This game can just be mystifying at times.
The story of the events of July 18, 1999 begin in early '85. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was disappointed with his promising team's 6-10 start to the season. Searching for a scapegoat through which to shake up the team as he was wont to do in those days, the Boss made one of his worst decisions ever--he fired manager Yogi Berra. The catcher was one of the greatest players to ever don the Yankee pinstripes, and he was insulted both by Steinbrenner reneging on his promise to honor his contract and that Steinbrenner made general manager Clyde King deliver the news rather than telling Berra himself. Although the change may have worked out in the short-term (the Yankees won 91 games under replacement Billy Martin and narrowly missed the playoffs), it was a disaster from a public relations perspective. Berra refused to return to Yankee Stadium.
Fourteen years later, Steinbrenner and Berra officially cleared the air and made up, so the Yankees decided to honor Berra's return to Yankee Stadium on July 18th. They even brought back Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game in the '56 World Series with Berra behind the plate, to throw out the first pitch to Berra, recreating Berra's most famous moment on a baseball diamond. The first pitch foreshadowed what was to come in the Yankees' interleague game against the Montreal Expos. The Yankees led the AL East and were on their way to successfully defending their '98 World Series championship. Veteran David Cone took the mound for the Yankees against young Javier Vazquez.
Cone was making his first start since appearing in his fifth and final career All-Star Game, an achievement he earned for finishing the first half 9-4 with a stellar 2.86 ERA. No Expos player that day had ever faced Cone before, a distinct disadvantage for the Montreal hitters. Cone's pitching was tough enough for hitters who had faced him for years to handle. He began the game by retiring the first six Expos hitters in a row, striking out a Guerrero brother in both the first (Wilton) and the second (Vladimir). Paul O'Neill made a great sliding catch on a Terry Jones liner to right, robbing Jones of a hit. It was great to keep the Expos off the bases, but the play became even more important later on. In the bottom of the second, the Yankees smacked Vazquez around for five runs on just three hits. A walk to Chili Davis put a man on for Ricky Ledee, who took him out to right field for a two-run homer. Vazquez put another runner on by hitting Scott Brosius, and Joe Girardi made him pay by doubling to centerfield to bring him home (although he was thrown out at third base). Yet another free baserunner was granted when Chuck Knoblauch walked, and Derek Jeter, in the middle of a career year, slugged a two-run homer to make the score 5-0. The five-run lead was more than enough for Cone, who had no problems shutting the Expos down.
Cone struck out the side in the top of the third, retiring Chris Widger and Shane Andrews looking, and Orlando Cabrera swinging. The rain arrived for the festivities in the third inning, delaying the game for 33 minutes and giving the fans a nice reprieve from the intense heat. Steam even came off of some fans as the rain came down. Sometimes, the starting pitcher is removed from the game after a rain delay, but Cone kept himself warm by playing catch with a Yankees batboy, first in the clubhouse tunnel, then on the side of the field as the tarp was removed. Thus, Cone's slider was as sharp as ever when he returned for the fourth inning. He continued to set the Expos hitters down on fly balls and strikeouts as his perfect game attempt went deep into the game. He struck out James Mouton and Rondell White to end the seventh inning. Cone knew better than to expect the last two innings to breeze by, though. He had achieved many accomplishments in baseball--a then-NL record 19 strikeouts in a game, three World Series rings, and the '94 AL Cy Young Award, but he had never pitched a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game. This game marked the fifth time in his career that he had pitched seven hitless innings, though it was the first to be entirely perfect.
Back in his days with the the Mets, Cone took no-hit bids into the eighth inning three times. As a 25-year-old on June 19, 1988, he was four outs away from a no-hitter against the the Phillies after getting Darren Daulton to hit into a force. Steve Jeltz, a weak-hitting shortstop who hit .187 on the season, stunned the Shea Stadium crowd by singling to center to break up the no-hitter. On September 20, 1991, his no-hit bid against the Cardinals ended at the start of the eighth inning when Felix Jose doubled. On April 28, 1992, his no-hit bid against the Astros was halted with five outs to go on a slow infield dribbler by Benny Distefano up the third base line that was rolling foul, but decided to stay fair. Then, with the Yankees, in Cone's first start back after recovering from a life-threatening shoulder aneurysm on September 2, 1996, he threw seven no-hit innings against Oakland, but manager Joe Torre removed him from the game after 85 pitches. Torre could not bring himself to potentially jeopardize Cone's arm by leaving him in too long. Two outs from a combined no-hitter, Mariano Rivera gave up an infield single to Jose Herrera, and that no-hit bid was gone, too. Cone felt that this game against the Expos might be his last chance to make history, and luckily, the baseball gods were smiling upon him.
Cone retired budding superstar Vladimir Guerrero on a popup behind the plate, dodging a bullet and putting the end of the quest in sight. Vlad was unquestionably the Expos' best player. However, Cone faced problems with the next hitter, future All-Star second baseman Jose Vidro. Vidro smashed Cone's 2-0 pitch up the middle (fun fact: Cone did not reach a three-ball count on a single hitter). Yankees fans had every right to feel uneasy--the only player with a chance to reach the ball was Knoblauch. The former Gold Glover had been struggling all season long with inexplicable throwing problems that would eventually force him to vacate the position in 2001. Fortunately, he reached the ball with a backhanded pick and whipped the ball to first base just in time to beat Vidro. The crowd went wild and Cone struck out Brad Fullmer looking to end the inning. The Yankees witnessed a perfect game from David Wells only 14 months prior. Could Cone match his friend's feat?
The Yankees tacked on a sixth run in the bottom of the eighth on a Bernie Williams RBI single to score Paul O'Neill, who had doubled, but no one at the stadium seemed to care about that. Davis hit into a double play to end the inning, something that actually pleased Cone since he did not want to sit for much longer. Everyone wanted to see Cone take the hill for the ninth. Cone struck out Widger to begin the inning, then got pinch-hitter Ryan McGuire to lift a fly ball to the left fielder Ledee. The glare of the sun was right in Ledee's eyes though, and after moving forward a few steps, he could not see the ball. Disaster loomed, but Ledee stuck out his glove and somehow caught the ball. There was just one out to go. Cone had thrown just 85 pitches thus far against the free-swinging 'Spos, the same number he had thrown in his seven no-hit innings against Oakland in '96. The young shortstop Cabrera got to a 1-1 count, then swung and lifted a pop-up to third base. Brosius took a couple steps forward, snared the pop-up, and it was over. Cone put his hands to his head in disbelief and fell to the ground as he gave his catcher, Girardi, a bear hug. The Yankees mobbed the mound to celebrate the third perfect game in team history. To date, it is still the last no-hitter thrown by a Yankee. Multiple pitchers have taken no-hit efforts deep into the game since Cone's performance (none closer than Mike Mussina's missed perfect game with two outs in the ninth at Fenway Park against Cone's '01 Red Sox), but none have matched the feat.
In an eerie coincidence, all three perfect game pitchers for the Yankees have connections to each other. As previously mentioned, Cone pitched his perfect game on "Yogi Berra Day," when Larsen threw the first pitch. Larsen and Wells went to the same high school, Point Loma High School in San Diego, where both pitchers threw perfect games for their respective high school teams. Wells and Cone were close friends, teammates, and World Series champions together with both the '92 Blue Jays and the '98 Yankees. Baseball is just unreal sometimes.
Cone made his indelible mark on Yankees history thirteen years ago today.
Further sources: Coffey, Michael. 27 Men Out: Baseball's Perfect Games. New York: Atria Books, 2004.