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Wild Pitcher

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It's not that Cone, at 36, is such a wild man anymore. He's learned to package and contain his zaniness. Instead of downing shots of rum with sportswriters, as he did in his Mets years, Cone is the goofy star of a pair of hilarious Adidas commercials that play off his eccentric image. His favorite theory for his post-perfect-game slump is that he didn't allow himself to celebrate the achievement enough. Maybe he's simply grown up, but lately Cone has seemed to keep himself too tightly under wraps.

Yankees-beat writers regularly speculate whether Cone has tamed his libido. Cone pleads marital fidelity. "Certainly you can find it if you want," he says. "I'm not gonna deny that. It's easier for famous people, whether you're an actor or an athlete. I've had a lot of women who wanted to fuck the uniform. People who wouldn't give me the time of day -- then they find out you play for the Yankees, and all of a sudden it's there for you."

Ask Cone to list defining moments in his past five years, and he cites two: being traded to the Yankees and getting married. Cone met Lynn DiGioia, a slim brunette with an art-history degree, on a Puerto Rican beach in 1986. She endured Cone's public messes for longer than seems rational. They were married in 1994. "We'd dated on and off for eight years, so it was the proverbial time to move it or lose it," Cone says. "She made that abundantly clear. She'd had enough, and she wanted to know where we were gonna go with this thing. I'm still not sure where we're going with this thing."

There's a long pause. "She's very independent and has her own profession," Cone says of his wife, who is an interior designer; Lynn Cone, who declined to be interviewed, recently directed the construction of the couple's year-round home in Greenwich. "Of course, our travel schedule is grueling," David Cone says, "so I can see now why it's so tough on relationships for professional athletes, and I can see why the divorce rate is really high." Another pause. "I always thought I'd followed in George Brett's tracks, where you play your whole career and get married at the end and then have the family. I still struggle with it a lot of times, how I'm gonna live my life from here on out."

Cone's friends are protective of him because of the lurid and bogus stories that exploded in the early nineties: He was falsely accused of rape in Philadelphia, then of masturbating in front of two women in the Shea Stadium bullpen.

When the Mets traded Cone to Toronto in 1992, he had a cloud of sexual innuendo and ugly tabloid headlines trailing after him. Cone revisits his scandals without being asked. "First of all, I'm not a raper," he says. "Second of all, I'm not a pervert. But these were the things that were being said and written about me. Even though both cases were cleared up, my name was completely cleared, the damage had been done. I've had to live with that. There was part of me that said, at some point, 'Be more careful, cover your ass a little better, but you can still live, you can still have fun.' I thought there was a lot of reckless journalism, but I sort of came full circle and said, 'Now, wait a minute -- you did put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of a couple of times.' "

Cone won his first championship ring with the Blue Jays in 1992, but the way he left New York gnawed at him. "The trade was a wake-up call for me," Cone says. "It was time to take a hard look at myself -- what am I doing wrong here? Or at least, what are the perceptions of what I'm doing wrong? You're getting a reputation as a kid with great stuff, some of the best stuff in the big leagues as far as pitching goes, and also one of the biggest flakes. I kind of looked at that and said, 'Is this how I want to be remembered?' Not that I had any great revelations or made any great changes in my life, but I certainly looked at it and tried to address it."

He was a prized free agent at the end of the season but signed with the Kansas City Royals, among the weakest teams pursuing him. "Things were getting a little too wild," Cone says. "I decided to go back home -- maybe I could find something that was missing."

But what he found was that he missed New York. So when rumors surfaced in 1995 that Cone was going to be traded to the Yankees, he ached for the chance to come back to the city. Returning to New York offered Cone more than a shot at another World Series; it offered him a chance at public redemption.

Bernie Williams is gone. It's late on a September night in Toronto, and the faltering Yankees have just stormed back from a five-run deficit to win a critical game. The crucial, dramatic hit is a grand slam by center-fielder Williams. After the game, though, with reporters clamoring for a quote from the hero, the painfully shy Williams has already disappeared. The pencils and notebooks dash to the always-quotable Cone. "You could see him after the game and how good he felt about it," Cone says. "He was the most elated guy in the clubhouse. That's highly unusual for Bernie. He was talking about it being a defining moment for us."

It's exactly the line the sportswriters need, but Cone goes further, issuing a quiet challenge to the supremely talented, sometimes passive Williams. "You know how deep a thinker Bernie is," Cone says. "You know what that could mean."

Cone is routinely called a leader of the Yankees. One of his boredom-breaking practical jokes has become legendary: Cone told a clubhouse kid to take a cardboard box to one of Cone's friends on a visiting team and ask the player to autograph the baseballs inside. When the player opened the box, he found not baseballs but a pile of Cone's crap.

On a loftier level, Cone is respected for his knowledge of labor issues and his role in the union's nasty negotiations with baseball owners in 1994. And because of his wealth of experience in big games, Cone relaxes his teammates just by taking the mound with the season on the line.

Yet tonight, Cone's leadership is more subtle. If Williams reads the newspapers tomorrow, he'll notice Cone's quote; even if Williams doesn't, reporters will ask him about Cone's statement. Cone has planted a seed of aspiration -- Bernie, look how good you can be, look how important you are to the team -- and for the rest of the season, Williams will hammer the ball. Against Texas in the first game of the playoffs, a shockingly aggressive Williams smacks a homer, knocks in six runs, and makes an exquisite diving catch. Cone can't take credit, of course, but his words clearly had an impact. "Bernie needs to feel good about himself," Cone says immediately after the Texas game. "That's all I was trying to do with what I said last month."

On other teams, Cone's coziness with the media would breed jealousy, but the Yankees, a more secure bunch, have welcomed Cone's chattiness. "Part of it is that I feel a responsibility to try to take some of the pressure off the other guys," Cone says. "I saw it work in the eighties when Keith Hernandez did it with the Mets. Some guys just aren't comfortable with the press around their locker. Paul O'Neill isn't, Tino Martinez isn't, Roger Clemens certainly isn't. I really view that as part of my job description, as one of the leaders of the Yankees. At the same time, it's helped me foster this image with the media that 'you know what, this guy's a stand-up guy. He's accountable, he's honest, he's consistent.' In the long run, that's helped me."


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