So, the news to me in reading Sean Deveney's Fun City: John Lindsay, Joe Namath, and How Sports Saved New York in the 1960s is that Joe Namath’s teammates on the New York Jets didn’t much like him going into the football season in which he would lead them to them to the Super Bowl and their still astounding to contemplate win over the Baltimore Colts in January 1969.
There were several reasons the other Jets players didn’t like him. Resented him might be the better way to put it but reasons stemmed from the Jets' feeling that Namath got special treatment from the team’s owner and head coach and from himself because he was the star. And they felt he wasn’t that good he deserved to be as big a star as he was. He was good, no doubt about that, but they didn’t think he was the best player on the team. Or maybe it was more they case they didn’t like him thinking he was the best player on the team. When they voted on their team MVP from the previous season, Namath placed sixth.
Namath liked being a star. He liked being young, handsome, and famous in New York City. He liked to drink. He liked to party. He liked to chase women and be chased by them. Of course he liked all that. Trouble was he seemed to like it all more than he liked to play football. And he did it all all during the season. He did it on nights before practices and nights before games and then showed up late for work still showing the effects, tired, hungover, distracted, his mind still on the fun he’d been having and on the fun he was planning to have later. And he didn’t pay a price for this. He was allowed to get away with it. The other Jets felt there were two sets of rules for players. One for them. One for Joe.
That was bad enough and would have been hard enough to put up with if he’d been as good a quarterback as he thought he was. He wasn’t that good and it wasn’t because he wasn’t that talented. It was because he was careless, undisciplined, too sure of himself, and, when it came down to it, not that smart about what he was doing on the field.
He threw too many incompletes. He threw far too many interceptions. He threw. He threw and threw and threw. He threw, his coaches observed, as though he thought he had to throw a touchdown on every pass and as if he was sure he would throw a touchdown on every pass.
He was, at least at the start of the Jets’ championship season, a knucklehead.
And in reading Fun City I was reminded of a current New York City star athlete who seems to enjoy being rich, young, and famous a little too much and who I think is also a knucklehead on the field as well as off.
Mets ace Matt Harvey.
I wrote about Harvey’s knuckleheadedness back in October, before it cost the Mets the World Series. Remembering that post, my friend, colleague, and fellow Mets fan Bill Peace sent me the link to this column by Paul Lebowitz writing at Today’s Knuckleball. That’s Knuckleball, not knucklehead. Lebowitz sees a resemblance between Harvey and Namath too. Not quite the same resemblance as I see and he doesn’t call either a knucklehead. But he’s thinking along the same lines, with a key difference:
There are two different Matt Harveys the New York Mets have to deal with. One is the ace pitcher with the fiery competitive streak and a touch of meanness that keeps opposing hitters on their toes and imparts upon his own teammates a comfort that he will protect them and retaliate if liberties are taken. The other is the bon vivant Matt Harvey who is a familiar face around the hottest shows, dates models, goes on a wide array of talk shows, likes seeing his own name and face plastered all over the media, and consternates and flusters the Mets organization and its fans with his occasional inability to differentiate between useful self-promotion and embarrassing gaffes.
In effect, the Mets are dealing with a different version of “Harvey Two-Face” from the Batman comics. The good side is currently far outweighing the bad.
The latest foray into the headlines for something other than his pitching came from his appearance on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live” with Andy Cohen. Harvey and newswoman Connie Chung were guests. You can watch portions of the show here.
While talk of his free-spending ways and sexual habits, among other things, were presumably cringe-inducing for some of the Mets hierarchy, this is not indelibly harmful to Harvey or the club. The question of whether or not this is a big issue is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Harvey’s statements might seem outrageous, but there’s a calculated nature to what he says and does. Aware that you can’t go on these shows without being interesting or provocative, he tends to share his life in ways that will unavoidably make his bosses uncomfortable.
Harvey has expressed an admiration for Derek Jeter and the off-field persona that the former Yankees shortstop was effortlessly able to cultivate. Harvey’s way, however, is more in the category of Joe Namath. There’s no harm; he’s a charming rogue, he’s able to perform on the field, and the damage, if any, is controllable. He emerges from it largely unscathed.
“Controllable” and “unscathered” are where I disagree with Lebowitz’s assessment of Harvey’s and, by extension, Namath’s knuckleheadedness.
Going by Fun City, what Namath’s teammates didn’t like about their charming rogue of a quarterback is that while he could emerge from his personal misadventures unscathed, they didn’t. The damage to his reputation might have been controllable. But the damage he was doing on the field wasn’t. As for Harvey, I haven’t heard that his teammates are boiling with resentment at him or think he regularly puts himself and his fun ahead of what’s good for the team---although David Wright wasn’t very happy with him towards the end of the regular season last year when Harvey, still not sure that he’d completely recovered from his Tommy John surgery and quite reasonably worried about blowing out his still fragile pitching arm, debated with himself in public over whether or not the Mets should sit him down at least until the playoffs.
My own feeling, as a fan, is that the damage he causes by being a knucklehead on the mound, which is where it really only matters, would be controllable if he’d learn to control himself better. I think he’s too confident, too proud, too much of a hothead, and too prone to let his pride and temper get the better of him. At crucial moments, when he needs to slow down and think harder he stops thinking and just throws harder and grooves one.
But, look, I don’t really know what I’m talking about when I talk about sports. Just to begin with, I don’t get to watch enough games. All I know is what I read in the papers and online and I believe sportswriting is a form of fiction writing and I’m not as ok with that as I let on in this post. The purpose of most sports writing that isn’t simply reporting on what happened at the game is to let sportswriters show off both their writing talents and their insiders’ knowledge and savvy and to make fans feel smart and as if what is in fact a trivial pursuit is a serious endeavor with important consequences.
And one of the ways this is accomplished is by treating players and coaches as if they're fictional characters who can be edited to fit whatever story's being told at the moment.
Deveney isn’t practicing that kind of sportswriting in Fun City. Deveney is by trade a sportswriter and the book does feature a lot of fine sports reporting but it isn’t sportswriting. It isn’t a sports book. It’s a work of historical journalism about New York City politics at a time when sports was an even larger and more important aspect of the city’s daily life and culture and sense of identity than it is now. It’s a story of parallel lives, a dual portrait of two extremely talented and transformational figures who did the city some good but ultimately failed to achieve the height of success expected of them and which they expected for themselves, Namath and Mayor John LIndsay.
Lindsey, it appears, could be more than a bit of a knucklehead too, but a developing narrative arc of the book is that he and Namath both learned to be less knuckleheaded as they went, Lindsey becoming a better politician and civic leader, Namath a better team leader, team player, and quarterback.
So there’s hope for Matt Harvey.
For the record, I don’t really think Harvey knuckleheadeness cost the Mets the World Series. I don’t even think he was being a knucklehead when he browbeat Terry Collins into letting him go out to pitch the ninth inning of the fifth game of the World Series when he was almost certainly out of gas. You want your ace pitcher to want the ball in moments like that. I think Collins was knuckleheaded for letting himself second-guess himself. Matt Harvey has some maturing to do before he’s the kind of great player whose judgment a manager should trust ahead of his own.
You should read all of Lebowitz’s column, but I have a couple of reservations. There’s some fiction writing in it. Lebowitz engages in some mind reading of Harvey, Jeter, and Mets GM Sandy Alderson. And I picked up a bit of a Boys Will Be Boys attitude that’s always problematic because it’s an attitude that often excuses more than mere knuckleheadedness. Anyway, here’s the link: The Continuing Public Adventures of Matt Harvey Not Worth Concern.