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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #63 David Cone

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Easy jokes aside, "Coney" was the perfect pitching addition to the Yankees' late '90s dynasty.

Coney the best
Coney the best
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Name: David Cone
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: January 2, 1963 (Kansas City, MO)
Yankee Years: 1995-2000
Primary number: 36
Yankee statistics: 64-40, 3.91 ERA, 4.02 FIP, 144 GS, 922 IP, 888 K, 7 CG, 1 SHO, 84 ERA-, 86 FIP-, 20.4 rWAR, 18.2 fWAR

Biography

Talent alone can sometimes elevate players to the big leagues, but the ones who work persistently at their craft are the ones who can thrive for a very long time. David Cone had plenty of skill in that right arm. He also had a tremendous acumen about the game with careful strategies about how to get almost every hitter out.

Over 17 seasons, Cone carved out a near-Hall of Fame career, and most of the latter half was spent at the heart and soul of the dynasty Yankees' rotation. Other pitchers on the staff were sometimes better, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more fierce competitor. Cone could go from joking in the clubhouse one day to staring down batters with a blank expression, unwilling to give into their strengths.

Mariners slugger and former Yankee farmhand Jay Buhner put it best: "I hated him. He had a nasty slider and knew how to pitch. He was filthy. With Cone, you just had to hope for a mistake over the plate." Those mistakes rarely arrived.

A savvy GM's mistake

Cone came by his drive naturally. Born on January 2, 1963 in Kansas City to Ed and Joan Cone, it did not take David long to learn about life's challenges. Ed Cone worked as a mechanic in the freezers of the Swift meat-packing plant and awoke every day at 3am to get to the factory on time. Despite this brutal schedule and labor, which led to rheumatoid arthritis later in life, Cone's father would make time at the end of the day to catch for his three sons and coach them in baseball, football, and basketball. He did everything for his family, even protecting them one night in 1977 when a neighbor threatened to kill them following a fight involving David's brother Danny.

The boys called their backyard on the northeast side of Kansas City "Cone-dlestick Park," and it was there that Cone began to dabble in pitching. By applying different kinds of pressure and release points on Wiffle balls, he could make them dive in all sorts of directions. When he got to Rockhurt High School, he faced a serious obstacle in that the school had no baseball team. Cone had to pitch on nearby Ban Johnson League summer teams to hone his talent, and he made it work. It didn't matter that some of his opponents were as old as 21. He led the way on those teams and soon drew the attention of his hometown club.

After Cone attended an open tryout, Kansas City Royals scout Carl Blando urged them to take the talented righty in the 1981 Draft, and GM Joe Burke obliged. Cone was the 74th overall pick that year, selected with the 22nd pick of the third round. He had enrolled at the University of Missouri to play for them, but when Kansas City offered $17,500, he couldn't turn them down. There were 30 amateur pitchers drafted ahead of him. None had careers that even approached Cone.

Cone started out strong with a 2.21 ERA in 244 innings between Rookie ball and the Royals' A-ball affiliates in Fort Meyers and Charleston, becoming lifelong friends with fellow pitchers Mark Gubicza and Tony Gerreira. His 1983 season was lost due to torn knee cartilage from a home plate collision during spring training. He toiled away in the factory of a company that made conveyor belts that summer in order to make some money while he was on the mend and returned in '84 more determined than ever to not have that life.

It took Cone three more years in the minors to make it to The Show. His results were more middling with a WHIP over 1.50 between '84 and '85, and in '86, Kansas City tried to turn him into a reliever. As many starters fare when shifting to the bullpen, Cone was solid with a 2.79 ERA and 14 saves in 39 games, but he still yearned to start. His relief cameo did enable him to make his big league debut though. On June 8, 1986, Cone relieved ace Bret Saberhagen for one inning in a 5-2 loss. Cone made it into 11 games that year for the Royals without much success. He had no idea that for now, that would be end of his life in his hometown.

In spring training of '87, GM John Schuerholz dealt him to the New York Mets in exchange for a package led by promising young catcher Ed Hearn. Schuerholz had worked for the Royals since their first game in 1969 and helped gradually build them into a contender and World Series champion in 1985. After a decade of success in the '80s with Kansas City, he moved on to Atlanta, where he was GM during their run of 14 straight division titles. He was a brilliant baseball man, but dealing Cone turned out to be probably the worst move of his entire career, a sentiment shared later on by Royals owner Ewing Kaufman.

Kansas City would not make the playoffs again for the duration of Cone's career. Instead, Cone was on his way to stardom with one of the '80s most exciting and controversial clubs.

"The Hired Gun"

It took both the Mets and Cone a little while to adjust to the situation. Manager Davey Johnson used him out of the bullpen for the season's first month before giving him a chance to start in place of Bob Ojeda. The team needed someone to step in for Dwight Gooden anyway, as the defending champions' ace was in rehab. The Astros roughed him up in that first start on April 27th, but he had a 3.34 ERA over 32 1/2 innings in May before his season was thrown into shambles by a broken finger sustained on a bunt attempt. The Mets were still uncertain of his role heading into '88.

Cone had been uprooted from the only place he ever knew and was now in New York City. He was devastated by the trade but soon fell in love with the City, where there were countless opportunities for anything and everything. Those opportunities only increased in '88. After pitching in the bullpen again in April, Johnson tabbed Cone for a start on May 3rd. He twirled a shutout against the Braves, fully proving to his skipper that he was more than just a relief arm. That year, the Mets won the NL East and Cone was an All-Star finishing third in Cy Young Award voting thanks to a 20-3 record (former President Richard Nixon amusingly surprised him in the Mets dugout after winning his 20th game) while striking out 213 batters and recording a 2.22 ERA.

The most baffling pitch of Cone's repertoire was one he called "the Laredo," a side-arm slider that took a vicious dive away from the plate late in its arrival at home. It was the secret to his strikeout success, and many of the 2,688 batters who whiffed against Cone could only blame "the Laredo." Armed with this pitch, Cone led the major leagues in strikeouts for three years in a row from 1990-92. He also tied the National League record at the time by striking out 19 Phillies (remarkably, 18 swinging) in a shutout on the last day of the '91 season.

Cone's Mets tenure sometimes bordered on the absurd. He made the mistake of ghostwriting a column during the 1988 NLCS, in which he mocked the opposing Dodgers and only gave them more locker room incentive to beat him in Game 2. (Cone admitted that it distracted him for that start, though he partially made up for it by tossing a complete game victory to stave off elimination in Game 6.) Cone later became much more savvy with the media after watching team captain Keith Hernandez's professionalism with them in post-game interviews. Then there was the game when he argued with an umpire while a pair of runs scored, humiliating him. He was also implicated in sex scandals that were later dismissed, though they did give the tabloids an unforgettable headline: "Weird Sex Act in Bullpen."

By the end of Cone's Mets tenure, everything seemed to be coming apart as their 1992 team with high expectations instead finished with 90 losses. Pitching in this exhausting environment took its toll on Cone, and while it was another All-Star season, it was certainly not enjoyable. In late August, the Mets decided to unload him to a contender, as he was going to be a free agent after the season anyway, so they dealt him to the AL East-leading Blue Jays for future All-Star Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson. (The Mets completely lucked out getting Kent since they jumped on the first offer they heard without shopping him more, and being the Mets, they of course later nullified their gain by trading the promising infielder for the declining Carlos Baerga.)

Cone embraced the playoff excitement of his new team and was rejuvenated, pitched to a 2.75 ERA from then through the postseason, helping the Blue Jays win their first World Series title. Other teams wanted Cone in the off-season, including the Yankees, but he spurned them since he felt they were disorganized and instead opted to return home to Kansas City on a three-year, $18 million contract. He threw 254 innings of 3.33 ERA ball in '93 for a career-high 7.3 WAR and was even better in '94 with a 2.94 mark in a rapidly growing offensive environment. He would end up with the 1994 AL Cy Young Award for his superb season.

That '94 campaign was incomplete though--the owners' disagreements with the players led to a strike that finished off the season in mid-August. Always a well-known labor figure, Cone was the AL player representative in the negotiations alongside the Braves' Tom Glavine, and he heard plenty of criticism for his role in the dispute. When he was quickly traded back to the Blue Jays after baseball activities resumed in '95, the Royals' annoyance with him was cited as a probable cause.

The '95 Blue Jays were not the same team who repeated as champions in '93, and before long, Cone was on the trade market again. In late July, he headed back to New York, but this time, he would be going to the Bronx.

"Coney"

As I've written before, the trade for Cone was not without controversy. Minor league head Bill Livesey did not want to send away pitching prospect Marty Janzen, but GM Gene "Stick" Michael decided to pull the trigger. He had hesitated about trading other prospects at times, like Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, but he felt the Yankees needed to make this trade to get to the playoffs. Michael's impressive ability to determine which prospects should stay and which should go proved itself yet again, as Janzen and the other prospects never amounted to much.

Cone was just what the pitching-desperate Yankees needed over the season's final two months, providing stability and clubhouse leadership from day one. With 2.6 WAR in just 99 innings from Cone, the Yankees won the first ever Wild Card and played the Mariners in the Division Series. Without much of a bullpen behind him, Cone gutted out 135 pitches over eight innings in Game 1, earning the victory even though he allowed four runs. Game 5 was even more of a grind, as he utterly and completely exhausted himself with a staggering 147 pitches over 7 2/3 frames. Alas, the weary ace blew an eighth inning lead and his 147th pitch bounced for a bases loaded ball four to the meek Pat Strange. The game was tied, and Cone departed. The Yankees lost the series in extras.

A free agent again, Cone chose to return to the Yankees, though he almost went to the Orioles after a last-second contract pull by Yankees management. Thankfully, they gave Cone the three-year, $19.5 million deal he deserved. However, Cone's life took a stunning turn in May when it was revealed that he had a life threatening aneurysm in his arm, sending shockwaves through the clubhouse; his teammates revered him even more than the famous "Conehead" fans in the stands.

No one knew if Cone could even pitch again, but he found a way. He returned in September with seven innings of no-hit ball against the Athletics. With their ace back in tow, the Yankees won the AL East, and Cone had a huge start in the World Series. The Yankees trailed Atlanta 0-2 and were playing on the road in Game 3. They badly needed a win, and Cone came through:

The Yankees went on to win that World Series, and it was just the beginning of glory for Cone. The team of course won four championships in five years with Cone at the center of the clubhouse. He made two more All-Star teams, finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting in their 114-victory '98, and on July 18, 1999, Cone made history with the third perfect game in Yankees history, on "Yogi Berra Day" no less with Don Larsen in attendance.

Cone had a 2.33 ERA in the playoffs as the Yankees repeated as champions in '98 and '99, but the 2000 season proved to be a struggle. He was 37 years old with 2,700 combined innings on his arm, and his velocity was quickly fading. He was crushed all year long, separated his shoulder on an ugly dive in the summer, and made just one relief appearance during the first two playoff rounds.

Manager Joe Torre still trusted him though, so in Game 4 of the 2000 World Series, Cone made his final Yankee appearance, retiring Mike Piazza on a pop-up to escape a threat. It didn't matter to Torre that starter Denny Neagle was one out away from qualifying for a win; he wanted Cone in there, even if he couldn't top 85 mph. Cone's strengths relied on knowing hitters' weaknesses, and he was able to figure out what the Hall of Fame slugger would probably be looking for during the at-bat. To his happiness, Cone could walk off the field as a Yankee knowing that he prevailed one more time. The Yankees won their third straight championship the next day.

Cone bounced back with the Red Sox in 2001, notching a far better season with a 104 ERA+, no easy feat. Most memorably, he was the opposing pitcher at Fenway Park on the September night that his Yankees replacement, Mike Mussina, came one strike away from matching Cone to become the fourth pitcher in franchise history with a perfect game (never say the words "Carl Everett" to me). Mussina was never better, but Cone held his own, pitching scoreless ball into the ninth until an unearned run gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead.

The 2002 season was spent off the field occasionally broadcasting in semi-retirement. However, at the urging of old teammate John Franco, Cone decided to give pitching one more chance in 2003. He came home to the Mets, and while he did earn one more win, he wasn't the same pitcher. After just five games, he called it a career, as the arthritis developing in his hip would not let him pitch to his expectations.

Cone had an outstanding career that does have an intriguing Hall of Fame argument, but even if future Veterans Committees decide against induction, he is a New York baseball icon who deserves a plaque in Monument Park. As Tanya noted in her 1996 Yankees retrospective post the other day, we greatly enjoy his work as an analyst in the YES Network booth, and he is a terrific follow on Twitter. Hopefully, the affinity between Cone and the Yankees never fades. He will always be one of our favorites.

But still, Coney, why don't you have a dance???

Andrew's rank: 67
Tanya's rank: 61
Community rank: 52.9
WAR rank: 68

Season Stats

Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS CG SHO SV IP H R ER HR BB IBB SO HBP BK WP ERA- FIP- rWAR fWAR
1995 32 NYY 9 2 3.82 4.34 13 13 1 0 0 99 82 42 42 12 47 0 89 1 0 5 84 94 2.6 1.5
1996 33 NYY 7 2 2.88 3.24 11 11 1 0 0 72 50 25 23 3 34 0 71 2 1 4 59 67 2.8 2.2
1997 34 NYY 12 6 2.82 3.35 29 29 1 0 0 195 155 67 61 17 86 2 222 4 2 14 63 75 6.8 4.9
1998 35 NYY 20 7 3.55 3.45 31 31 3 0 0 207.2 186 89 82 20 59 1 209 15 0 6 78 76 4.0 5.1
1999 36 NYY 12 9 3.44 4.28 31 31 1 1 0 193.1 164 84 74 21 90 2 177 11 1 7 73 90 5.1 3.4
2000 37 NYY 4 14 6.91 5.44 30 29 0 0 0 155 192 124 119 25 82 3 120 9 0 11 143 113 -0.9 1.0
NYY (6 yrs) 64 40 3.91 4.02 145 144 7 1 0 922 829 431 401 98 398 8 888 42 4 47 84 86 20.4 18.2

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Angell, Roger. A Pitcher's Story: Innings with David Cone. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2002.

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Bradley, John Ed. "The Headliner: Strikeout King David Cone Hopes the News he Makes as a Kansas City Royal Will Be About Baseball, Not Off-the-Field Shenanigans," Sports Illustrated, 5 Apr. 1993.

Donnelly, Chris. Baseball's Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2010

Jaffe, Jay. "Going, Going, Cone," Futility Infielder, 1 Jun. 2003

Jaffe, Jay. "Prospectus Hit & Run: The Pitchers," Baseball Prospectus, 12 Jan. 2009

Klapisch, Bob and John Harper. The Worst Team Money Could Buy: The Collapse of the New York Mets. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Olney, Buster. Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty. New York: Ecco, 2004.

Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty. New York: Rodale, 2006.

Verducci, Tom and Joe Torre. The Yankee Years. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

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