gossip columns.
He also skipped a playoff workout at Citi Field in 2015, received a three-game suspension for missing a regular-season game two years later, quarreled with the club over the location of his surgery rehab and publicly sparred with reporters.
“Between the injuries and I think me getting in my own way and causing some of those problems, I feel for them -- I feel for the fans that maybe I let them down,” Harvey said. “I guess it’s fair to say that I would understand if they [booed]. I’m extremely happy that they didn’t, and it went the other way. The last couple years, I guess, have been extremely humbling. … I’ve learned from my mistakes.”
Even with a beard now flecked with gray, Harvey talks about “reinventing” himself in this late stage of his career. He no longer pitches in the upper 90s, topping out Wednesday at 94 mph and throwing many fastballs slower than that. He has come to accept his new reality -- to accept that he no longer owns the Citi Field mound the way he once did. If Harvey ever returns again, it will almost certainly be as a visitor. The Mets, who have produced a 2.89 rotation ERA through 31 games thanks to new starters like Walker, have long since moved on. Harvey and the Mets are on different arcs now. Both sides have accepted it.
That is what made Wednesday so nostalgic, when for one afternoon, their paths intersected.
“It was hard,” Harvey said. “This is a very special place to me. I’d like to say I gave everything I had here.”