Wild Pitcher

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.

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.”

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?

Wild Pitcher