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Wild Pitcher

David Cone, a Hall of Fame-caliber joker, carouser, and womanizer when he was with the Mets, has been reborn as the clear-eyed, responsible leader of one of the greatest teams in history. (Though he's not totally hostile to the idea of having a good time.)

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David Cone shifts his weight uneasily from side to side. He's sitting in the Yankees dugout, three hours before the start of a late-season game, and the conversation has just turned to that extraordinary afternoon in July when Cone pitched baseball's sixteenth perfect game. Cone is famously articulate and generous with interviewers. So it's a little strange that he doesn't like talking about his perfect game, the ultimate feat for a pitcher. He says he tries to avoid even thinking about it very much. Eventually, though, Cone describes one scene that keeps flashing into his mind, and it's both surreal and sublime.

After the game's final pitch, Cone was buried in a flesh-pile of ecstatic teammates. Then he was hoisted onto their shoulders, and, with tears in his eyes, Cone waved to the crowd. A few minutes later, the veteran right-hander floated toward the Yankees clubhouse. With the roar from 55,000 fans washing at his back, Cone climbed the narrow, inclined ramp from the Yankees dugout, passing beneath the sign that reads, i want to thank the good lord for making me a yankee -- joe dimaggio. The walk started to take on the feeling of a near-death experience: Cone reached the end of the tunnel and entered a warm, bright light, where two smiling icons welcomed him to their realm. "Don Larsen and Yogi Berra were waiting right by my locker," Cone says, wonderment in his voice. In 1956, Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, right here at Yankee Stadium; Berra was the catcher. The two old legends wrapped Cone in a bear hug. "That was quite a thrill," Cone says. "They were there, waiting for me. It was out of a dream."

But as with most dreams, the clock radio soon blares and the sleeper wakes up with bad breath and crud in his eyes.

After July 18, Cone started thirteen regular-season games, and his performance alternated unpredictably among good, awful, and just plain puzzling. Cone won only twice and rang up an alarming 4.82 earned-run average. He was 10-4 with a 2.65 ERA in his first eighteen starts.

On the sports pages, the conventional wisdom suggested that Cone's right arm had finally given out. At 36, Cone has hurled nearly 100,000 pitches in his professional life -- the stressful equivalent of roughly 300,000 miles on your ten-year-old four-door sedan. He's endured two shoulder operations and one knee surgery. And as a young player, Cone rarely passed up a bar or a sunrise.

Through August and September, Cone answered daily questions about his malaise. "It wears on you," Cone says, a rare note of irritation in his voice. "There's been so much pressure, so much emphasis put on whether I'm going to wear down -- again. How am I going to finish up this year? What's going to happen next year -- will I be back, or will I have to move on, or will I retire? It's sort of this runaway train, this notion that my arm is this time bomb that's ready to explode with any pitch. It's already left the station." Cone swears he isn't injured, but he has searched for a corporal boost, secretly turning to acupuncture treatments.

Cone has always been one of baseball's most cerebral and intellectually curious stars. His willingness to experiment on the mound has paid off, allowing him to invent, in the middle of a game, new ways to fool opposing hitters. Which is why the explanation for Cone's recent struggles is probably to be found in his head.

Ever since Cone was a child, he's been driven by a need to prove himself to father figures, doubters, critics, and himself. As a teenager, he was labeled too wild to pitch in the big leagues. In the early nineties, Cone was ridiculed in the New York tabloids as a flake and a sex fiend, and the Mets shipped him out of town, believing him to be a bad influence. In 1996, with the Yankees, no one believed Cone could come back to pitch effectively after emergency surgery to remove an aneurysm from beneath his right arm.

On each count, Cone has been driven to prove people wrong. And he's succeeded: Not only is Cone one of baseball's all-time great pitchers, but he's rebounded from humiliation to become a beloved New York figure. Even after being the best pitcher on the Best Team Ever, the 1998 Yankees, Cone found a motivation to push him through a brilliant first-half of this season: During the winter, Yankees management showed no faith in his stamina, offering Cone a mere one-year contract. Cone wonders if the perfect game was his karmic reward for returning to New York. And perhaps, after Yogi welcomed him to baseball heaven, Cone's subconscious told him he had nothing left to prove.

When David Cone was a boy, the same noise would awaken him every weekday at 3 a.m. It was the rattle and squeak of the garage door opening. It was the sound of his father going to work. Didn't matter if Ed Cone's arthritis was sending searing pain through his fingers. Ed Cone was a mechanic who worked inside huge freezers at a Kansas City meatpacking plant. And he was a tough guy with four kids.

David Cone's working life has been a whole lot more fun. But late at night, when it's quiet, Cone can still hear the sound of that garage door. And every day, Cone tries to prove he's just as tough and dependable as his old man.

Cone doesn't look like an all-time-great pitcher. He's barely six feet tall and he walks with a waddle. When the Yankees pitchers run as a group, Cone is always last. His shoulders seem slight, until you notice that they slope down to support arms that hang like a gunslinger's.

Cone's eyes are his most distinctive feature: They're large and gray-blue and often dance with a glint that borders on devilish. When Cone is angry, the dark pupils narrow to the sharpest of pinpricks. His face has a choirboy innocence that's most visible when he laughs. But as Cone has aged, his high Scotch-Irish cheekbones have grown prominent, often giving him a haunted look on the mound. Atop his head is corn-yellow hair cropped short, a dime-size dot of gray in the center. "My mom says it was red when I was a kid," Cone says.

When Ed coached David's Little League team, father and son would go toe-to-toe in screaming matches so loud that the other kids looked for a place to hide. "My parents are tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar people," Cone says. "They went by the sort of kick-the-bird-out-of-the-nest type of theory. You had to fly or fall to the ground. In some ways, I really appreciate that. In other ways, maybe we both regret that we haven't fostered that close, affectionate relationship that some families have. Part of my resiliency and so-called toughness, emotionally, is due to that background. Part of the problems I have emotionally, too, are due to that background." He laughs. "But I'm not ready for Prozac yet."

Cone grew up loving the hometown Royals and idolizing their hard-living, hard-playing third-baseman George Brett. He came to New York for the first time in 1987 as a naïve 24-year-old who'd been abruptly traded to the Mets. Cone joined a team fresh off the 1986 world championship and full of brash, larger-than-life characters: Keith "Mex" Hernandez. Gary "Kid" Carter. Dwight "Dr. K" Gooden. Lenny "Nails" Dykstra.

"I found out that this was the wildest group of guys I'd ever been around," Cone says admiringly. "The hardest-core gamers when they played the game, and off the field they were the wildest guys I'd ever been around. They hung out together; they went out to dinner together, they all went out to a bar together, they drank together, talked a lot of shit together. I did everything I could to fit in -- and then some."

Ask Chili Davis for a story that captures the essence of his friend Cone, and the Yankees designated hitter whistles, smiles naughtily, and shakes his head slowly. "He's got a lot of different sides," Davis says. "Some of them that are better left unspoken."

Try Darryl Strawberry, who's known Cone since 1987 and played beside him in the hell-raising Mets days, and there's that same playful smirk. "Naw, man," Strawberry says with a rumbling laugh. "Not many of the stories about Coney are G-rated."

John Franco? Paul O'Neill? Bret Saberhagen? They love Cone, and can offer up platitudes about his grit on the mound, his reliability as a friend. "Dave and me," laughs the Red Sox' Saberhagen, "we'll get together and have a couple of Cokes." But when they hear Cone's name, they all smile mischievously.


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