As a card-carrying diva in spikes, Matt Harvey has proved he does not listen to many people not named Scott Boras. But if he is soliciting advice in the event the suspended Chase Utley plays on appeal Monday night, Harvey might want to heed the man whose signature is all but written like a jagged mark of Zorro across his right elbow.
Tommy John was telling a story Sunday before Utley was rightfully suspended for Games 3 and 4 of the National League Division Series for the illegal and reckless Game 2 slide that broke Ruben Tejada's leg. John was talking about the time in 1968 when he was pitching for the White Sox and Tigers infielder Dick McAuliffe -- thinking his opponent had thrown at him -- charged the mound and separated his shoulder, ending his season. John told reporters afterward that he would someday get back at McAuliffe.
"And I never threw at him, ever," John recalled by phone. "All I wanted to do was put doubt in his mind, to have him thinking, 'Is he going to get me this at-bat or the next at-bat?' McAuliffe never did much against me after that [one hit in 12 subsequent at-bats].
"So if I were Matt Harvey, I would come out and say, 'You're damn right I'm going to get that SOB and get him good.' And then I wouldn't throw at Utley, because it's guaranteed Utley won't hit the same with that hanging over him. Harvey's job is not to go out there and hit Chase Utley. His job is to win the game, and then come off the mound with his chest puffed out."
Maybe Utley is in the Los Angeles lineup Monday night, maybe not. Joe Torre, acting MLB disciplinarian, benched the un-artful Dodger for what he called a "rolling block" on Tejada that the umpires somehow missed. Rather than accept his punishment for the sake of all concerned, Utley is appealing because Utley does everything face-first. The hearing and decision could be complete by game time.
Hours before news of the suspension hit, Harvey wasn't taking any chances. If only because he knew Torre was closely monitoring every syllable, Harvey didn't issue any specific threats in his Citi Field news conference. But as much as he said his job is to "put up zeros and go as long as I can," Harvey also called the Utley slide that broke Tejada's leg "more of a tackle than anything," pledged to pitch inside regardless of potential umpire warnings, and made a few references that left open the possibility of in-game retribution.
"As far as sticking up for your teammates," Harvey said, "I think being out there and doing what's right is exactly what I'm going to do."
What's right? What's wrong? What's the best way for the New York Mets to even the score without compromising their chances of winning a World Series for the first time in nearly three decades?
Good questions all. It should be noted that over 21 plate appearances against Harvey, Utley has a .333 batting average, a .429 on-base percentage, a home run and three distinct memories of being hit by a pitch, including the retaliatory strike in April punctuated by a Harvey staredown. Back then, the Mets' ace was sending a message that he was recovered from Tommy John surgery and ready to show Utley's Phillies that his team was done serving as their divisional doormats.
Now it's Utley's Dodgers who have to answer for the kind of play that would've embarrassed even Ty Cobb, a play more violent than the Utley wipeout of Tejada in 2010. Terry Collins revealed he met with Harvey to ensure he focused on getting the Dodgers out so the Mets could carry a 2-1 NLDS lead into Game 4. But right now Collins is an angry old-schooler, and he seemed a bit hopeful of an eye-for-an-eye moment when remembering aloud Sunday that "players always took care of stuff themselves."
Tommy John made a living in that era, winning 288 games over 26 seasons, 164 of those victories earned after undergoing the revolutionary surgery on his left elbow that was supposed to end his career. Dr. Frank Jobe successfully replaced his ulnar collateral ligament with a forearm tendon in 1974, and major league baseball would never be the same.
All these years later, Matt Harvey is among the multitudes still pitching because of that procedure. So when the 72-year-old John heard Boras interrupt a postseason race last month by declaring 180 innings the limit for his client (Harvey now stands at 189.1), and then heard Harvey stand by his agent (before backtracking in the face of intense fan and media heat), he was just as appalled as he was when Boras orchestrated the shutdown of the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg in 2012.
"I would've called Scott and said, 'Sit down and shut your F'ing mouth; you work for me and I'll tell you what to do,'" John said. "I understand where Boras is coming from. I know he wants to protect Harvey's future earnings, and if I were pitching in this day and age I'd want Scott Boras as my agent.
"But he can't see the future, and if Scott and Dr. [James] Andrews could they should start selling stocks and bonds. In the 13 years after I had surgery I never missed a start. Never had any arm pain. None."
After missing the entire 1975 season, John threw 207.1 innings in '76, and 975 more over the following four seasons, the first two with the Dodgers and the next two with the Yankees. John left Los Angeles as a free agent, he said, because the Dodgers were too concerned about his left arm to offer him a three-year deal.
"Dr. Jobe told everyone that the longer you go without any post-op setbacks, the less chance you have of getting injured," John said. "That doesn't mean Matt Harvey won't get hurt; nobody can guarantee that. But I would've been so pissed off if I were busting my butt on that Nationals ballclub when Strasburg was shut down. Matt hasn't had any problems this year, and nobody has the foresight to say he should shut it down.
"If Matt's not hurting, he needs to pitch as hard as he can for as long as he can. Don't abuse him, but pitch him. It's the playoffs. His team hasn't been to the World Series in 15 years, and this is what he's been wanting to do his entire life. We're all actors, and right now he's on center stage. He's got all winter to rest his arm. It's time to perform."
On the subject of whether that performance should include some form of payback for Tejada, John said he only twice hit batters in retaliation. He once nailed Luis Aparicio in the waist for taking an extra base in the middle of a blowout, and he once nailed Luis Tiant in the rump after Tiant had twice knocked down John's teammate Bill Melton.
"I don't think you ever throw near a guy's head," John said. "If anything, Matt should throw at Utley's back leg. That will get his front leg up and make him hit the ground and roll over. Even if he hits him, he'd hit him on the knee or the thigh.
"But if you hit Utley and it makes the Dodgers come alive, what have you accomplished? If the umpire tells Harvey he's gone, who has he hurt? If the Mets have a big lead in the seventh inning and Utley comes up, OK, throw at his back leg. But the Mets will be a better team if Matt Harvey is on the mound for eight or nine innings."
Whether or not Utley plays in Game 3, Harvey can accomplish a lot of things in those eight or nine innings beyond winning his first playoff start. He can reclaim his standing as a rescuing Dark Knight. He can make fans forget he was the only Met to miss that mandatory workout and, more importantly, he can make them forget he briefly abandoned his tough-guy act with his Charmin-soft suggestion last month that he might call it a season before, you know, the season was complete.
Harvey got off to a good start Sunday, stating that he'd love to be available to come out of the Game 5 bullpen if necessary. The survivor of Tommy John surgery is sounding more and more like the first man to prove you can pitch forever with a rebuilt elbow.
"This is such a great opportunity for Matt," Tommy John said. "He should pitch until he can't pitch anymore, and then he can go live his life happily on the $600 million booty Scott Boras will get for him."