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Why The Matt Harvey Uncertainty Broke Some Baseball Fans' Hearts

New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey working out on the field on Oct. 7.
New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey working out on the field on Oct. 7.

When baseball fans think back on memorable events from the season that just ended, there's no doubt that the Matt Harvey Affair is one of the things they'll remember.

Matt Harvey is a star pitcher for the New York Mets. He's in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. With a playoff spot in plain view, Harvey's agent, Scott Boras, went public a few weeks back with the claim that Harvey's doctors didn't want him pitching a full load this season.

The team and the fans felt blindsided. Harvey himself may have been blindsided. He certainly didn't handle frenzied questions from the press very well. In particular, he wouldn't commit to playing for the Mets in the playoffs; he wouldn't commit to doing what was necessary to get the Mets there in the first place. At least at first. Eventually, he regrouped and made his own decision and, as we know, he's been a big part of what has let the Mets clinch their division for the first time in nearly a decade.

But not before the you-know-what hit the proverbial fan. A few weeks ago, at the height of the furor over Harvey's concern he would hurt himself, Mike Lupica in the Daily News wrote:

"Matt Harvey needs to know that if he eventually stops pitching for the Mets this season because of an arbitrary innings limit in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, then he will be remembered around here, for as long as he pitches around here, as the star Mets pitcher who quit on his stool because that's what his agent told him to do."

Now, there are three things to be said about this.

First, it's a gorgeous sentence.

Second, it's bonkers. As Mike Powell argued convincingly a bit later in The New York Times, Harvey has been nothing but gritty, hard-working and determined in his comeback from elbow ligament reconstruction. And he's pitched very well. Harvey has been a huge part of the Mets' success this season. He's the ace of the staff.

If he's going to have a future in baseball, with the Mets or anyone else, he's got to protect his arm. That means taking the advice of his surgeon. It's worth stressing that there's little evidence that the Mets have ever been tempted to overuse him; he was rarely asked to throw more than 100 pitches in a game. And the Mets introduced a six-man rotation for stretches to give him rest. Plus, they've had him skip a start or two.

Third, however bonkers Lupica's sentiments may be, millions of New Yorkers, including me, had exactly the same sort of feelings. How could a healthy player opt to sit on the sidelines because maybe, possibly, he could get hurt if he were to play? Where's the gladiator in Matt Harvey? Where's the Dark Knight, our very own Avenger? How could he put his own interests before those of his team?

Many of us felt shaken, upset — angry — by the thought that Harvey might not be willing to pitch going forward. So did Phil Mushnick. So did Mike Vaccaro.

But I write today as a philosopher, not as a die-hard Mets fan. The striking thing is that this isn't yesterday's news. Not by a long shot. Long after Harvey is forgiven, the injured feelings that were stirred up during this whole brouhaha are unlikely to be forgotten.

And my question, a philosophical question, really, is why?

It's inappropriate to respond to a kid the way you would to a grown-up. Knowing that the person who stepped on your toes is a kid diminishes any irritation you might feel. The knowledge affects or, at least, it should affect, how you feel.

But why doesn't the knowledge that Harvey only said what everybody already knows — that his interests and that of the team may not always coincide, that he's got doctors to give him medical advice and agents to give him professional advice and that he can't simply ignore that advice however much he might want to — assuage our injury?

Everyone knows that teams do not make decisions based solely on what's good for a player. And, similarly, everyone knows, in the era of free agency, that players have only a minimal loyalty to their teams. But if we know all this, then how could the mere fact that Harvey was open about needing to at least consider the recommendations of his doctor and agent have produced such angst?

Granted, one piece is that we're just selfish. The playoffs were in reach, we all thought we needed Harvey to get there; the thought that he might not be available filled us us with horror.

But that does nothing to explain the enduring feeling of injury. That doesn't explain my own sense of: "Oh no, say it ain't so!"

There must be some deeper explanation.

Perhaps we can find a clue in the pages of James P. Carse's remarkable 1986 book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. Carse noticed that it is a feature of normal games that, as he put it, we play them freely. This means that we are free to stop playing anytime we want.

But it's also the case, he writes, that it frequently does not seem to us as if we are free to stop. We get caught up in the games we play. We frequently take our play very seriously. And, indeed, taking the game seriously, getting caught up, feeling compelled to struggle to win, is, to some degree, necessary for success. You couldn't excel if you didn't give yourself over to the game, if you didn't care.

If Carse is right, then success in games and sports requires something like a self-lie. Games aren't really important, at least not in themselves, and nothing compels us to play them, or to watch them. But to play them really well, or to follow them as a fan, you need to act as though they matter, as though they compel attention and demand action. We enjoy absolute freedom but we act somehow under the self-deceiving guise of necessity.

Maybe this is the key to understanding how it is that Harvey managed to break so many sports-loving hearts. He didn't tell New Yorkers or show New Yorkers anything they didn't already know. That's just the point. He reminded them of what they know perfectly well but choose to forget.

He reminded them — or, rather, he reminded us -- of what we have to pretend we don't know if we are going to take sports as seriously as we do. For example, he reminded us that his own health is more important than whether the Mets win or lose, that he is merely an employee of the team, that his interests and those of the team are not one and the same, that he's got a financial interest in his health, an interest that will, more likely than not, one day lead him to leave New York and play for another team.

This isn't news. This is unveiling what we ourselves hide from view. These are truths we willfully ignore.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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Corrected: October 13, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this post misspelled Mike Vaccaro's name as Vacarro.