Ninety-nine percent of you have no idea what professional athletes are doing with their downtime. 99 percent of the remaining 1 percent who do know keep quiet about it because otherwise they would not be able to do their jobs while serving as daily media members regularly around the players; doing their jobs as teammates, coaches and managers who need the players to contribute; owners who pay and hope to profit from them; and those – gossip columnists, public relations people, agents, handlers, cohorts, greenflies and flunkies – whose main function is to facilitate whatever the client wants.
Some athletes, like the Mets’ Matt Harvey, enjoy the nightlife. Some like playing golf. Others prefer to stay in their hotel room or at the ballpark playing Xbox. Still others bring their families with them everywhere they go and prefer as normal a life as possible given the circumstances.
With the size of their paychecks, their age and that they have so much free time on their hands, it’s unavoidable that players will try and find things to do. There’s nothing wrong with that…until the public perceives it as affecting their performance. Yoenis Cespedes’s golf addiction has been viewed as a negative. When R.A. Dickey told his intriguing life story, his sudden burst of fame and loquaciousness grated on some in the Mets organization. When Gary Gaetti became a born again Christian, his transformation from foul-mouthed team leader to evangelical was portrayed as the cause of a fissure in the Twins clubhouse.
This has gone on forever.
Stoked by a media which bases much of its reporting and response as a reverberation to public reaction, intentionally or not, it feeds the fire. If it’s viewed as a problem, it’s a problem even if it’s not the problem.
Harvey’s nocturnal activities have been under scrutiny since his big league arrival in 2012 when he was a relatively unknown and unhyped former first-round draft pick of the prior Mets front office regime led by Omar Minaya. Handsome, swaggering and incredibly talented, Harvey’s production on the field and his natural magnetism led to him quickly being adopted by the tabloids as an heir apparent to their aging former player of choice, the Yankees’ Derek Jeter. As his stature on the field grew, so too did his nighttime exploits. He was celebrated for it.
And it was irrelevant because he was coming through on the field and showed the potential to be the next on and off-field star, more Joe Namath than Jeter.
Since 2016, his career has plummeted faster than it skyrocketed. Blame is allocated in multiple places with the latest being his penchant for late nights and poor optics. Harvey’s reported trip to Los Angeles to go to a nightclub while the Mets were playing in San Diego is another line in Harvey’s long list of “what are you doing?” moments not because he was partying, but because he’s pitching terribly, has lost his job as a starting pitcher, and is heading toward free agency as a reclamation project rather than a superstar acquisition.
The club shrugged off the trip to L.A. in part because it really doesn’t sound like a big deal and in part because what’s the difference? How much worse can he pitch? It’s difficult to envision his on-field struggles stemming from going out and having a few drinks the night before a game when the game isn’t set to start until the next night. It’s just that he’s not very good right now. If he was, the partying would be “Matt being Matt” circa 2015 and not “Matt parties as his career sinks.”
As organizations seek to turn their clubs into corporate structures with chains-of-command, orders being issued from the top down and carried out without question, the fundamental flaw that can never be excised from their version of an ideal structure is that the key employees – the players – are indispensable and paid multiple millions more than the decision makers.
The owner is not replaceable in a conventional sense because the property belongs to him or her until it is sold and they sign the checks.
Some interchangeable front office person, regardless of how good at the job, can be replaced with few noticing the departure over the long term. There are thousands of them using the same formulas. That goes for Billy Beane, Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman, Sandy Alderson or anyone else. So there’s nothing they can do about a player choosing to stay out all night because they’re making too much money, have guaranteed contracts and are under no obligation to follow orders…until they cannot perform as they did before. But for five or six pitchers, the vintage 2013 Harvey was not replaceable.
The Mets sound as if they know he’s not part of their long-term future and it’s becoming increasingly evident that their season no longer hinges on him. If he gets to the point where the distractions outweigh any possible usefulness, he’ll be gone before the season is over and they won’t miss him.
This has nothing to do with his off-field life.
The odds are that Harvey’s partying is no worse now than it was when he started the 2013 All-Star Game. It’s a perceived problem because he’s no longer an All-Star; he’s figuratively carrying a mop out to the bullpen every day until he shows he deserves another chance at the starting rotation or he’s trustworthy enough as a reliever to be used in key situations and not when the Mets are far behind or far ahead.
It’s a natural human inclination to be nosy. In a culture in which everything is posted on social media, there’s a blatant or hidden agenda for everything, and failures make for more interesting viewing than successes, Harvey is a sideshow — one that will be canceled when it wears out its welcome. He is largely to blame for the attention he receives not because he makes the wrong decisions – who can say what’s right or wrong? – but because the same people who propped him up and turned him into the Dark Knight, lauding him for his style and female companions, are turning on him. None of it was because they liked or disliked him. It was because he was interesting.
In this Kardashian-infested world where talent is secondary to the ability to grab attention and no one admits to watching or paying attention to any of it simultaneous to knowing every single aspect about their lives, salaciousness sells. The shifting of the Harvey narrative does not emanate from a condescending disapproval of his lifestyle, but from his results on the field. When the Mets say it’s not a big deal, they’re not talking in terms of disciplining him or straightening him out. It’s because it doesn’t matter anymore.