David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
ATLANTA - The maintenance room was described as not much bigger than a closet, but it has a couch, and the Mets use it as a crash pad off the main clubhouse at Citi Field. Just like medical residents trying for a quick nap during an overnight shift at the hospital, the players often burn a few free minutes doing the same.
That's where Matt Harvey, coming off a late August start the previous night, was camped out, snoozing with a cellphone lying on his chest. But Jon Rauch rudely interrupted the nap, a source confirmed Wednesday, when the 6-11 relief pitcher dumped a bucket of ice water on the unsuspecting Harvey.
Rauch was not popular with his own teammates, and once Harvey challenged him to a fight over the soaking, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports, his standing among the Mets only grew in their eyes, especially when Rauch backed down.
Harvey had barely shed his prospect label by that point, and here he was, not only pitching like an ace on the field but defending his turf off it. The incident was surprising in the sense that Harvey, who teammates describe as "soft-spoken" and "pretty quiet," was all business from the moment that he arrived in Flushing.
The other Mets respected that about Harvey, which is why Rauch was alone in his hazing efforts. Initially, Rauch just wanted to use the room, then chose to take out his annoyance on a rookie who is quickly maturing into the next Seaver, Koosman or Gooden. The Mets soon discovered he didn't need protecting; Harvey could handle himself. When approached Wednesday about the incident, Harvey said only, "I'm not going to discuss that at all."
It's a mistake, however, to think of Harvey as some kind of clubhouse avenger out to single-handedly change the Mets' losing culture. No one player can do that, and certainly not a starting pitcher, who can only alter a team's course every fifth day.
The best thing Harvey can do for the Mets is to be the kind of irrepressible force he was during Tuesday night's 13-strikeout win over the Braves -- and keep doing that. Threatening to go fists with a clubhouse bully enhances the legend, but teammates are more inspired by what Harvey does on the mound.
"What he needs to do at this point is lead by example," said David Wright, who took over as captain in spring training. "Because I think it means a lot when you have a guy that's had the success he's had this year and he continues to want to improve and work harder. The important thing is for him not to be satisfied with what he's done so far, to want to continue to excel."
That's not going to be a problem with Harvey. But it will be interesting to see just how much that attitude can influence a Mets clubhouse that doesn't have an identity right now. Sandy Alderson has promised even more changes in the weeks and months ahead, so Harvey is one of the few pillars of stability for this crew. The hope is that Zack Wheeler can be another.
As Terry Collins said before Wednesday night's game, it's not like they're trying to stage some interaction between Harvey and Wheeler. When the Mets put their lockers together in spring training, "it wasn't for them to become friends," the manager said. "That comes with time."
Harvey and Wheeler don't have to become BFFs to get the Mets to where they want to go. Twin aces would be just fine. And Harvey, as focused as any pitcher right now, makes a good role model, even if at 24 he's only a year older than Wheeler.
Wright was the Mets' leader long before he received the captain's label, and he shares a similar business-first style with Harvey. But when Harvey needs someone's attention, he has a direct method of commanding it.
"I think it's fairly easy to be intimidating when you throw 100 mph," Wright said, smiling. "But I think when you put his stuff with the makeup, the work ethic, the mound presence and that perfectionist attitude, that's a pretty lethal combination for a starting pitcher."And evidently a dangerous one, for those who try to get in Harvey's way.