By Jared Chausow
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In Toronto, where Cone was traded, he picked up the World Series ring he was denied with the Mets, but he felt, well, "Rented, like I was hired just long enough to ensure the win." After the season he became, for the first time ever, a free agent and opted to go home to Kansas City, where he became the highest-paid pitcher in baseball with a three-year deal worth $6 million per. Several clubs would have gone as high as seven or possibly eight, but Cone had decided "I wanted to play in Kansas City. I was going to pull it all together there, establish myself in the area, eventually become a real part of the organization."
And he did, winning the Cy Young Award and winning 16 of 21 decisions for the otherwise hapless Royals during the strike-shortened '94 season. But the labor dispute changed everything. Cone had been the Mets' union rep, but it wasn't until he went to Kansas City that he made a conscious decision to learn about the history of the Players' Association and what it had done for his generation of ballplayers. "Other people made sacrifices for us, and we owe it to the next generation to do the same. . . . What we want, and won't give up, is the right, after a while, to decide where we'll live and play." Cone spoke to reporters, went on talk shows, even before a Senate subcommittee. The Players' Association, he felt, "helped me to grow up in a hurry."
He got the rest of his education just five days after the strike ended. The Royals front office decided, in the time-honored fashion of baseball teams dealing with union reps, to trade him. And in case he didn't get the message, they traded him back to Toronto.
Before the season was over, the Blue Jays had dealt him to the Yankees. This time, "I was ready for New York."
In his five seasons with the Yankees, Cone has managed to reverse the image he left behind with the Mets. He's become the new Whitey Ford, the new chairman of the board. His career won-lost percentage (.644, second only to Roger Clemens's .653 among current veteran pitchers) isn't quite up to Ford's awesome .690, but then Ford never had to pitch for mediocre Mets and Royals teams. Since 1995, the year he came to the Yankees, Cone's won-lost percentage (.701) has been definitely Ford-like.
And then, of course, there was the perfect game. Actually, perfect doesn't quite describe it. Many think that July contest against Montreal was the most dominant baseball game ever pitched. There were no long fly balls at the warning track, no screaming liners (though Chuck Knoblauch made some work of a ground ball up the middle). Cone never even let the count get to ball three. "To tell you the truth," he says, "I didn't think I was any sharper than when I came off the disabled list in '96. I thought that game" a seven-inning no-hitter against Toronto "might have been my sharpest."
Some criticized Joe Torre for yanking Cone after seven innings in that game; some criticized him for leaving Cone in to finish the Montreal game. In truth, the last inning or so may have put an undue strain on Cone's right shoulder.
Since then he has experienced "some stiffness, not pain, just a kind of dull tightness in the muscles" that requires a bit more rest between starts. He maintains that, "I didn't go that far south after the [perfect] game. There were three or four starts there I thought I should have won." He's right. Despite three bad outings when he didn't get out of the third inning, Cone had seven starts where he allowed four runs or less. He had two no-decisions where he gave up just one run. "It all evens out," he says with a shrug. "I had about the best run support in the leagues last year." Going into the playoffs, he still has, far and away, the best ERA of any starter on the staff.
But the statistical record is only part of the story. "He's an absolute bulldog," says Joe Torre, "and the grittiest, most tenacious pitcher I've ever worked with." Among the pitchers Torre has worked with are Warren Spahn, Bob Gibson, and Steve Carlton. In the course of six trips to the playoffs and three World Series rings, Cone has done it many times, including the sixth and deciding game of the 1992 World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays and in Game 3 of the 1996 World Series, when he beat Tom Glavine to reverse the Atlanta Braves' momentum. "Before that game," says Derek Jeter, "I was more unsettled than I've ever been in the big leagues. Here we were coming back from two embarrassing losses at home and going to Atlanta, and if we lose that third game, that's it. But everyone else was so calm. They all said, 'Don't worry, Coney will keep us in it.' " Cone scattered four hits over six innings and then watched three Yankee relievers mop up as the Yanks won 5-2, beginning a four-game streak en route to the championship.