Twenty years ago, Yankees pitcher David Cone did what only a handful of players had done before him: He pitched the perfect game. In a standoff with the Montreal Expos on July 18, 1999, the 36-year-old Cone — most players peak in their late 20s — needed just 88 pitches, 68 of them strikes, to stop the Expos from getting a single hit.
He became just the 16th person in major league history (and the third Yankee) to pull off the near-impossible, and it’s still a hallowed memory for Yankees fans. This July, they’ll be commemorating the 20th anniversary of Cone’s no-hitter at Yankee Stadium with free David Cone bobbleheads.
But in his new memoir, “Full Count: The Education of a Pitcher” (Grand Central), out Tuesday, Cone remembers his career highlight with a little more vulnerability than the fans witnessed on the field. He recalls a sweaty and weary-faced man staring at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, mentally preparing for the ninth inning and telling himself, “Please, just get three more outs.”
“I think that insecurity exists for even the greatest of pitchers,” says veteran sports writer and YES Network analyst Jack Curry, who co-authored the book with Cone. “Even if you have a 95 mph fastball, and a nasty slider and a splitter that drops six inches, that doesn’t mean you always go out there feeling unstoppable. Cone never forgot that this is a business that can knock you down pretty quickly.”
What gets remembered about Cone are the big accomplishments: his five World Series rings, four of them with the Yankees; the 10-year gap between 20-win seasons, which remains a major league record. But the stories in “Full Count” recall a more complicated man, whose greatness never came easy and who almost lost it all more times than many fans realize.
There was the aneurysm that nearly ended his career in 1996, discovered in an artery in his right armpit after he complained of tingling and pain in his fingers. The condition, which Cone says one doctor predicted would lead to him losing several fingers if he continued pitching, would have been discovered sooner, but the Yankees failed to give him a pre-season physical.
“I think the organization wanted to get me signed, sealed and delivered, and the physical was never scheduled,” Cone writes. Though he admits in hindsight the oversight was shocking, he avoided getting into a “pissing match with [George] Steinbrenner or the Yankees about what did or didn’t happen with my treatment. I was desperate to defend the Yankees because I wanted to pitch.”
Some of the most inspiring stories about Cone didn’t happen on the field but behind the scenes. His relationship with David Wells, another Yankees pitching legend who beat Cone to a perfect game by a year, was more intimate and brotherly than what they shared with the outside world.
They could be combative. After a 1997 game in Miami, in which Wells got himself ejected after clashing with an umpire, Cone confronted him in the locker room.
“You just hung us out to dry,” he claims that he told his teammate. “Now we have to clear out our whole bullpen to cover for you. You just quit on us.”
As Wells spit out profanities and moved toward him, Cone “stuck out my right fist and ended up punching him in the mouth.” It didn’t escalate beyond that, which Cone admits was lucky for him, as Wells had at least 50 pounds on him.
The pair also developed a close-knit bond. Because of Wells’ clashes with manager Joe Torre, Cone offered to babysit the pitcher and “keep him out of jail.” During Yankees road trips in 1998, Wells and Cone stayed in separate hotels from the rest of the team and traveled on their own schedules. What exactly went down in their private suites remains off the record, but Cone admits there was a revolving guests list of “musicians, actors and roadies chilling in our club for two.”
“Cone and Wells were, in many ways, cut from the same cloth,” Curry told The Post. “They were both rebellious and wanted to do things their own way. But it’s kind of stunning that they kept this a secret for so long. MLB front offices usually want to know where their million-dollar players are staying.”
Cone pushed his teammates to be “gentlemanly bullies” — he admits that before games, he “wanted our players to be angry, and I wanted to create some hate and adrenaline” — but also was fiercely protective of them. After a devastating loss to the Indians to finish the 1997 campaign, he invited teammates to join him at a bar in the West Village to “commiserate about the end of our season.”
Photos were taken, “silly pictures of us guzzling a few drinks,” he says, and the images landed on the front page of The Post, under the headline “Yankee Panky.” Cone admits “it looked bad. We had just experienced a crushing defeat, and the pictures made it seem as if we didn’t care and that we were a bunch of party animals.”
Cone received a call from an irate Steinbrenner demanding answers. “I told George … that I deserved the blame for what happened, no one else,” Cone remembers.
“His willingness to take accountability and not throw anyone under the bus, that made an impression on George,” Curry says.
Steinbrenner already had a fondness for Cone. He dubbed the pitcher “Mr. Yankee” after Cone had won just nine games for the team. And according to Cone, while he was still considering whether to sign with the Mets or the Yankees in the mid-90s, the owner called him from a pay phone outside a hospital in Tampa, Fla., after having eye surgery to offer Cone a three-year, $19.5 million deal with a no-trade clause.
After years of high expectations and tense exchanges, the two men developed a “positive and very playful” connection (Cone’s words) that few other Yankees had with the notoriously demanding owner. Cone even found ways to prank The Boss, something that nobody else in the Yankees organization dared to attempt.
“When we played the Mets in the 2000 World Series, there were thick broadcast cables running around the outside of our clubhouse,” Cone writes. “Pointing at the abundance of cables, I told George I had never seen anything like that around any major league clubhouses.”
“I think the Mets are bugging us,” he told Steinbrenner. “I think they’re using these wires and probably stealing our signs.”
Steinbrenner took the bait and investigated the suspicious bundle of cables. Just as he was prepared to complain to MLB officials, he stopped and glared at Cone. “Are you messing with me?” he asked. “You’d better not be messing with me.”
Cone confessed to his joke. And Steinbrenner, in rare form, found the humor in being pranked.
Cone’s most complicated relationship was with his own pitches.
“He had a fascination and obsession with pitching,” Curry says. “There is nobody who thinks about pitching as much as David Cone. Every game he played, he was always thinking two, three, four batters ahead.”
Cone describes his slider technique as a compensation for his own shortcomings. Because his hands are smaller than most major league pitchers, he didn’t have the same power in his middle finger to spin a pitch out of his hands. Instead, he used both his index and middle fingers to generate the spin, which “gave me a little extra tug on the pitch,” he writes. “I could guide it a little better.”
But the slider that would become mythological among Yankees fans, the pitch Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg once claimed was almost impossible to gauge, was a source of constant self-doubt for Cone. He lived in fear of “that loud, horrendous sound of a bat crushing a pitch, my pitch.”
That fear increasingly became a reality in 2000, when his talents began to waver. That season, his final with the Yankees, was the worst of his career, and he knew it was time to hang up his pinstripes. But he joined the team for one more World Series win that year.
He faced a single batter in the series, the Mets’ Mike Piazza during Game 4. Cone wasn’t sure he was up to the task, but he closed his eyes and said, “OK, here goes nothing.” He threw a fastball that Piazza popped up to second, an easy out.
“That was a huge out for the team,” Cone writes of his final pitch for the Yankees. “But it was a really big moment for me, too.”
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