I'd like to think that Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins were in a quiet clubhouse after a win last week, long after the game had ended, relaxing and enjoying an adult beverage, marveling at the Mets' 6 1/2 game lead.
"I can't believe how well this season is going."
"Everything is going so smoothly."
"It's just so much fun, and it feels like this is never going to end."
And then they both sighed and stared into the distance, completely content.
Well, it's weird, but suddenly things stopped going so smoothly for the New York Mets. You just can't predict baseball. Not only are the Mets back in a race with the Nationals, but they're dealing with a distraction that's gone supernova. Scott Boras opened his boras hole on Friday, and hot, steaming boras came tumbling out. Now the only things the baseball world can talk about is Matt Harvey and his innings limits. The Mets have deserved a lot of the LOLMets they've foisted upon themselves over the last few years. They did not deserve this.
The long holiday weekend gave us all time to reflect on just how Harvey and Boras screwed up, and the list never fails to impress. A brief recap of the screw-ups:
- Harvey let his agent take his grievances to the press, then didn't immediately repudiate him.
- Harvey let his agent take his grievances to the press, and that agent is literally Scott Boras, possibly the only person in professional sports who polls lower than Roger Goodell.
- Instead of Harvey clarifying the situation in an emotional, personal interview, Harvey's publicist wrote a defensive, jinxy post about it.
- The timing, man, the timing. The Mets are relevant for the first time in years, and they crawled out of the sewer to get here. Their hardy fans, who have deserved so much more than this, should be talking about a postseason race. Instead, a sizable segment of them are talking about Harvey's trade value.
The biggest miscalculation is that Boras was hoping that public sentiment would put pressure on Sandy Alderson and the team, except he forgot that sports fans hate the idea of a player sitting out for preventative measures. Thirty-six doctors could hold a press conference and announce that if Harvey throws one more pitch, thousands of tarantulas will burst out of his elbow and scuttle into the Citi Field crowd, and the response would still be, "Innings limits? INNINGS LIMITS? DO YOUR JOB. YOU ARE A MILLIONAIRE PLAYING A KID'S GAME ARRRRGGH."
People hate innings limits, y'all.
That's what Harvey and Boras got wrong. For some reason, they weren't expecting a backlash in September to an announcement of, "So, you know it's reckless and unethical to let your best pitcher keep pitching, right?" It's weird how the people who've spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars following this team took offense to that, especially when the postseason was finally close enough to scratch behind the ears.
With that out of the way, though, it's only fair to focus on what Harvey got right. You're skeptical, but it's actually a two-parter. Harvey and Boras did nail a couple of important points. They might be the most important points.
1. There's never a good reason to trust a team completely
Individually, Alderson cares about Harvey as a person. Collins cares about Harvey as a person. Various Wilpons almost certainly care about each individual Mets player. Collectively, though, they're all single cells in the organization known as The New York Metropolitan Baseball Club Inc., which has the moral compass of a sea anemone. That's much different than saying the club is evil, mind you. It's a corporation that's wired and programmed to look out for the corporation, just like all corporations. And they would pickle Harvey's arm and display it at the entrance to Citi Field if it somehow led to a championship or two.
I'm sure you could have a very intense, illuminating conversation with Alderson about the ethics involved here, with a spirited back-and-forth about the different risks teams and players should be willing to take. Should players be willing to give up a year at the end of their career for a championship this season? How about two years? Five years? There isn't a right answer, and I'm sure a discussion about it with a cerebral fellow like Alderson would be fascinating.
The corporation, though, is repeating "CHAMPIONSHIP" over and over again, like a panicking Hodor, completely unable to think of anything else. A championship brings a lot of money to an organization, with estimates that hover around $40 million or so, but that's just in the tangible boost in immediate ticket and merchandising sales. It's a lot harder to account for every last penny that the thousands of new fans will spend over the next 30 years. Plus, there's the whole bit about winning a championship. It's sort of the point of this whole thing.
And if using Harvey for 20 or 30 innings more than the recommended limit gets them there, well ... I mean ... no one is really going to notice, right?
Harvey and Boras are right to be skeptical. The history of wholly selfless decisions by corporations can fit on an index card. That goes for Chevron, Walmart and US Steel, and it goes for the Mets. They probably aren't your friend, just because they're incapable of making friends.
2. Seriously, fans don't care what happens to you
Fans are the worst. Don't do anything for the fans.
Harvey never said this, never implied it and he would probably bristle at the suggestion. But it's part of the motivation to keep the arm safe, even at the expense of short-term team success.
It's possible to concoct a scenario where Harvey pushes past the artificial limits imposed on him, digs down to find a reserve of moxie and grit and helps the Mets win a championship. He would be a hero, remembered for decades. If the extra work shortened his career, fans would always point out the sacrifice.
There goes Matt Harvey. He gave his arm for his team, you know.
So brave, so bold. Except there's about a two percent chance of that happening. The other 98 scenarios out of 100 aren't quite as heartwarming. They involve the Mets coming up just short, with a sad wait-'til-next-year and a long offseason, just because that's going to happen to nine of the 10 teams that make the postseason.
In some of those scenarios, Harvey will get hurt or become ineffective, just because baseball is cruel. It takes about a month for any player to lose almost all of the goodwill he's built up, give or take. As soon as Harvey isn't helping the Mets win baseball games, Mets fans will desperately look for the next player who can help them win baseball games. It happens that quickly.
That's what sports fans do. Should Harvey risk his career for a championship? Considering that the conveyor belt hasn't stopped spitting out new baseball players in hundreds of years, sure! There will always be a new player, ha ha. Keep 'em coming, boys.
Harvey doesn't have a conveyor belt of careers, though. He's got just one career, and it's eternally vulnerable. He has to protect it. And any sense of "I need to push myself for the fans" has to be tempered with the knowledge that as soon as he isn't pitching well, the fans will ditch him. So when a surgeon says that 180 innings is probably a good limit, he listens.
Harvey and Boras raised rational concerns. The concerns were presented in a hamfisted, oblivious and ill-timed way. But they had two larger truths behind them: Teams aren't always your friend, and the love of fans is fickle. Because of that, it's prudent to question the motivations of a team, and it doesn't make sense to risk your livelihood for fans who would abandon you in dark times. It's completely okay for Harvey and Boras to have the sense of self-preservation that started this whole mess.
Just do it, you know, quieter next time. The idea wasn't the problem. It was the presentation. Work on that, fellas.