The New Whitey Ford


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.

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.

So, after all, why in fact doesn’t he pack it in? What more can David Cone get out of baseball that’s worth the pain? What motivates him, he says, “is my next turn to pitch. Each time I’m out there holding the ball, everyone waiting for me to start it all off, I swear, part of me feels like I’ve been doing it all my life, like I’m going to do it for the rest of my life. And at the same time there’s a part of me that feels like I’m doing it for the first time.”

Here’s hoping that David Cone’s next first time won’t be his last.