It began as a day honoring Yogi Berra, marking the Yankee icon’s return to the Bronx after a lengthy feud with team owner George Steinbrenner. As part of the celebration, Don Larsen threw the ceremonial first pitch to Berra behind the plate, reuniting the battery that spun the first perfect game in franchise history, way back during the 1956 World Series.
Nobody knew it at the time, but that moment was what English teachers like to call “foreshadowing.”
Date of Game: July 18, 1999
Final Score: Yankees 6, Expos 0
Game MVP: David Cone
In the 14th season of his 17-year career, David Cone had danced with perfection, but had never quite finished the job. He had spun three one-hitters over the course of his career, and on September 2, 1996, he was removed after seven no-hit innings by manager Joe Torre because it was his first start after surgery to remove an aneurysm in his arm. When his pal, David Wells, threw a perfect game 14 months prior, it was safe to assume that his teammate’s success would be the closest he would ever get.
Coming into the game, Cone was in the midst of yet another solid season for the Yankees, with a 2.86 ERA and .220/.317/.340 opponent slash line in 113.1 innings across 17 starts. And while he was on the precipice of his decline — following this start, his ERA spiked to 4.28 and opposing batters began to tee off to the tune of a .265/.357/.462 slash — on this one Sunday afternoon, none of it mattered.
From early on, Cone’s teammates took the pressure of the game off him. Ricky Ledee and Derek Jeter blasted home runs off future Yankee Javier Vázquez (who was, coincidentally, making the start for the injured Carl Pavano) and Joe Girardi doubled in Scott Brosius to give the Yanks a 5-0 lead. On defense, Paul O’Neill made a terrific diving catch in the first inning that no one thought about at the time, but unquestionably saved a hit:
This all allowed Cone, already with two perfect innings under his belt, to simply attack the zone against a Montreal lineup that was, to be honest, fairly weak aside from future Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero and future Yankee Rondell White.
At the end of the day, Cone’s biggest opponent turned out to not come from the Expos lineup at all, but from a rather unexpected source: Mother Nature. With Tino Martinez at the plate in the third inning, the skies opened up, prompting a 33-minute delay that put Cone’s return to the mound in question. Fortunately, he stayed warmed by throwing to a bat boy, Luigi, in the clubhouse tunnel, and the delay was deemed short enough that he could go back out there; in essence, it acted as an extra-long half inning.
If there’s one word to describe Cone’s performance overall, it would be “efficient.” He never went to three balls on a hitter, threw more than five pitches to one batter just once (Wilton Guerrero, to lead off the 7th), and used just seven pitches in the fourth and five in the sixth. Because of this, Cone added a Maddux to his list of accolades by using just 88 pitches. This would mark the fewest number needed for a perfect game since Cleveland’s Addie Joss used 74 back in 1908; since Cone, only one (Phil Humber in 2012) has used fewer than 109 pitches.
That said, Cone did get a little help, as all pitchers who manage to go 27 up, 27 down, from his defense. Both came late in the game. With one out in the eighth, José Vidro laced a ball to the right of second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who was infamously struggling on defense. In this one instance, however, he ranged to his right, made the play, set his feet, and fired a strike to Martinez at first to get the out.
The next inning, with one out in the ninth, pinch hitter Ryan McGuire hit what should have been a lazy fly ball to left field. Ledee, however, lost the ball in the sun. Somehow, he was able to find it again and made an awkward, not-quite-a-basket catch on the run.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was an out all the same:
Thankfully, the last out of the game would be much less stressful, as Orlando Cabrera popped up a 1-1 pitch to Brosius in foul territory to end the game.
No Yankee since that hot July Sunday has joined Larsen, Wells, and Cone in baseball’s most exclusive club, with Corey Kluber coming one walk shy during his no-hitter this past May and Mike Mussina coming just one strike short in September 2001.
Perfection truly is rare, and that’s what makes Coney’s special afternoon so worthy of remembrance.