Coney: A Yankee Great

A poster hangs above my bed commemorating the New York Yankees majestic 1996 World Series Championship. The poster depicts several key Yankees from that team, not the least of which is David Cone. Cone was one of my all-time favorite Yankees and one of the top pitchers of his era. When he announced his retirement earlier this week, I was saddened. I'd like to pay tribute to one of the greatest Yankees of the modern era: David Cone.

Cone had done so much to help build the current Yankees dynasty; it seemed unfair that such a great pitcher would have to end his career due to an injury.

Quick, name the players that the Yankees traded to the Blue Jays to get Cone in the middle of 1995. Not an easy task, to say the least. On July 28, 1995, Yankees general manager Gene Michael sent Marty Janzen, Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon to Toronto to get Cone. At that point in his career, Cone had become something of a mercenary. He was traded to Toronto in the offseason before 1995, right after winning his first Cy Young award with the Kansas City Royals. Earlier in his career, the Mets had traded Cone to the Blue Jays – who were looking for an ace to bolster their pitching staff in 1993. Cone did more than bolster it; he helped the Jays win the World Series for the second consecutive year.

The Yankees were looking for similar results. After the 1994 strike ended what should have been a glorious year for Don Mattingly's team, the Bronx Bombers were back in the thick of a pennant race in 1995, but they needed an extra piece. That piece was Cone.

Cone made an impression on the Yankees in his pinstripes debut. In Minnesota on July 29, Cone held the Twins down for two runs in eight innings, striking out nine and earning the win for the Bombers. It was the start of a beautiful relationship.

Cone finished the season with a 9-2 record with the Yankees (18-8 overall), and was an integral part in the Yankees winning the very first American League Wild Card, their first postseason appearance in 14 years.

Cone earned his pinstripes during those playoffs, in the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners. Cone was the winner in game one of the series, and returned to the mound for the decisive fifth game, where he turned in one of his gutsiest performances ever. Cone threw 142 pitches in that game, though the last one walked home the game-tying run. No Yankee fan should ever forget that performance, even though the Yankees wound up losing the series ending Mattingly's last chance at a World Series ring.

Originally a product of the Royals' farm system, an overstocked KC pitching staff caused Cone to be traded early in his career to the New York Mets. In Flushing, NY is where Cone originally made a name for himself. Cone's inventiveness and ingenuity on the mound more than made up for his less-than-dominating stuff. Cone could never throw 98 mph like a Roger Clemens, but he had an ever-expanding repertoire of pitches that he could throw anytime, anywhere.

Cone could throw in a low-90s fastball, change speeds with his pinpoint-accurate changeup, then strike out a hitter with his unhittable split-finger or backdoor slider. Cone was always inventing new ways to get batters out, and could dominate even on days when his stuff was terrible. Its no surprise that Cone led the league in strikeouts for two straight years (1990-91), and almost a third – missing first place by one K to John Smoltz. At times, Cone was downright scary. Several times in his career he flirted with no-hitters, and on October 6, 1991, Cone tied a then National League record by striking out 19 Philadelphia Phillies in one game.

After his time with the Mets, Blue Jays, Royals and Blue Jays again, Cone found himself with the Yankees, and without a contract at the end of the 1995 season. The Yankees re-signed Cone to a three-year deal. Little did either side know that the rest of his time with New York would be a rollercoaster ride of life-threatening medical conditions and the ultimate achievement for a pitcher.

Not far into the 1996 season, Cone began feeling numbness in his fingertips. Examinations revealed that he had an aneurysm in his pitching shoulder, a condition that was potentially life threatening. Surgery corrected the problem, but nobody knew how Cone's body would react to pitching again.

Coney put all fears to rest with his triumphant return to the Yankees on September 2, when he almost no-hit the Oakland A's. Cone carried his no-no into the seventh inning before manager Joe Torre pulled him as a precautionary measure. With Cone back and healthy, the Yankees clinched the first division title, and were playoff-bound.

The additions that year of Torre, Derek Jeter and Tino Martinez, along with the emergence of Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams put Cone right in the middle of the beginning of an historic Yankees dynasty. Cone's role in that dynasty was that of mentor and emotional leader. His veteran presence on the mound solidified the rest of the team, and his phenomenal postseason performances make one wonder how the Yanks would have fared without him.

The Yankees won the World Series that year, coming back from a two games to none deficit to beat the Atlanta Braves, thanks in no small part to Cone. It was Cone who took the mound in game three, holding the Braves to just one run over six innings, halting their momentum, and giving the Yankees the chances they needed to make history.

Cone's season would be shortened again by injuries in 1997, but he managed to post 12 wins, a 2.82 ERA and 222 strikeouts anyway, his highest strikeout total since 1992.

In 1998, Cone was a key part in the Yankees record-setting season. The Yankees won 114 games that season, helped by Cone's 20-7 record and 3.55 ERA. It was Cone's first 20-win season since 1988, and it came during a season when absolutely everything was clicking for the Yanks. The Yankees blazed through the postseason that year, winning 125 games overall. Cone posted a 2.91 ERA in the ‘98 postseason, sending the Yanks to their second title in three years.

1999 was the year that Cone and his fans should never forget though. July 18 of that year was a mystical day at Yankee Stadium. Don Larsen – the only pitcher to ever throw a perfect game in World Series history – threw out the first pitch of Cone's start against the Montreal Expos. Cone made history that day, pitching a perfect game and striking out ten batters, becoming only the 17th pitcher in major league history to be perfect in a game.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. I was out with my best friend, and we had returned to his house, where I asked his father how the Yankees did that day. He told me that they won, and Cone had pitched a perfect game. I didn't believe him. Probably because David Wells had just thrown a perfect game the year before and it didn't seem possible. But he told me he was serious, and when I got home I confirmed it. I was stunned. Cone had really become part of Yankees lore now, and his story will forever be entwined with the glorious history of the greatest baseball team ever.

Unfortunately, Cone struggled the rest of the season. He put up just a 2-5 record after the perfect game, but he was his usual brilliant self in the postseason, as the Yankees rolled to another World Series title. Cone elected to stay with the Yanks in 2000, but he put in the worst performance of his career. All of a sudden, the Yankee great was being hammered left and right. He finished the season, and his career with the Yankees with a 4-14 record and a 6.91 ERA.

Then came yet more stunning news. The Boston Red Sox, arch-rival to the Yankees, had signed Cone to a one-year deal. I couldn't believe it, that one of my favorite Yankees ever had signed with the enemy. I wished him well, but if he ever faced my Yanks, I could never root for him.

Things were going splendidly for the Sox and Cone. By the middle of July, they had won all but one of Cone's starts. The one they lost, was a 7-3 defeat to the Yankees on May 23. Cone had a record of 6-1 so far, and I missed him.

Then came that fateful day in September, when Cone's mystical connections with the Yankees resurfaced. The man the Yankees had signed to take Cone's spot in the roster, Mike Mussina, was set to face Cone in Fenway Park. Mussina was on fire that night, mowing down Red Sox in order. It was a duel to end all duels. Cone, the former Yankee great, and Mussina were matching zeros for the first eight innings of the game. Only Mussina had put up two extra zeros that Cone did not, doughnuts in the hits and walks columns. Everyone soon took notice that Mussina was throwing a perfect game against the last man to do so, and Cone was throwing a shutout.

I remember watching the game in a friend's dorm room during my first week at college. We were all crowded around her TV, watching two great pitchers in a run at history. Clay Bellinger finally scored on Cone, chasing him from the game after 8 1/3 innings, and the Yankees had a lead. All Mussina had to do now was finish off the Red Sox in the bottom of the ninth. He got out Troy O'Leary and Lou Merloni for the first two outs, and stood poised to enter his name into the annals of Yankees history. But Boston manager Jimy Williams sent up Carl Everett to pinch-hit for Joe Oliver. Everett is a man who is hated by Yankee fans, and it would have been perfect for Mussina to strike him out to end the game. Mussina got two strikes on Everett before allowing him to dump a little flare into short centerfield, ending the perfect game. Mussina retired Trot Nixon to end the game, but you could still feel the magic. And David Cone was as much a part of that magic as Mussina was.

Cone took 2002 off from baseball before attempting his comeback with the Mets. It seems terribly unfair that Cone, one of the toughest pitchers in the game, would need to end his career due to a hip condition. But that isn't what history, and what Yankee fans, will remember him for.

The historians will remember him for his 19-strikeout game, for his 193-123 career record and 3.44 ERA. They will remember him for his 1994 Cy Young Award, and for almost becoming the first pitcher in 50 years to lead the NL in strikeouts for three years straight. They will remember him for winning five World Series rings, one for each finger, and for posting a career World Series record of 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA. Hopefully nobody will remember some of the scandals that surrounded his earlier career.

Yankee fans will remember him for his time in pinstripes. Cone was a warrior, battling back from injuries ranging as serious as an aneurysm to as comical as a dog bite. Cone posted a 64-40 record with the Yankees, and an ERA of 3.91 – marred slightly by his 2001 numbers (3.30 from ‘95-‘99). He pitched a perfect game at Yankee Stadium, and he was an integral part in the Yankees dynasty that began in 1996, one that won four World Series in five seasons.

Most of all Yankee fans will remember him as a great pitcher, and as a true Yankee.

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