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Wild Pitcher

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Reporters love Cone. After a game, whether or not he's played that day, Cone is the go-to quote guy for the dozens of writers on deadline. He's funny and analytical, he makes excellent eye contact, and he answers repetitious questions as if he were hearing them for the very first time. The writers don't, however, buy the Cone legend that he once aspired to be a sportswriter himself. "Come on, Dave!" laughs one scribe. "We love you already. You don't have to lay it on that thick."

In 1995, during his first week as a Yankee, Cone planted himself in front of his locker and began thumbing through the team's media guide, learning about his new teammates. "It made him look humble," says another sportswriter. "And it was a nice little lead for a story. But the thing is, Cone could have read the media guide on the bus, on the airplane -- but he did it in the middle of the clubhouse, where we could all see him."

Other Cone efforts, though, are thoroughly sincere and far less visible. For two years now, he's organized a charity softball tournament in Central Park. A children's hospital was the beneficiary of a baseball clinic Cone recently staged at Yankee Stadium. His David Cone Foundation has bought computers for his old elementary school back in Missouri.

And late one August afternoon, while his teammates drift into Yankee Stadium to prepare for that night's game, Cone is escorting 11-year-old Will Hilburn on a tour of the Yankees' hallowed locker room. Born with a rare neuromuscular condition, Will is confined to a wheelchair.

Cone doesn't promise Will he'll win a game or hit a home run for him. Cone does something better: He spends time with Will. Later, as Will parks his wheelchair behind home plate to watch the game, his father can't contain his gratitude. "Many people are awkward and intimidated around handicapped children, and they don't know how to deal with the chair," Bill Hilburn says. "David, minutes after we met, asked if he could push Will around. It was wonderful."

Then Bill Hilburn looks at the joy on his son's face and says something incredibly corny. He knows it's corny even as he says it, but there's no better way to express what he's seen. "David Cone didn't have to do anything for us," Bill Hilburn says. "But there are still heroes in this world."

Phil Rizzuto, Mickey Rivers, and Dave Winfield are laughing in the Yankees clubhouse, in pinstripes again for Old-Timers' Day. As strapping 25-year-olds watch their 75-year-old predecessors shuffle about, you can see the thoughts crossing the faces of the Jeters and Knoblauchs: Am I going to be the one who gets fat? Or the one who loses all his hair?

Cone pitches in the real game today, against the hapless Minnesota Twins. When Cone is throwing well, there's a rhythmic beauty to his windup. As his left leg swings into the air midway through his delivery, Cone pauses for an instant with his foot in the air before launching himself and the ball forward. For all the calculation he puts into pitching, Cone says, the hesitation isn't something he can plan, or even explain very well. The music just takes over. "That hesitation is usually a sign that I'm feeling pretty good," Cone says. "When I start to get it going, I start to create more out there and start to hesitate and feature different looks."

Over the years, Billy Crystal, a lifelong Yankees worshiper, has become friends with Cone, partly because Crystal sees a similarity in their arts. "I know as soon as I'm introduced, when I walk out onstage, judging by the hand the audience gives me, or how I feel the first minute, whether it's going to be fun or it's going to be work," the comedian says. "And I'm sure that's the feeling pitchers get when they start warming up in the bullpen. Cone comes out, maybe the fastball's not working, maybe this isn't working. He then develops a new windup; he develops a new release point. He's always inventing; he's always throwing something else at you to confuse the hitter and win the ball game. And so I feel a kinship with him, in how creative he is on the mound. You've got to love a guy like that."

Lately, though, Cone has struggled to deliver the punch line. He usually rises to the occasion on baseball's ceremonial days, like opening day, the All-Star Game, or the World Series. Berra and Larsen are in the stadium today, for the first time since Cone's perfect game, and there's talk that the magic will rub off on Cone again. But Cone throws what he calls "my worst game ever," the velocity on his fastball dipping from its regular 92 miles per hour to a faint 82.

As the regular season ends, some of the zip returns. "I haven't pitched as badly as people think," he says, rightly pointing to bounces that didn't go his way and days when he pitched well but the Yankees didn't score. But Cone is still mystified by his past couple of months -- hence the Chinese needles stuck in his shoulder. "I'm wary about talking about it," Cone says. "People still look at acupuncture as voodoo medicine. And it's my own little personal escape, my own little thing. I'm an extremist to a certain extent, because I'll try anything, any sort of special treatment that's out there. Cortisone shots, anti-inflammatory medications, I've tried 'em all over the years. Acupressure massage, deep-tissue massage, Rolfing. A lot of baseball trainers are reluctant to give a deep massage in the joint itself. They don't want to make a mistake. Whereas I've been very aggressive -- get in there. Break it up. Do something. I'll try anything. You got any ideas, let me know."

Cone is the Yankees' emotional leader, and his struggles have embodied the team's vulnerability in the regular season. They've been steadier than Cone, though. "David likes to live on the edge," Joe Torre says. "He's the Great Wallenda, as far as I'm concerned. He finds a way to get off that high wire. It may not always be pretty, but the son of a gun finds a way to do it."

Cone's life wouldn't be complete if it didn't have some tumult spliced into the highlight reel. By stumbling through the end of the season, Cone has raised the stakes and given himself something to prove again. And that only makes it more fun to root for him: Wouldn't you rather cheer an imperfect man than a myth?


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