Sunday, February 11, 2007

COH Monument Park: David Cone

I am proud to present to you another addition to the Canyon of Heroes Monument Park. I started this feature during the early days of Spring last year with the induction of Bernie Williams as its first member. In principle, the players in Monument Park should be retired, and I believe my feelings last season were clear that Bernie would be entering retirement after 2006. That's still up in the air, but the induction was deserved, however long Bernie tries to hang on.

My second addition was my childhood hero, Reginald Martinez Jackson. Reggie was and is larger than life to me, and he may remain as my all-time favorite player unless someone comes along and can somehow overwhelm me with awe. I don't believe that's possible at this stage of my life, but I'd like to think a future Yankee will give that a shot. Today is the official beginning of the 2007 Canyon of Heroes blogging cycle. The sense that pitchers and catchers will soon be working hard in preparation for a long season ahead, adds life to the blogosphere, where news fillers and meaningless speculation are all there is between the Winter Meetings and now.

Today it is my honor to induct David Brian Cone as the 3rd member of the Canyon of Heroes Monument Park. I can't explain exactly what first attracted me to Cone. He was a New York Met in the days when the Yankees were second class citizens on the New York baseball scene. It was 1987, the Mets had just won the World Series, and the Yankees were starting a 45-year old Tommy John, 37-year old Ron Guidry, Rick Rhoden, and Richard Dotson, John Candelaria, and a young Al Leiter. The lineup featured a few great regulars like Mattingly, Winfield, and Randolph, although Willie had an awful year. Rickey Henderson swiped 92 bases, but the quality of baseball that defined Yankees tradition was sadly in absentia. The rest of the team was made up of names like Rafael Santana, Don Slaught, Jack Clark, and Joel Skinner, and Gary Ward. Nothing to be excited about in Yankeeland.

The Mets spent the end of the 1980s on top of the baseball world. 1988 saw a team of resurgent Mets dashing towards another World Series title, with 20-game winner David Cone at the helm, Gooden, Darling, Ojeda, and Sid Fernandez dominating on a nightly basis, and the familiar cast of of characters presenting a formidable lineup. In retrospect, it's easy to see why that team was better than the Yankees, and it wasn't hitting, despite the impression you might have. Granted the pitchers hit in the NL, but the 1988 Mets and Yankees have suprisingly similar batting lines. The Yankees scored 772 runs, while batting .263/.333/.395 and the Mets managed .256/.324/.396, scoring 703 runs. The Yankees team OPS+ was 105, while the Mets put up a 117 team OPS+. It was pitching then, just as it is now, that separates the great teams from the mediocre. A 25-year old David Cone had stamped his imprint on New York, despite some of the rather seedy things that were being reported about the Mets of that era. There were drugs, alcohol, and rape allegations. The team hated each other, and the strong personalities that made up the Mets of that time were doomed to face their own personal demons in one way or another down the road.

Entering college in the Fall of 1989, I was down on the Yankees and settled for a lukewarm support for the crosstown rival Mets. My second team has always been the Oakland A's, so the '89 Earthquake Series was still fresh in my mind. Anything to distract me from the state of the Yankees and provide a little baseball entertainment. In fact, I always loved Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. Their personal problems were difficult for me to see, as it was also very tough to watch Lawrence Taylor. As Rick James says, "Cocaine's a helluva drug." David Cone had something. He had a kind of calm on the mound that attracted me to him right away. Whatever chaos was going on in the clubhouse and off the field, Cone was always ice when he was pitching. His calm and creativity allowed him to pitch out of jams, and keep hitters guessing at all times. More often than not, he made them guess wrong.

As a kid from Kansas City, and a former Omaha farmhand, Cone had made his way to the biggest stage and made the big city fall in love with him. It's not easy to make it in New York, but he proved to be whatever breed it is that thrives under the spotlight. It was a tragedy that he chose to leave the opt for KC again after hitting free agency in 1993, apologies to the good fans of that market. The Royals must have looked quite attractive to Cone as he was embroiled in a lot of difficult things in his life. The Mets had traded him to the Blue Jays, where he helped to win the 1992 World Series. His ties to the big stage had been severed, and I suppose it made sense to go home for a lot of reasons. Coney won the Cy Young at the age of 31, while pitching on the 3rd place Royals. The rotation featured Tom Gordon, Kevin Appier, and Mark Gubicza among others. It seems a waste in retrospect, but I'd be interested in hearing Cone's feelings about that time in his life, looking back now.

In April of 1995, Cone was traded by the Kansas City Royals to the Toronto Blue Jays for Chris Stynes, and minor leaguers David Sinnes, and Tony Medrano. Talk about gratitude. What a historically stupid move that was, looking at it today. Even more puzzling was the trading deadline deal that the Blue Jays pulled off with New York sending Cone forward into glory for Marty Janzen, and minor leaguers Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon. A whirlwind ride, made David Cone a Yankee. The Jays got nothing in return for sending their division rival an ace pitcher that would help them to win 4 World Series championships.

For me, it was a thrill to know that a pitcher who I had long admired on other ballclubs would be fronting the rotation for the Yankees. It was a bold move that defined that era of Yankees baseball. Finally, someone was putting a team on the field that made some sense. Jimmy Key, a young Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera (before he was Mariano Rivera) were all emerging as important pieces to the Yankees puzzle, and David Cone was the frontman. It wasn't only the quality of player that was being added to the roster, but the feeling that each player's personality brought to the Stadium night in and night out. People love Scott Brosius for a lot of strange reasons, but mine is clear. It was the way he made you feel calm about anything that happened over at third. I hated the double plays that he constantly hit into, but he was steady. That's a very important thing for people to remember about the Yankees of that era. Yes, they won championships. Yes, they were very good. They were also focused and cool. In a time when the Yankees were evolving beyond the mediocre and rudderless franchise they'd become, the steel of Paul O'Neill, Brosius, Andy Pettitte, David Key, and David Cone was crucial to our healing as fans. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams brought that attitude to the park with them as well, making the Yankees a team to respect.

In my opinion, while many people attribute the change in the Bombers to Paul O'Neill or Jimmy Key, for me, it was David Cone. When he put on the pinstripes, I knew the team was going to be different. Over the course of his 6 seasons in the Bronx, Cone put up the following ERA+ numbers:

1995 120
1996 176
1997 158
1998 126
1999 130
2000 73

It was tough to see Cone fall off the table in 2000 and then head to the Red Sox for 2001. It made no sense to me to see this player I'd followed so closely die on the mound and then seek resurrection in Boston. It just seemed wrong. I suppose it's hard for any of us to criticize an athlete for hanging on too long. I'm sure all of us would do the same thing. For the fan, it's tough. You never want to see Michael Jordan play for the Washington Wizards. You never want to see Bernie Williams unable to take the hint. Cone did what many great players do. He tried to cling to his craft a little past the time that his body would allow it.

In the end, the titles and the restoration of Yankee glory are in large part thanks to the contributions of David Cone. Not only did he pitch well, but he made it fun to be a Yankee fan again. There was a humor about David that made him easy to like, serious on the mound, but more carefree in street clothes. I recall he did a series of commercials to promote Yankees broadcasts, where he appeared with some guys who were Yankees super fans. If my memory serves me correctly, one commercial featured Cone in a public toilet, where one of these fans came over to help him "shake the dew off the lilly." If I could find it at YouTube, I'd post it here. The signature moment for Cone in his years in the Bronx is easy to put a finger on. His perfect game was, in many ways, a cherry on the sundae. On July 18, 1999, in an interleague game against the lowly Expos, cone made history, falling to his knees and grasping his head in disbelief. Where Boomer looked the part of the rotund little boy, basking in his moment, Cone was humbled and genuinely awed by his own accomplishment. Both of those games will not soon be forgotten by Yankee fans of this generation, but Cone's was the more satisfying for me.

So, in appreciation of his efforts for the New York Yankees, and for his part in restoring the rightful place of the Bombers at the top of the baseball world, I hereby induct David Cone to the Canyon of Heroes Monument Park. (found at the bottom of the linkroll in the right margin).


Pete said...

Are you thinking of the commercial where everyone was doing the 'El Duque' in the dance club- Luis Sojo turns to him and asks, "Hey Coney, why don't YOU have a dance?" - at the end we see him in the restroom practicing his own 'Cone' dance in front of the mirror...?

Someone actually walks in and he quickly stops what he's doing.


mehmattski said...

Cone acted like he understood the fans, and I adored that about him. The season after he retired, when the MSG (I don't think there was YES yet) crew found him within the Bleacher Creatures during a mid-June game... I thought that was so awesome. I know I wasn't the only one who had a tear in his eye as O'Neill caught the last out of Cone's perfecto.

PS: I own that Bernie rookie card you have up!

Sheryl said...

Who would have thought David Cone would be one of the best pitchers of all time, the first day he showed up for instructional ball for the Kansas City Royals in Sarasota, FL in 1981. I remeber seeing him during Spring Training, when he came back to play for Kansas City in the majors...he always wanted to play for his hometown team, but I think he ended up making the NY Yankees his hometown team...I really miss watching him play. I would love to see him today...he would be a huge inspiration to my boys, ages 13 & 11, who love the sport. I now live in the land of the Cards vs. Cubs, but somehow have managed to have a yankees fan under my roof.

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