In the early to mid ’90s, David Cone epitomized the latter-day ballplayer as a mercenary commodity. In a career bordered on either side by extended stays with each of the two New York franchises, Cone switched uniforms four times between 1992 and 1995. Blown by the winds of the pennant races, Cone became a hired gun for teams with World Series dreams, a rent-an-ace who instantly elevated a pitching staff and who earned a reputation as a big game starter.
Yet Cone’s career might have been much simpler. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Cone grew up a fan of the Royals, and particularly of their ace, Dennis Leonard. “He was the guy I identified with,” Cone said of Leonard. “And I still do. He was such a gamer. Tough, competitive, hated to lose.” When Kansas City drafted the hometown boy out of high school with a third-round pick in 1981 (at the time, he had been considering studying journalism at the University of Missouri) Cone seemed destined to be a Royal for years to come.
Cone’s Kansas City roots ran deep. In the tenth inning of a 1986 spring training game, Royals manager Dick Howser ordered Cone to throw a brushback pitch at batter Russ Morman. Eager to make the team, Cone didn’t want to disobey his manager, but he also knew Morman from his childhood in Kansas City. Instead of throwing at Morman, Cone wound up and hurled the ball to the backstop. After the umpire promptly ejected him, Howser complained that Cone was his last pitcher, and the game was cancelled.
In the Royals’ minor-league system, Cone was part of a talented core of young hurlers which also included Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson. Facing such stiff competition, Cone didn’t reach the big leagues until 1986, when injuries to pitchers Gubicza and Al Hargesheimer led to his promotion for a total of eleven games. But before the 1987 season began, the Royals decided that their logjam of young pitchers made Cone expendable. In 1986, the team had led the league in ERA but won only 76 games, and Kansas City was eager to add offense at the expense of pitching. In a move that owner Ewing Kaufmann would later call “the worst trade in Royals’ history”, Kansas City sent Cone to the New York Mets in exchange for catcher Ed Hearn in March of 1987.
In two seasons with the Royals, a shoulder injury limited Hearn to a total of thirteen games. In New York, on the other hand, Cone began realizing his prodigious talent. After a promising rookie year, the 25-year-old righthander broke through in 1988 with a spectacular 20-3 season. The ace of a Mets team which won 100 games and the National League East, Cone led the league in winning percentage while finishing second in ERA and strikeouts.
Cone was a batter’s worst nightmare, some nights needing only his 90+ MPH fastball to dominate an opposing lineup. His real strength, however, lay in his command of an array of pitches and his ability to throw them at a variety of speeds. At any point in an at-bat Cone was capable of pinpointing a cut fastball, slider, curve, changeup, or his lethal split-finger, which he used as his out pitch. At times he seemed able to invent pitches on the spot when the situation demanded. “David knows how to get guys out even when his arm feels like crap,” said Yankee teammate Tino Martinez. “Sometimes, his stuff looks terrible out there, but he keeps putting zeroes on the scoreboard.” With such a deadly arsenal at his disposal, Cone led the major leagues in strikeouts three straight years from 1990 to 1992. On October 6th, 1991 he tied a National League record (since broken by Kerry Wood) when he fanned nineteen Philadelphia Phillies in a nine-inning game.
In addition to his pitching success, Cone’s mischievous manner and engaging personality made him a favorite with both fans and the press. More than a few fans dubbed themselves “Coneheads” and showed up at Shea Stadium wearing the cones of the eponymous Saturday Night Live characters. One season, Cone put Vanna White’s name on his daily pass list before every game and announced that George Brett had introduced the two of them. Even though Cone had never met the “Wheel of Fortune” letter-turner, the bogus rumor was reported by national wire services. Another year, Cone left tickets for Elvis Presley, and with the Royals later in his career, for Olympic skier Picabo Street.
Always friendly with the beat writers, Cone was known to play basketball with them at a local YMCA. He particularly impressed the media in the aftermath of an embarrassing incident in 1990. During a game in Atlanta, on April 30, 1990, Cone held the baseball while arguing a safe call with first base umpire Eric Gregg as two Braves runners rounded the bases and scored. In the locker room after the game, the reporters expected Cone to flee the scene of his crime before they arrived. Instead, they were surprised to find him available and willing to answer questions about the gaffe.
Although he continued to pitch well, Cone found it hard to duplicate his initial success. The Mets were a deteriorating team in the early 1990s and Cone managed just a 42-32 record in the three years following his breakthrough season. Off-the-field, problems would also take their toll. In March of 1992 Cone was hit by a double-whammy. First, he found himself linked to a rape scandal involving teammates Daryl Boston, Vince Coleman and Dwight Gooden. Although he was never under investigation, the incident was the second time in five months that a rape charge had surfaced with his name attached. (In September 1991 a woman accused Cone of raping her in a Philadelphia hotel room the night before his nineteen-strikeout game, but police found no basis for the charge.) At the same time, a separate scandal pushed Cone onto the front pages of the New York tabloids. Three women had filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Cone, claiming he exposed himself to them while he was in the bullpen during a 1989 game at Shea. The incident was the lowest and most embarrassing moment of his career.
Despite the scandal, Cone pitched better than he had in years. On August 27th, his record stood at 13-7 with an ERA of 2.88 when the floundering Mets traded him to Toronto in exchange for second baseman Jeff Kent and outfielder Ryan Thompson. The Blue Jays, perennial contenders who had always fallen just short of the World Series, hoped that Cone would be the addition that put them over the top. They were right. Although he posted only a 4-3 record with Toronto, Cone made his mark in the postseason. Starting Game Six of the World Series against Atlanta, Cone shut down the Braves’ offense, allowing just one run in six innings. Though a late Atlanta rally prevented Cone from getting a decision, Toronto won the game in the eleventh inning, marking the first time a team outside of the United States had captured the World Series. Cone later said he felt like “the whole weight of Canada” was on his back during the game.
After the World Series, Cone found himself one of baseball’s most lusted-for-free agents. With numerous teams vying for his services, Cone followed his heart and returned home, signing a three-year $18 million contract with the Royals. Unfortunately, the homecoming didn’t prove quite as heartwarming as anticipated. Snake-bitten by the worst run support of any starting pitcher in the American League, Cone managed just an 11-14 record in his first year back with Kansas City.
In 1994, however, Cone gave his hometown fans a season to remember. In mid-May, he tossed 28 consecutive scoreless innings and set a Royals’ record by hurling three consecutive shutouts — a span during which he allowed just eight hits. His sixteen wins and 2.94 ERA at the time of the players strike helped him narrowly beat out the Yankees’ Jimmy Key to win the AL Cy Young. Cone would credit much of his success to a new pitching attitude born of his departure from the Mets, one which emphasized fewer pitches and cared less about getting batters to swing and miss. “At first it was very difficult,” Cone admitted. “I had come from a Mets team that was really centered on power pitching and power hitting. When I went out on the field in a Mets uniform, I felt strikeouts were expected of me, and therefore I ran the counts pretty deep.” A change in uniform number may also have helped; the departure of Kevin McReynolds after the 1993 season allowed Cone to inherit Dennis Leonard’s number 22.
During the strike, Cone became one of the players union’s most active and visible members, testifying before Congress in January of 1995 against baseball’s Antitrust Exemption. Describing his union ties, Cone said, “I guess it kind of stemmed from my father. He was a union guy working for the meat plant down in Kansas City. He was a union guy, and I guess it was just in my blood.”
When the strike ended, Cone was on the move again. Unwilling to pay their star pitcher’s hefty salary another year, the small-market Royals made Cone the first Cy Young winner to be traded from his team prior to the next season. In exchange for two minor-league infielders and a pitching prospect, Kansas City sent Cone to his second tour of duty with the Blue Jays on April 6th, 1995.
While he continued to pitch well, circumstance again forced a change of address. A disappointing Blue Jays team jettisoned Cone to the Yankees in July for three-minor league pitchers. Of his nomadic, hired-gun life, Cone said, “Moving around doesn’t bother me. For the most part, you don’t have time to look back. It’s do or die. You have to survive.” Once again, the move had put Cone back into a pennant race. Bolstered by their new ace’s 9-2 record, the Yankees won the American League wild-card to reach the postseason for the first time in fourteen years.
In an epic Divisional Series matchup with the Mariners, Cone delivered one of his gutsiest performances. Starting the decisive Game Five at a raucous Seattle Kingdome, Cone held the Mariners in check with a valiant 147-pitch effort. His last pitch of the game, however, walked home the tying run with two outs in the eighth, and Seattle would go on to win the series in the eleventh inning.
The following season would prove perhaps the most trying and rewarding of Cone’s career. After signing a three-year deal to stay with the Yankees, Cone opened the season with a 4-1 record and a league-leading 2.03 ERA, but was bothered a strange numbness at the ends of his fingers. The initial diagnosis suggested a circulation problem, but further tests revealed an aneurysm of two arteries in his right shoulder, a potentially life-threatening problem. On May 10th doctors removed the arteries in his shoulder and replaced them with a vein graft from his left leg.
After the surgery, no one knew whether Cone — one of the most durable starters in all of baseball — would be able to pitch again that season, or possibly ever. Four months after his last start, however, Cone made a triumphant return. In the Oakland Coliseum on September 2nd, Cone exceeded everyone’s expectations by throwing seven no-hit innings against an A’s team which would hit 243 home runs that year. Wary of damaging his ace’s arm, manager Joe Torre decided to remove Cone after just 85 pitches rather than let him try to complete the no-hitter. “If I leave him in and he throws 105 or 106 pitches and wakes up with a sore arm tomorrow, I’d never forgive myself for that,” reasoned Torre. The previous June, Cone had also flirted with a no-hitter while pitching for the Blue Jays, losing it when Texas’ Benji Gil singled with one out in the ninth.
Cone’s return was made all the more special by the surprise appearance of his father, who had flown in from Kansas City to watch his son pitch. After the game Cone remarked, “I can’t remember a major league game where I could make eye contact with my dad. I kept wondering if he was going to yell at me for hanging a pitch or something.”
With Cone back in their rotation, the Yankees wrapped up the AL East title. After dispatching both Texas and Baltimore in the AL playoffs, the Yankees faced the defending champion Atlanta Braves in the World Series. After losing the Series’ first two games in New York, the Yankees turned to Cone in Game Three, and he delivered with a six-inning, one-run victory that halted Atlanta’s momentum. When New York rallied to win the next three games, the Yankees claimed their first World Series title since 1978.
Health problems would also shorten Cone’s season the next year. Prior to the aneurysm, Cone had never spent a day on the disabled list. Yet in August of 1997 he went on the DL for the second year in a row after developing a case of tendinitis in his pitching shoulder. Missing a full month of the season, Cone won just twelve games, but posted his highest strikeout total (222 in just 195 innings) in six years.
In 1998 both Cone and the Yankees made history. New York won a league record 114 regular season games and romped through the post-season en route to their second World Championship in three years. Cone, meanwhile, stayed healthy enough to lead the staff with a 20-4 record — his first twenty-win season since 1988. The 10-year span marked the longest interval between twenty-win seasons in baseball history.