The New Whitey Ford

But Is It the End of the Line for David Cone, the New Chairman of the Board?

Jimmy Cannon, a great sportswriter from an earlier time, was known for his 'You're' columns. They went like this: 'You're Joe Louis, and you're 37, and the combinations don't come as fast as they used to.' Or, 'You're Joe DiMaggio and you're 37 and those shallow line drives to center sink a little faster than they used to.' If Cannon were around today, it'd be interesting to see him take a crack at David Cone:

"You're David Cone and you're almost 37 and you are the odds-on favorite to collect your third World Series ring in four years. Outside the ballpark, you spend more time listening to opera than watching sports on TV. You are, in the words of Players' Association founder Marvin Miller, 'One of the most articulate spokesmen for players' rights I've ever seen,' and, maybe, the most respected player in professional baseball.

"And all of this would be great if not for one nagging question: Is this the end of the line?"

As the Yankees steamroll into their third League Championship Series since 1996, their pitching has looked surprisingly strong. But no one thinks this makes next season's rotation a lock. Is Roger Clemens through? The Yankees can't afford another season from him like 1999. El Duque is steady and unspectacular (and older than originally thought). Irabu's numbers this year were about the same as Clemens's. And Andy Petitte, the youngest arm on the staff, has won fewer games each season since 1996. The decision to take a chance on David Cone would seem to be an easy one— if Cone weren't making $8 million a year that might be better used snagging a younger free agent.

Even if the Yankees decide to take that chance, Cone may not. Right now, packing it in may seem like an attractive proposition to packing his right arm in ice every fifth day. For now, Cone isn't making any announcements. His decision may well depend on what happens shortly after you read this.

So if David Cone pitches again, pay attention and understand that you may be watching the finale of one of the most interesting New York sports stories ever.

For New Yorkers, the Cone story begins when the Kansas City Royals foolishly dealt him to the Mets in 1987, where "things were moving so fast for me I scarcely noticed" that he didn't win the Cy Young Award in 1988, even though his ERA and won-lost percentage was better than Orel Hershiser's. "I was too into New York." So were numerous other Mets such as Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Roger McDowell. Some did coke, some did amphetamines, some had personal problems, some had weight problems, some were just natural head cases, and the Great Mets Dynasty of the late '80s never happened. Only Cone, the one who came along after the '86 championship, would last.

From 1989 to 1992, as the Mets disintegrated, Cone won almost 60 percent of his starts and led the league in strikeouts twice. But in 1992 the front office traded him away in the name of a "youth movement"— he was 29— that many saw as a smokescreen for increasing profits by cutting back on salaries. To be fair, there were other, off-the-field considerations.

On October 6 of 1991 Cone was at his overpowering best, striking out 19 Philadelphia Phillies. The record-tying achievement should have had an asterisk on it: Cone beat the Phillies while awaiting arrest on a rape charge. An investigation by Philadelphia police cleared him— finding "repeated inconsistencies in the woman's account" and concluded that her "allegations are unfounded"— but also revealed that Cone was out partying with teammates till 6:30 on the morning of a day in which he was scheduled to pitch. As it developed, this was closer to the norm than the exception.

After that, the allegations got even more bizarre. A Florida woman with whom Cone had been involved called police claiming to be his current girlfriend and accusing three of his Mets teammates of rape. Cone told police that, yes, he had been involved with the woman and even admitted to a ménage à trois with her and a second woman, but that she was no longer his "girlfriend." The case was dropped by Florida investigators. And while this was going on, what Cone calls the "silly incident" happened. For reasons never completely revealed, two female fans apparently accused Cone of masturbating in the bullpen— or, as Don Imus cracked when Cone came on his show, "doing in the bullpen what the Mets had been doing on the field all year." The New York Post gave it the entire back page with a bold headline that read "Weird Sex Act in Bullpen" (to which The Village Voice's Sebastian Dangerfield replied, "Call me old fashioned, but shouldn't we have only normal sex acts in the bullpen?"). One wag brought a cardboard sign to the ballpark that read, "Hey, Cone, when did you become a southpaw?"

"I was absolutely mystified by the whole thing," says Cone. "How it started, why it caught on, all that. I mean, who was it that first started shouting 'Mas-tur-ba-tion!'? But one thing I had to face up to was the fact that these things kept happening to me, and I was being disingenuous if I thought the irresponsibility of my lifestyle wasn't contributing to the stories." Cone responded by refusing to duck the media. He even went on the Imus show and joined in the jokes. "One thing all of that taught me was not to try and hide from the press," he says. His candor won him friends in the press that he's never lost.

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