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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #43 David Cone

A Yankee for only a handful of seasons, “Coney” was a key piece of the late 90s dynasty

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New York Yankees David Cone... SetNumber: X58336 TK1 R8 F25

Full Name: David Brian 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

Andrew perhaps summed Coney up best in his writeup for PSA a decade ago: “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 as 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.”

Early life

David Brian Cone was born on January 2, 1963, the youngest of four children. His mother Joan and his father Edwin nearly chose a different name for the youngest scion of the Cone family. They considered naming him Theodore Samuel Cone, in honor of Ted Williams and New York Giants linebacker Sam Huff.

Before long, David was engaged in competitive wiffle ball games in the family’s backyard, dubbed Condlestick Park or Coneway Park, depending on the day. Once Coney realized he could make the wiffle ball dance depending on the pressure he applied and on his release point, he was on his way as a pitcher.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. When David was seven years old, he was cut from his Little League team for being too small. The next year, he bounced back to make the team. Interestingly, Ed Cone was the club’s manager, as well as David’s coach on the junior high basketball team. Some of the altercations between the two were downright legendary, with friends remembering one eruption of David’s temper ending in his father sending him home.

When Cone reached high school, he encountered a problem. Rockhurst High School had no baseball team. Despite David’s best efforts, which included gathering a petition with over 700 signatures, and putting together a potential coaching staff, Rockhurst remained baseball-free.

As a result, David resorted to playing summer ball in the Ban Johnson League, where some of the opposing hitters he faced were as old as 21. Undaunted, Cone pitched well enough that he attracted attention from big league scouts.

Coney Goes Pro

When David was 16, his hometown Royals invited him to try out. He also took part in an open tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals. By the time he turned 17, he was on the verge of touching 90 mph on the radar gun and was openly expressing his desire to play minor league baseball rather than attend college.

As the 1981 Amateur Draft approached, Royals scout Carl Blando, who had known Ed Cone since childhood, lobbied the club to select the hometown kid and general manager Joe Burke decided to take his scout’s advice. Late in the third round, the Royals selected Cone, 74th overall. He had committed to the University of Missouri but Kansas City offered him a $17,500 signing bonus, and that was enough for Coney to sign on the dotted line and head to rookie ball for the remainder of the 1981 season.

In 1982, 19-year-old Cone headed to Single-A, where he pitched well. Along the way, he also became lifelong friends Mark Gubicza and Tony Gerreira, two fellow pitchers. Unfortunately, 1983 would not be so kind. During a collision at home plate in spring training, Coney tore up his left knee. To earn some money while recovering, Cone took a manual labor job at a factory that made conveyor belts. An occupational hazard just happened to be slicing his hands on occasion. Not ideal for a man whose hands were kind of important at his day job.

Cone struggled after returning from the injury, in his first tastes of the upper minor leagues. He advanced to Triple-A in 1985, but his WHIP that year (as well as the year before in Double-A) was north of 1.500. In 1986, Kansas City decided to try him out of the bullpen at Triple-A and he thrived in the role, though he still had his eyes on being a starting pitcher.

His new role enabled him to get his first taste of big league ball. On June 8, he relieved ace Bret Saberhagen in a one-inning appearance. All told, he made 11 appearances for the Royals in ’86. Little did he know it, but those would be his last games in a Royals uniform for quite some time.

“The Worst Trade in Royals History”

Tara Krieger, in her SABR biography of Cone, hypothesizes that the deal that sent Cone to the Mets might be the worst trade the Royals ever made. Cone, who had shown up to spring training raring to go for KC, was stunned by the trade.

Cone, along with outfield prospect Chris Jelic, headed east. In exchange, Kansas City acquired catcher Ed Hearn, who played 13 more games total in the majors. The Royals also received pitchers Rick Anderson (0.2 career rWAR) and Mauro Gozzo (-1.1), neither of whom made any lasting impact at the major league level.

The Mets organization was thrilled to land Coney. ‘’I’ve never seen him pitch, but he may be our sixth starter, and also a short man in the bullpen,’’ said manager Davey Johnson. Joe McIlvaine, the Mets’ vice president of baseball operations, was even more effusive, calling Cone ‘’the premier pitching prospect in the Kansas City organization.’’

And Cone instantly impressed. In his first outing with the Mets at their spring training facility, Cone had so much movement on his pitches that the catcher had trouble holding onto them. Meanwhile, Coney recalled pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre standing there agape, with his jaw “literally dropping.”

Stardom in the Big Apple

Johnson used Cone out of the bullpen to begin 1987. Before long though, with Dwight Gooden in rehab, the Mets turned to Cone as a starter. Houston touched him up in his first big league start on April 27th. Cone pitched to a 3.34 ERA over 32.1 innings though before he broke his finger on an ill-fated bunt attempt, an injury that kept him out until August. All told, he pitched to a 3.71 ERA (103 ERA+) in 99.1 innings for New York.

David Cone Throws A Pitch Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Injury luck taketh away, and injury luck giveth. After Mets starter Rick Aguilera injured his elbow in early 1988, Cone was off to the races in the New York rotation. His first start of the season was a complete game shutout against Atlanta. He won every one of his starts in May, and finished the season by winning his final eight starts.

When the dust settled, Cone was 20-3, with a 2.22 ERA, 213 strikeouts, his first All-Star game nod, a third-place finish in NL Cy Young voting, and a visit from former president Richard Nixon in the Mets dugout after Cone won his 20th game.

The secret to Coney’s success? “The Laredo.” As Andrew described it in his Cone write-up, the pitch was “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.”

Things fell apart for the Mets in 1992, however. The club entered the season with high expectations, only to lose 90 games. Cone pitched at a high level, making another All-Star game, but he was not enjoying it, and the environment took its toll on him. Eventually, with free agency looming after the season, the Mets decided to send Cone to a contender and get something back for him.

New York sent him to Toronto in exchange for future All-Star Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson. Andrew’s commentary on the trade and its aftermath are worth quoting verbatim here: “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.” Ouch.

A Championship and a Return Home

Cone was lights out down the stretch for the Jays in ’92, pitching to a 2.55 ERA over 53 innings. He made four more starts in the playoffs, helping Toronto win its first World Series title. That offseason, Cone’s services were in high demand, with the Yankees among his suitors. Eventually, Cone chose to return to Kansas City, on a three-year, $18-million deal.

The first two years of his second stint in Kansas City were masterful. In 1993, Cone threw 254 innings and finished with a career-best 7.2 rWAR. He was even better the following season. In only 171.2 innings, he compiled 6.9 rWAR, which led the American League. His dominance was well-rewarded, as Coney took home his first and only Cy Young Award.

There is a reason Cone only tossed 171.2 innings. 1994 infamously saw the players’ strike that wiped out most of the second half and all of the playoffs. Cone had come a long way from the young man who eagerly signed on the dotted line for $17,500 with the Royals and was prominent in the MLBPA. He served as the AL player representative in the negotiations alongside the Braves’ Tom Glavine. Shortly after baseball resumed in 1995, the Royals traded Cone back to Toronto, and his involvement with the MLBPA was cited as a probable cause.

Years later, the Players’ Association recalled Cone’s leadership and dedication to the players’ cause.

By 1995, the Blue Jays were far removed from the team that had won consecutive World Series titles and they decided to deal Cone, who once again was on the verge of free agency. In late July, Cone returned to New York. But this time, he was headed for the House that Ruth Built.

Welcome to the Bronx

The Cone trade was not without controversy at the time, with Yankees minor league head Bill Livesey at odds with GM Gene “Stick” Michael over the prospect cost to acquire Cone. Michael decided that the Yankees needed Cone to get to the postseason and pulled the trigger on the deal.

This time, Coney was not surprised to be headed to New York. After the deal, he said “a lot of players are afraid to come here… I feel just the opposite. I like the opportunity. I always knew that the Yankees were the No. 1 contender. I’ve been well-prepared for this.”

“The rumors have been around for about a month,” he continued. “I’ve followed the Yankees pretty closely. With everything that’s gone against this team, they seem to have a resiliency about them.”

Cone was just what the doctor ordered, providing, as Andrew put it, “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 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.

The Legend of David Cone

A free agent again, Cone opted to return to New York, though some last-second shenanigans by the Yankees almost ended with Coney heading to Baltimore. But on Opening Day, Cone was on the mound for New York. He tossed seven shutout innings that day, but concerning symptoms in his pitching hand, including numbness and discoloration lingered for weeks. An initial angiogram revealed blood clots, and a doctor put Cone on blood thinners. A second angiogram in early May, however, revealed a potentially life-threatening condition: Cone had an aneurysm in his right shoulder.

Initially, questions persisted on whether Cone would even be able to pitch again. But he returned in September with seven no-hit innings in Oakland before skipper Joe Torre pulled him due to a pitch count. His father, in attendance that night, later recalled that “if they had left the decision up to David, they would have needed a tractor to get him out of there.”

The Yankees, with their ace back in the rotation, were off to the postseason and Cone took the ball in Game 3 of the World Series in Atlanta, trailing the Braves two games to none. Cone was up to the challenge.

Years later, sportswriter Joe Posnanski recalled Cone’s performance:

“In my memory, Cone had nothing that night. But somehow, he kept getting outs… The Yankees scraped two runs off Glavine, one on an error, and led 2-0 into the sixth. And then the world seemed to collapse on Cone.”

The Braves loaded the bases and Fred McGriff loomed. Joe Torre came out of the dugout to check on Coney. Torre pressed him. Could he get McGriff? Coney swore up and down that he could. “I’m fine. I can get McGriff.”

“This is precisely the drama that makes baseball different from other sports,” Posnanski wrote. “The game stops cold and allows everyone to fully appreciate the drama of the moment and the arc of the characters. Here was David Cone, a truly great pitcher coming off a near-death experience. Here was Joe Torre, one of baseball’s most beloved figures, in the first World Series of his long and winding baseball life. In the bullpen, fully warm, was a young middle reliever named Mariano Rivera who had already inspired Minnesota manager Tom Kelly to say, ‘He needs to pitch in a higher league.’”

Cone got McGriff. “The Crime Dog” popped up to short and though he did allow a run that inning when he walked Ryan Klesko, Coney escaped with the lead. New York won that game, then three more. And for the first time since 1978, the New York Yankees were world champions.

Neither Cone nor the Yankees were done there, of course. The righty was at the heart of the Yankee dynasty that won four World Series titles in five years. On a personal level, Cone made two more All-Star teams, finished fourth in Cy Young voting in 1998 as the Yankees bludgeoned their competition all season, and in 1999, threw a perfect game. With exquisite timing, Cone’s perfecto happened on “Yogi Berra Day,” with Don Larsen, author of arguably the most legendary perfect game in baseball history, in attendance.

By 2000, Coney was approaching the end. Now 37 years old, he had over 2,700 innings on his arm, his velocity was dropping, and his season was a mixture of inconsistency and injury. In the first two rounds of the 2000 playoffs, Cone made a lone relief appearance.

But he had one more signature moment left. Fittingly perhaps, it ended up his last appearance as a Yankee. With Denny Neagle on the hill in Game 4 of the World Series against Cone’s former team, the New York Mets, Mike Piazza came to the dish with two outs. The Yankees were clinging to a one-run lead. In anticipation of this at-bat, Torre had called to the bullpen before the inning. Get Cone warm for Piazza, was the edict.

Relying on his fastball and slider, Cone threw five pitches to the Mets slugger, who popped out to second base. That was it for Coney, as Jose Canseco pinch-hit for him in the sixth. But he got Piazza, and New York went on to win the game 3-2. The win gave them a 3-1 series lead headed back to Yankee Stadium and they closed the Mets out in Game 5, winning their third consecutive World Series.

Post-Yankee Tenure

Cone signed with Boston prior to the 2001 season and had a bounce-back campaign for the BoSox. That fall, he was the opposing starter who faced Mike Mussina at Fenway when the latter came within one out of throwing his own perfect game. Cone finished his career in 2003, after a year off, pitching for the Mets, the club with which he shot to stardom. Now 40 years old, arthritis in his hip limited his ability, and he hung up his cleats for good after just five games.

Since his retirement, Coney has remained a fixture in baseball and with the Yankees. For the last 15 years, he’s been in the YES Network booth, where he is a terrific analyst. Since 2022, he’s also been part of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast team. He also co-hosts the “Toeing the Slab” podcast. Cone has also come close to putting a Yankee uniform back on, as the club interviewed him when it searched for a pitching coach after the 2019 season.

David Cone somehow fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after only one appearance, as he received only 3.9 percent of votes. Nonetheless, he is, as Andrew put it, “a New York baseball icon who deserves a plaque in Monument Park.”

MLB: SEP 09 Brewers at Yankees Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Staff rank: 43
Community rank: 55
Stats rank: 67
2013 rank: 63

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.

Baseball-Reference.

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.

FanGraphs.

Jaffe, Jay. “Going, Going, Cone,” Futility Infielder, 1 Jun. 2003

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

King III, George A. “David Cone ‘self-taught’ his way into Yankees pitching-coach interview.” The New York Post. November 5, 2019.

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.

Krieger, Tara. “David Cone.SABR.

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

Mearns, Andrew. “Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #63 David Cone.Pinstripe Alley. January 20, 2016.

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

Posnanski, Joe. “The Outsiders: No. 26, David Cone.The Athletic. December 17, 2020.

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

The New York Times.

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

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44. Jack Chesbro
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