The shortstop, Orlando Cabrera, up at bat for the third time, swings and lifts a little foul fly off to the left of the infield. The pitcher, hurrying off the mound, watches the ball anxiously, pointing up at it, and shoots a glance over at his third baseman. Yes, this ball will be caught - it's the last out - and when the pitcher, David Cone, takes in the moment he sinks to his knees with his head flung back and his hands up above his ears. It's over. In an instant he will be rushed and ganged by his team-mates, converging from the field and flooding across from the dugout, but the scene - the ball in the air and the pitcher unexpectedly falling into an attitude of worship - is already fixed in baseball time, there with Carlton Fisk dancing up the first-base line and gesturing wildly to keep his shot fair; Willie Mays with his back to us, looking up over his head to gather Vic Wertz's drive at the Polo Grounds center-field wall; or, for that matter, Don Larsen pitching to Dale Mitchell here at Yankee Stadium (the old Stadium then), with the numbers, all zeroes, enormous on the black scoreboard behind him. Larsen is back today, as it happens; so is his catcher in that game, Yogi Berra. This stuff can't be happening.
Cabrera, the ninth batter in the order for the Montreal Expos, who have just been beaten by the Yankees, 6-0, in this perfect game - no hits, no runs, nobody on base - has foreseen his role in this freeze-frame as far back as the sixth inning, when, looking at the man on the mound and then counting the depleting outs and innings ahead, he sensed that he could be the final batter of the day. And Cone, for his part, will come to believe that he unconsciously picked up that ecstatic, down-on-his-knees- and-head-to-heaven victory posture from watching some center-court Wimbledon winner on television, long ago, and tucking the picture away in his mind. "You always wonder how you'll look when the time comes," he says. "Players talk about stuff like this among themselves, believe it or not. You want to be ready." He can't decide whether his model is John McEnroe or an earlier, lesser-known Spanish star, Manuel Santana, whom he would have seen winning Wimbledon.
Cone, one could say, was ready and then some. His coup, which he pitched at the Stadium on July 18, 1999, is only the sixteenth perfect game in a century of major-league ball, but was also his own first no-hitter of any description. On three occasions in his fourteen-year career in the majors, he had carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning, only to be foiled. He remembers those scenes, too - in particular a wrong-field dribbler cued toward third with one out in the eighth by a Houston batter named DiStefano in 1992, when Cone was pitching for the Mets; the ball died just in front of Dave Magadan's frantic late charge from third. A Mets teammate of Cone's, the great reliever John Franco, thinks back to that injustice - and to DiStefano's lifetime .228 batting record - every time Cone's name comes up in conversation. "I was even in school with the guy," he says disgustedly. "Benny DiStefano, behind me at Lafayette High in Brooklyn, and he kills Coney that way." He could be talking about Lee Harvey Oswald. The real enemy here - for Franco and every pitcher - is luck, which stalks the field in every low-scoring game, guiding this rocketed line drive into the third baseman's mitt or nudging that bloop into an unreachable few inches of terrain, but which perversely must be given a secret save in every no-hitter.
The ache of the ancient DiStefano wound comes also from Franco's admiration for Cone's heart and stuff. "He's a Picasso out there," he once said to me. Now John can wipe the crime from his recollection. Hearing about Cone's perfect game down in Baltimore, where the Mets are playing the Baltimore Orioles, he asks team public-relations director Jay Horwitz to have a bottle of Dom Perignon rushed to his friend.
Another pal and former pitching teammate, David Wells, who had thrown a perfect game for the Yankees at the Stadium a bit more than a year before - his and Larsen's, which came in the World Series of 1956, are the Yankees' only previous perfectos - gets the news at the SkyDome in Toronto, where he watches the final outs on the tube and manages to reach Cone by telephone in the Yankee clubhouse. Traded away to the Blue Jays over the winter, the Boomer is as happy about the feat as anyone in New York. "My goose bumps are bigger than yours," he says to Cone. "Welcome to the club." He promises to fly down that night, to celebrate with David. Maybe they'll drink Franco's champagne.
No-hitters are spare by nature because of what doesn't happen, and a perfect game almost Puritan, so the sense of release and jubilation over Cone's accomplishment extended everywhere in baseball that day. Waking up the next morning, I pictured how it would be talked about in the clubhouses around the leagues, with Cone's fellow-professionals arriving for work and telling each other how he had looked on the late news, down on his knees that way, and then turning his face toward the fans. Baseball's ceaselessly woven network of circumstances and conditions can be stopped at a moment's notice, frozen, as it were, and turned into lore - where the ball came down, what the count was, what the weather was, what the standings were, who was in the on-deck circle, where we were sitting in the stands, or how we got the news watching at home. I have been following the game for more than seventy years and writing about it for almost forty, and I have my own little store of where and when. Mention Bobby Thomson's homer in 1951, Bucky Dent's deadly little flyer into the screen at the shadow-struck Fenway Park in 1978, or how New York sounded - that vast murmur across the parks and streets-at the moment when the Mets beat the Astros, down in Houston, after sixteen innings, to win the league championship in 1986, and I'll tell you how I felt at the instant, who was near me, and how we hugged or groaned or yelled. Cone's game fits in here nicely, with the kick this time coming not from significance - the game meant nothing in the standings to either team just then - but from what I already knew about him as a pitcher and a man on that broiling Sunday.
There is also the matter of perfection, which baseball offers as a possibility in every game but at such odds that it's never mentioned. It doesn't cross your mind if you're a fan or a writer pencilling the lineups into your scorecard, even though those empty white boxes on the page sometimes whisper about an elusive little clarity that might lie out there beyond the accumulation of pitches and outs, grounders and base runners that will tell a game's story when it's done. Could be - but the thought flies out of your head because it's so crazy. "Nothing went through my mind until the seventh inning," Yogi Berra said this time, afterward. Not another Yogi gem but close enough, and, as always, you knew what he meant.
Nothing was going through my mind that Sunday except the weather. I didn't have tickets, but the idea of seeing Yogi back - it was going to be his Day at Yankee Stadium, with plaques and platitudes celebrating the official termination of a fourteen-year falling-out between the great Yankee catcher and his by-gone boss, George Steinbrenner - had once tempted me. But forget baseball, I decided, it's too hot. This would be another beast of a day, the third or fourth in a row with the temperature in the upper nineties and the humidity nearing a hundred per cent - the same sweaty blanketing we'd gone through in New York for a week at the beginning of the month, when there had been power blackouts and more news stories and sombre television panels about global warming. Now another dark cloud had come down. Two days before, the small plane in which young John F. Kennedy, Jr., and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and her sister were flying to Martha's Vineyard had disappeared into the night waters near Gay Head, and this morning's Times said that debris from the plane had washed ashore. As it happened, I had seen him up at the Stadium at a game a couple of days ears said that debris from the plane had washed ashore. As it happened, I had seen him up at the Stadium at a game a couple of days earlier - and so had Cone - which made this story even harder to take in. A young prince of the city gone. This felt like the sixties - something was broken, and not just the weather. In the middle of the night, the expression worse luck had stuck itself in my mind.
I said goodbye to my wife, Carol, after breakfast and took myself down to my office, on Forty-third Street, where it would be cool if nothing else. I was packing up there - The New Yorker, where I work, was about to move quarters to the new Condé Nast Building, over in Times Square. I hated the whole idea, but an empty Sunday given to file drawers and reading and throwing away ancient letters suited my self-pity. By the time I made it back home again, in midafternoon, there had been showers, but the doorways and store windows and sidewalks in my neighborhood threw off an implacable glaze of heat. At least the power hadn't gone out in our building this time.
As I let myself into the cool bedroom, I heard Carol say, "You're not going to believe this!" She gestured at the television screen, where I saw David Cone oddly propped in the back of the Yankee dugout, with a towel in one hand. His face was flushed and his eyes in some other galaxy. He had just gone through the sixth inning, retiring the last three young Montreal batters in five pitches. He was working on a perfect game. There had been only one close play so far, Carol said - a running, rolling catch by Paul O'Neill in right field, early on. There had been a rain delay-the station had put on a rerun of "The Simpsons" - and Cone had kept loose tossing with a ballboy in front of the stands. I sat down on the foot of the bed.
I'm not sure I moved from there for the hour or so that it took to get the job done. Cone, hunched with a ferocious intent, worked quickly, delivering the strikes to the outer corners and striding backward up the mound as he took the return peg from his catcher, Joe Girardi. You could almost see his mind seizing and shaping the next pitch and the one after that. "He knows it! He knows it!" said the telecaster, Tim McCarver. "A no-hitter on Yogi Berra Day - c'mon, no way!"
He and his sidekick Bobby Murcer were not giving in to the superstition that forbids mention of a no-hitter when it is in progress-a great step forward, as far as I was concerned - but the day and the setting had taken on an eerie quality. None of these Montreal batters (who had arrived by bus from Baltimore, late the night before) had ever seen David Cone before, much less batted against him. This two-game interdivisional series had opened on a Sunday afternoon: unheard of. The fans, squinting in the heat, were in a gabble of anxiety, and there were glimpses of Larsen, tucked away in the back of a box, looking down at the field with an expression I couldn't read. We were in the seventh, then quickly out of it. Cone, with one eye just visible under the brim of his cap, exuded malice as he peered in at a pinch-hitter, James Mouton. Then he struck him out, swinging, with a slider way away. Fans marking up the K's put up another image of Yogi Bear on the facing below them. Yogi Bear? - they'd lost their minds. Oh, yes, for Yogi Day. I was losing my mind, more likely. "C'mon, c'mon," I whispered to myself when the Yankees came up to bat. Come on and make an out, get this thing over.
Into the eighth now, and Carol and I let out a "Yes!" or "Wow!" - maybe we jumped up and high-fived, too - when Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch darted to his right to grab a ground ball smoked up the middle by Jose Vidro (who were these guys?) and threw him out at first. This last part, the peg, was what mattered, since Knoblauch had been tortured even by his routine throws to first in recent weeks, producing off-line bounced throws or halfhearted lobs while he battled to unknot this kink in his unconscious. This time, he took four quick braking steps, got his feet right as he turned, and fired the bullet.
The rest was impressionistic: a last in-running sprint and half-bobble by Ricky Ledee in the ninth as he held on to Ryan McGuire's pop fly to left, for the twenty-sixth out, and then Cabrera and glory. David Cone, carried off toward the dugout in ritual fashion, was put down at last and shared a long embrace with Girardi. Interviews and recaps and reruns followed. Cone had required only eighty-eight pitches, it came out, and never went to ball three against a batter. I couldn't stop smiling, and neither could Murcer and McCarver, together in their shirt-sleeves again before the sign-off. "I don't know about you," Bobby said, "but I'm not ready to go off the air yet."
"I'm not leaving," Tim said. "We'll just stay here."
Something had changed the weather. Who better than Cone?
Early February in Tampa, and I am tailing a gray Porsche Carrera in a middle lane on North Dale Mabry when a white Mustang convertible comes rocketing up on my left at a red light, brakes sharply, and stations itself next to the Porsche, but a foot or two astern, in full view of its left rearview mirror. The Mustang driver slips out of gear and guns his engine invitingly - racka-trooom! Hey, Mister Important Wheels, let's get it on! When the light goes green, the Porsche eases forward gently, at the same pace as the traffic in the other lanes, and the driver of the Mustang - a kid, by the look of him - now shoots up level with the Porsche and aims a disdainful look at the guy behind the wheel. Then he looks again, a double take, and changes his mind. He drops back, easing off until he's behind me, and becomes part of the traffic. The man driving the Porsche has been staring straight ahead all this time, but the kid has taken in the pale, calm face under the curved cap brim, a downturned mouth, and an angle of chin and shoulders that brings a click of recognition. This backing off, the instant-grownup effect, isn't about the comparative prices or r.p.m.s of the two sports cars; it's that the young driver has seen some established will power sitting over there and has drawn the proper conclusion: David Cone isn't here to play.
I am here watching highway psychodramas in my red Hertz midsize, because David Cone has been leading the way to a Cuban lunch shop, where the two of us will have a bite to eat, and because tailing him is going to be more or less my plan for the next eight months. I have been watching Cone pitch, off and on, for fourteen years now - the first writing of mine about him I can find was when he smacked a double for the New York Mets, in an early-season game against the Pirates in 1987, and was out at third base, stretching - and have lately decided to pay more attention. Success is one of the reasons, to be sure: I'm just another writer chasing another winner. Cone's hundred and eighty lifetime victories put him sixth among active pitchers, while his 2,420 strikeouts make him the third among all current practitioners, and his lifetime earned-run average of 3.21 ties him for fourth place (with the Braves' Tom Glavine) among all pitchers who worked in the nineteen-nineties, behind Greg Maddux, his Yankee teammate Roger Clemens, and Randy Johnson. In 199l, he struck out nineteen batters in a game against the Phillies, tying a league record held by Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver. He has racked up two twenty-victory seasons, and he captured the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in his league in 1994. He has been a significant starter with four different major-league clubs - the Mets, the Toronto Blue Jays, the Kansas City Royals, and the Yankees (with two separate tenures at K.C. and Toronto) - and has performed obdurately and sometimes brilliantly in nineteen post-season games, including the World Series, in which he is 2-0 in five starts and twenty-nine and a third innings, with an earned-run average of 2.15. His team has won every World Series game in which he pitched.
Cone's record, I have noticed, escapes the faint tedium that can attend the numbers put up by implacably triumphant pitchers, since it includes so many entertaining oddities and spectacular disappointments and crashes. When he dropped games to Toronto and then Baltimore in September, 1998, he ended a string of ninety-six consecutive starts without back-to-back losses. He is tied for second in this semi-obscure category, four shy of the one hundred established by Firpo Marberry, a durable right-hander who toiled in the American League in the twenties and thirties, mostly for the Senators. I saw Marberry pitch a couple of times when I was a kid. And Cone's 20-7 pitching record in 1998, coming a full decade after his 20-3 for the Mets, marked the longest stretch between twenty-game seasons for any pitcher in major-league history. The previous holder of this title, Jim Kaat, now an esteemed broadcaster with the Yankees, had gone seven summers between his 25-13 in 1966 and 21-13 in '74, and when he came over to congratulate Cone for his feat (if that's what it was) he said, "Listen, I've always wondered about this. Was this a record or was I just horseshit all that time?"
I hadn't thought about Marberry for years, until he resurfaced in the Cone annals. Now I'm thinking of giving the name to the next cat or kitten to come into our house - "Here, kitty. Here, Firpo." My lately deceased smooth fox terrier, Willie, was named after Willie Stargell, the great Pirate slugger, and he lasted for sixteen years. The dog, I mean, not the Pirate. Stargell played for twenty-one years and went into the Hall of Fame. Where is the Dog Hall of Fame, I sometimes wonder. How many cats or dogs get named for major-league players nowadays? I know a serious Red Sox fan who tried to name a new family dog Yaz, for Carl Yastrzemski, after failing to persuade his wife to bestow the honor on their firstborn son. She nixed the pooch, too. But I do recall two or three cats named Mookie, back in the eighties, when the Mookster was at his peak with the Mets. End of digression - except that there are no digressions in baseball, where everything connects to everything else.
Back in May of '99, I wrote out a little time line I'd been putting together in my head and gave it to David Cone in the clubhouse:
Six Degrees of Separation
(1986- ) pitched against
(1966-93), who was a teammate of
(1956-76), who played against
(1941-63), who played against
(1926-47), who played with
(1915-37), who batted against
Cone glanced at it and said, "Hey!," then folded it and tucked it away in the top shelf of his locker. The next day, he thanked me and said that he'd never thought of his time in the show in those terms. But Cone is a computer hacker as well as a polite guy, and I doubt that I'd surprised him. Players who last for a few seasons come to understand that even a single major-league batter faced or a lone at-bat in the majors connects them to something fixed and orderly; they're in the annals, and can now be found in the next edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia or punched up at TotalBaseball.com, or at Cooperstown.
At the same time I gave Cone his slip, I handed a slightly different one to Roger Clemens. It also took him back in six steps to Mathewson, the ur-hurler, but with Robin Yount, Red Schoendienst, and Grover Cleveland Alexander replacing some of the stepping stones in the Cone saga. The Rocket never responded, but I persist in a belief that connection is one of the prime sensuous attractions of baseball. You first notice this as a kid, on the day when a glimmering perception of the interconnectedness of today's names and batting averages and line scores and box scores - and all yesterday's, too, and others five years or five decades gone - suddenly sweeps over you in a rush, like the dawning of sex. And if you've stayed on as a fan you feel it on mornings when you wake up and discover that without trying you've seen McGwire and Brett and Ott, Koufax and Yaz, Mickey Lolich and Mickey Cochrane, Willie Mays and Carl Hubbell and the Babe, not to mention, oh...Ray Oyler and Oil Can Boyd.
Baseball shrinks time and makes it handier, and gives you a little clap on the back along the way.
Cone has agreed, for his own reasons, to let me hang around with him during the coming season, and, for my part, I'm happy to be watching and talking with someone at his stage of a great career as he sets about winning again - winning when it's work, with hard days and nights to get through, and times when the fastball is snoozing and the slider has gone off to the dentist or to the races. Cone and I aren't too different in some ways. Neither of us knows how this will work. "Here's the deal - I just figured it out," I said to David a day or two ago. "My brain and your arm are the same age. Let's do it."
He laughed, a little. David likes to control the situation - it's his primary trait - and he doesn't make a conclusion or even agree to a joke until he's worked it over in his mind. This is evasive but tough. He is hard on himself and scouts old ground, particularly his losses, with unpitying zeal. He wants a better result next time.
Cone's most bruising career setback to date remains the five runs he gave up to the Dodgers in the first two innings of the second game of the 1988 National League Championship Series, in an eventual loss that led, in time, to the Mets' shocking dismissal by a team they were expected to dominate. Cone also walked in the tying run in the eighth inning of the fifth and final divisional playoff game between the Yankees and the Mariners, at the Kingdome in 1995 (his first year with the Yankees), permitting the Seattles to draw even in the series in which they had trailed from the outset; no one was entirely surprised when they scored two runs in the eleventh and eliminated the Yankees.
Defeat is a form of silence - we don't like to linger over it - but again in Cone's case the bad news often has an added twist or flair that gets your attention. As the young ace of the over-powering 1988 Mets team - he was 20-3 that year - he had agreed to have his byline appear over an unfortunate ghosted column in the News that taunted the Dodgers before that second playoff game and sparked their uprising. (More about this is to be told here.) Even the base on balls in Seattle didn't go away quickly, because Cone had chosen to throw a split-finger pitch to an innocuous pinch-hitter, Doug Strange, on a full count, instead of the expected and safer fastball - a choice he will defend to this day - but lost the gamble. Never mind that Seattle then went on to lose to the Indians in the American League Championships. The Mariners' sudden glory in this, their first post-season effort after nineteen years of relentless mediocrity, was a populist triumph that kept the Seattle franchise in town. It was also a huge boost for the new and widely disparaged extra tier of playoff games (which had allowed the Yankees and Mariners to meet in the first place), and a television godsend for baseball itself at the end of two unhappy, strike-shortened seasons. All this, one could say, from a base on balls.
Just the other day, I told Cone that I'd been thinking back to 1995, too, and that ball four to Doug Strange. Murray Chass, the Times baseball pundit, had said to me recently that he'd run into David at a Players Association executive-board meeting in Florida, nearly two months after the game, and found that David was still brooding about the pitch.
"It took me forever to get over that," David said. "I couldn't sleep. I almost didn't go out of my house for a couple of weeks after. I'd thrown a hundred and forty-six pitches in the game up to that point, and I had nothing left, but I was still sure that was the right call. I just didn't execute. Maybe I'm stubborn, but I have this conviction that I should be able to deliver any pitch in any situation."
He looked stricken, even now. "I'll never forget that flight home," he said. "My catcher, Mike Stanley, kept telling me it was his fault for calling the pitch, but I wouldn't let him get away with it. Buck Showalter, the manager, must have known that he was finished with the Yankees after the loss, and Donnie Mattingly is somewhere else in the plane, going home for good and knowing that he's never going to play in a World Series. I'd let them all down."
There's always a game or a series that needs to be pitched over again, I remind myself now. Look at 1999. Cone, seemingly at the pinnacle of his career after the perfect game, runs into unexpected setbacks for the remainder of the year: he gives up six runs in four innings to the Indians, including a grand slam, in his next start, and is later driven to cover in a game against the Rangers, coughing up six runs in an inning and two-thirds. He goes without a win for more than three weeks, and picks up only two over the remainder of the season. Suspecting that Cone's age has begun to show in his work-he is thirty-six, and has thrown close to twenty-six hundred innings at this point, and, counting warmups and side sessions, more than a hundred thousand major-league pitches - Yankee manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre reluctantly begin to space him out a bit, adding a fifth day between his starts, when possible. Cone resents the move and its implication, but says little. Starting the second game of the American League Championship Series (he didn't get a call in the Bombers' three-game sweep of the Rangers in the divisional series), he spins a devastating win against the ambitious Red Sox, surrendering two runs over seven innings and fanning nine. In the World Series, he shuts out the Atlanta Braves in another seven-inning stint, giving up a lone hit, and the Yankees cruise to their third World Championship in the five years he has been with the club. Which is the real Cone?
Cone's Porsche is flashing a right turn, and I slide over a lane. There's the Havana Sandwich Shop up ahead, just this side of Kennedy Boulevard.
So where does Cone fit in, I'm asking myself. Pedro Martinez, who's gone 42-1l with 564 strikeouts in his first two seasons with the Red Sox, is the best pitcher in baseball right now, no two ways. His preternaturally long fingers and absolute dominance over the hitters with that darting, down-moving stuff bring Sandy Koufax to mind. Pedro will breeze into the Hall of Fame at this rate, and so will the Big Unit, Randy Johnson,whose hair and height - he's six-ten, and flying - and ground-devouring stride down the mound make you laugh nervouslywith every pitch, so happy you are that you're not the batter. Greg Maddux, the whey-faced Atlanta grandmaster, won four consecutive Cy Young Awards in the mid-nineties, and on a good day his pitches still gnaw relentlessly around and under the edges of the strike zone, silently eating up outs. The three stand apart, but Cone holds the warmer place in my regard.
Never mind his pitching style - we'll get to that - it's the man's contradictions that grab me. Back in the late eighties and early nineties, when he was a baby-faced starter with the brilliant and notorious Mets, he quickly became known as another hard-party nighthawk, with a penchant for sexual misadventures that repeatedly made the tabloids ("...despite the choirboy looks" became a favorite tag). Champions in 1986, before Cone's arrival, those Lenny Dykstra, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Doc, and Straw Mets were a celebrity force majeure in the big city, but high salaries and a penchant for second place began to wear out their welcome over the next few seasons. Dykstra was traded off to the Phillies, and others followed him out the door, as the team was dismantled, star by star, with manager Davey Johnson joining the exiles in 1990. Cone's best friends on the club, Bobby Ojeda and Ron Darling, went next, but when he himself was shuffled off to Toronto, in 1992, the move came as a shock. "We underachieved," Cone once said of his old club, "but that team was broken up too soon. New York belonged to the Mets then, and we were all proud of that. Part of me will always be a Met."
Cone performed strongly for the Blue Jays that year, helping them to a World Championship in October, but over the winter he moved along as a free agent to the Kansas City Royals, the club that had first drafted him, years before. A Cy Young Award rewarded Cone's 16-5 record with the Royals in 1994, but the players' strike that August amputated the season, costing his Royals a shot at a championship. When peace was restored and play resumed the next spring, he was summarily dealt back to the Blue Jays, then soon sent along to the Yankees. All these teams and all that money - by now, he was a $6-million-a-year pitcher - subjected Cone to the "hired gun" obloquy that disgruntled fans (and some sports columnists as well) were aiming at the players in the wake of the unpopular strike, but again he defied categorizing. One day back then when I asked him about the high pay and low public regard that the players seemed to have won for themselves, he said, "We'd be more popular if we'd won a lottery, instead of being someone who's tried to perfect his craft and tried to put himself in a position to earn an exorbitant amount of money."
This new David Cone, poised and articulate, and a distance removed from the party boy of a half decade before, had been chosen by his peers in the Players Association to represent the American League at the bargaining table during the hardest weeks of the strike, and he turned up again and again in front-page photographs and on the late news during the protracted negotiations. His presence at labor councils in Florida and New York and Washington, and with the group of owners and players that met with the President at the White House, and his suave summaries before the cameras of the latest issues and talking points were surmised, by Cone and everyone else, to be the probable cause of his swift dismissal by the Royals, once the strike was over.
After his first year with the Yankees - by 1996, that is - Cone had assumed a unique and self-invented role with the dynastic and once disputatious old champions as a team spokesman: an anchorman explainer of controversial plays, dugout gossip and player psyches, and the daily run of rumors, anxieties, injuries, and front-office maneuverings that afflict every clubhouse over the long season, never more than in New York. Beat writers and columnists and TV people began to gather in front of his Stadium locker even on days when he hadn't pitched or wasn't about to, and in taking them on he appeared to sense, almost uncannily, how his words and ideas would work for the team and for the avid needs of the media at the same time. Instead of conflicting with Torre's pre-game and post-game press conferences, he became a resource for the manager, and an extra, more nuanced source of news about the players. When pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre was diagnosed with multiple myeloma just after the beginning of the 2000 season, Cone said, "Every American family has to deal with cancer in one way or another. We're no different" - a line that flew into every reporter's notebook.
Other teams have produced these media captains - Keith Hernandez, a genius at game analysis, did it for the hardline championship Mets - but none have understood the needs of his listeners better than Cone. "David is the best since Stengel," Jack O'Connell, the national baseball writer for the Hartford Courant, told me one day. "He understands the whole thing - who you are, who you're with, and what you've written. He knows your deadline and he's always there. He'll wait until the last guy has all he wants. He never looks tired or bored. He's smart and generous."
We're here-I pull into the dusty little parking row next to the diner, where Cone is waiting for me, smiling behind his shades. Off the field, he is non-combative, with a Milquetoast hand-shake - it's a protective mannerism for his pitching hand - and an almost indolent backward tilt to his head. He is six-one but non-hulking, and when we get inside he draws only a scattering of stares. After we've ordered I ask him if he's talked to the Boss, George Steinbrenner. We're still ten days away from the official pitchers-and-catchers opening of spring training.
"No, but he's here," he says. "George takes spring training seriously. A couple of years ago, I gave up a grand slam to Andris Galarraga, and he didn't talk to me for three weeks. In a spring game? George wants to win. Before the infamous Game Five in Seattle, in '95, he'd given us one of his traditional pep talks in the clubhouse, and then he comes over to where I'm sitting with Jack McDowell. He looks Jack up and down and says, 'And you, you little Stanford fuck, are you going to be ready?'"
Our laughter makes us sound like kids snickering about their dad.
"Sometimes this stuff works," David says. "But George...
Before the playoffs in '96, we're all in the players' lounge, where there's a spread of food. George goes over and picks out a strawberry and comes over to Kenny Rogers, who was going to pitch that day. He stands over Kenny and says, 'Do you know what this is? It's a strawberry - and that's where you're going to be, back on your daddy's strawberry farm if you don't do it today.'"
Doing it for Cone nowadays may require some way of saving his middle-aged arm. My recollections of him in a game always involve a heavy accumulation of high counts, fouls, strikeouts, and bases on balls, with a hit batsman or two thrown in as well. Why so many pitches? I ask.
"I'm working on that this year," he says. "It's time for a little conservation." But in the next moment he has brought up a Mets game in 1992, right after the All-Star break, when he beat the Giants at Shea, 1-0, with an insane admixture of prodigality and thrift.
"A hundred and sixty-six pitches and a 1-0 shutout - I don't know if that's been done before," he says. "That was just before I got traded to the Blue Jays. I was averaging about a hundred and forty pitches a game. Maybe they'd thought my arm was going to wear out, but I was pitching great then. When I got traded, there was a Mike Lupica column in the News which agreed with the decision to let me go. Standard Lupica - he decides what people are thinking and then goes the other way. I still have it put away somewhere, because it's been a motivation for me. Anything to get that edge out there. The piece asked how many innings I could have left in my arm, after throwing a couple of zillion. That was about fifteen hundred innings ago."
But all the same, I say - a one-hundred-and-sixty-six-pitch shutout?
"It's one of the three or four favorite games of mine, ever," he says defiantly. "John Franco was down with an injury, so they couldn't call on him. We had no pen, and we're trying to stay alive in a pennant race. That game made me so proud - maybe I thought it connected me with the ghosts of the past and the days when pitchers stayed in forever. Guys I tried to model myself after like Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal and Satchel Paige."
There's a pause while I try to get all this into my notebook. The table is littered with crumbs from our Cuban sandwiches. The restaurant is just about empty.
"I wouldn't try it now," David says, more quietly. "I still hate to come out of games, but I'm trying to get better habits. The Yankees are like a second marriage for me - they've gotten the benefit of all the mistakes I made with the Mets. I've become a good second husband."