Anatomy of a $12 Million Arm

Putting David Cone Under the Microscope

But old guys have better control, right? Well, yes and no. If an older pitcher has better control numbers, it could be because he's more disciplined, or because his pitches are slower and have less break on them. But physiologically, control is also a problem for older pitchers. This is because of the deterioration of the nerve-muscle interface. Starting at about age 18, according to Dr. Barry Jordan, neurologist and director of the brain injury program at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital, nerve cells, or neurons, start dying off. This gives the remaining neurons more responsibility. "When you look at the number of muscle fibers that are stimulated by one neuron, in a younger person, it might be 40," says Taffet. "In an older person, it may be 70 or even 90. It clearly decreases your level of control."

What about a guy's reflexes? The ability to form complex reactions is also affected by aging. "The speed of information processing slows down," says Jordan. A simple test of reaction time—say, catching a throw back from the catcher—is relatively unaffected by age. But make the problem more complex—fielding a screaming liner off Mike Piazza's bat—and "the age effect explodes," says Taffet. Cone needs to see the ball, decide if it's headed for him, decide if he should catch it or move out of the way, and decide which parts of the body he has to move in order to do so. With fewer neurons than in his earlier years, the 37-year-old Cone just ain't as quick to react.

Boy, this is all depressing. Is there anything you can do about any of this? While you can't stop the deterioration that's going on at a molecular level, you can minimize the effect that it has on performance through training. "You can actually improve the tensile properties of a tendon by slow, sustained stretching," says Vad. "And weight training doesn't only strengthen muscles, it strengthens tendons and bones, too."

What is the it that the pitcher in question has lost, and how and why did he lose it?
illustration by Heath Hindegardner
What is the it that the pitcher in question has lost, and how and why did he lose it?

What about down the road? There's lots of exciting stuff on the horizon, but while it won't be around soon enough to help Cone, some might be available to prolong, say, Kerry Wood's career. Vad suggests that within five to 15 years, doctors will be able to attack tissue degeneration with hormonal growth agents and/or gene therapy—essentially tricking the body into building tissues that have the characteristics of a 20-year-old's. And Alteon has a drug in human clinical trials which is purported to break AGE cross-links and restore cells "to a more youthful state." While the study is focusing on the cardiac benefits, it could be a breakthrough for orthopedics as well.

What's Coney's prognosis? From a baseball point of view, his slide has been pretty predictable. Most pitchers who get into late middle age have a season like this, where their ERA doubles and they lose twice as many games as they win. What happens next is an open question. Some guys, like Jack Morris, who went from 21-6 with a 4.04 ERA in 1992 to 7-12 with a 6.19 ERA the next year, are basically done. Others, like Tom Seaver, who went from 14-2 and 2.54 to 5-13 and 5.50 in one season, stick around for quite a while longer (Seaver pitched for four more seasons) at a considerably reduced effectiveness (he went 47-49). But if you want the David Cone of 1988, you'd better tune in to ESPN Classic, pedaling your stationary bike while you do. To paraphrase that great baseball fan John Donne: "Ask not for whom the fastball slows, it slows for thee."

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