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December 8 2000 : David’s Gone

cone-gone-newspaperWell, that’s it, David Cone is moving on from the Yankees. They didn’t offer him arbitration, and so as of midnight a few hours ago, the team and he must go their separate ways. Even as I type those words, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. But I can definitely feel the ragged edges of broken-heartedness beginning to rattle around in my chest. I think this is the most… grief? pain? sadness? that I’ve felt as the result of a Yankee leaving since Reggie Jackson left the Bronx back in the 70s. But Reggie was different. Reggie was a swaggering man who carried himself like a king, clashed often with his bosses, and moved on like a conqueror to other territories, having made his place in the record books in both Anaheim and New York.

Coney’s not like that. There are some comparisons I can make: like Jackson he came to the Yankees with many accolades to his credit, a reputation as a star pitcher in the 80s with the Mets, a Cy Young Award from from 1994 (KC Royals) and a World Series ring from 1992 (Toronto Blue Jays). But unlike Jackson, whose heroism seemed to come predestined, Cone earned his place in Yankee fans’ hearts with the dramatic ways in which he overcame adversity.

Who was on the mound in the heart-breaker of 1995, when the Seattle Mariners did the impossible, sweeping the Yankees three games in a row in the Kingdome to boot the Bombers from their first and only post-season appearance in the Mattingly era? David Cone. Coney had come to the Yanks mid-season that year and maybe Yankee fans didn’t know quite what to expect. What we saw was that Cone wore his heart on his sleeve and he wasn’t afraid to bleed for his team.

In 1996, Cone went 7-2 in eleven starts, posting a 2.88 ERA and 71 K’s in 72 innings of work in a season severely shortened by a life- and career-threatening injury. Cone was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his pitching shoulder, and underwent surgery to graft a vein from his leg into the place of two arteries. In his first game back after the hospitalization, he dug deep and pitched seven no-hit innings against an offensively strong Oakland club. Joe Torre pulled him after 85 pitches, knowing he might be taking away Cone’s chance at a no-hitter, but not wanting to send him straight back to the hospital.

Cone’s comeback wasn’t momentary though. He pitched the pivotal game of the 1996 World Series, the Yankees first appearance in the Fall Classic after a sixteen year drought, in which they went to Atlanta down 2-0.

Cone carried with him the memory of the previous year, when up 2-0 the Yanks had been swept in the ALDS, and he knew this time the Yanks needed to pull the same trick–only this time in enemy territory. Cone pitched a gutsy game. Do you remember back in those days when they called Joe Torre “Clueless Joe?” In his first World Series in his career, Torre went to the mound when Cone was in trouble to see if his starter had what it took. He left Cone in the game with bases loaded. Cone bled again–walking in a run on a tough umpire’s call, but he never let it beat him. The Yankees scratched out a win, and the rest, as they say, is history, with the Bombers going on the do exactly what Cone and the rest of the Yankees had in mind–sweep the Braves in their home stadium, and then return to the Bronx to win it all.

We don’t talk about 1997 much in New York–the year the Cleveland Indians stole our thunder. But look at Coney’s numbers. Despite spending time on the DL for the second time in his career, he logged 195 innings, his ERA was 2.82, and posted 222 strikeouts (versus only 86 walks) and one of the lowest earned run totals (61) in his career.

1997 was all a prelude, for Cone, and the Yankees as a whole, for the greatness they would display in the magic year of 1998. Cone had a twenty win season, while the Yanks coasted to 114 wins in the regular season (125 if you count the postseason)… you could almost call it perfect. Almost. And let’s not forget what happened July 18, 1999. Cone would have another chance at a no-hitter in pinstripes, in fact, he’d pitch a perfect game. Oh yeah, and there’s the World Series wins in 1998 and 1999.

No one could have predicted the disaster that the year 2000 would become for David Cone. After winning on April 28th, Cone would not win again until August 28th. Everything that could go wrong for Coney did, from his three no-hit innings against his former team, the Mets, being rained out, to the bullpen blowing his masterful performance on Whitey Ford Day in which he struck out the first three batters he faced and dominated, leaving the game with a four run lead. Cone’s jinx looked like it might lift when, with his father in the stands, he was helped by unlikely Yankee Jose Canseco slamming a home run on Canseco’s first day in pinstripes. In the fifth inning, Cone ran into trouble, but with two on and none out he struck out Randy Velarde, Jason Giambi and Ben Grieve in a row. It looked like the old Coney, and caused him to remark “It was the best moment I’ve had all year.” The good feelings were sidetracked again, though, when in his hometown turf of Kansas City, he dove from the mound to field a ball and dislocated his non-pitching shoulder. The grimace of pain on Cone’s face as he writhed on the infield grass matched the emotion going through many a “Conehead”‘s heart at that moment. The thought went through our minds, as it did through David’s: is it over?

Well, now it is over, at least with the Yankees. After an incredible run that has provided some of the greatest drama in baseball history, David Cone and the Yankees are parting ways. The pitcher who led the major leagues in strikeouts three straight years (from 1990 to 1992), set an NL record of 19 K’s in a game (since surpassed by Kerry Wood), pitched the deciding Game Six for Toronto in the 1992 World Series, will be going on to his next challenge.

We, and he, don’t know where he will end up or what the outcome will be when he gets there. But after a terrible 1993 season with his hometown KC Royals, Cone came back to post his Cy Young season in 1994. He’s beat the aneurysm and he’s beat the scandals heaped on him by tabloid media. No one knows if the cat-like Coney will land on his feet or if he has used all nine of his lives.

If I were writing this script, of course I’d have him come back to the Yankees. There’s no better place for baseball redemption than the national cathedral to baseball, the House That Ruth Built, whether in fiction (see Hollywood movie “For The Love of the Game” for the latest example) or in real life (see all of the above). But it looks like if Cone is going to have one more storybook turn in his drama, it will have to be at the Yankees expense.

Because who knows? With Mike Hampton testing the free agent waters, there’s another team out there who may have starter slots to fill. The Mets. If Coney goes there next year, I just may have to see some games at Shea…

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