Cone always at his best at Stadium
Perfect-game author was dominant at both New York ballparks
NEW YORK -- The final seasons of Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium have been bittersweet for fans of both teams. Yankee Stadium, of course, has been the site of some of the most memorable events in sports over the past 85 years. Though not as revered, Shea holds a special resonance for Mets fans as the stage for the 1969 and 1986 World Series championships.
Yet if there is anyone in New York who will miss both structures dearly, it will be David Cone. With the possible exception of Yogi Berra, who managed both franchises to pennants, no one in New York baseball -- and certainly no player, not even Dwight Gooden or Darryl Strawberry -- has as strong an identification with both ballparks as Cone.
For Cone, a native of Kansas City, New York became his adopted home, on both sides of the Triborough Bridge. He had anticipated being in the rotation of his hometown Royals when he was traded in the spring of 1987 to the then-pitching-rich Mets and had no idea that first morning at Huggins-Stengel Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., that the deal would turn out as fortuitous as it eventually did.
"I remember looking around that clubhouse and seeing the names on the stalls of Gooden, [Ron] Darling, [Rick] Aguilera, [Sid] Fernandez and [Bobby] Ojeda and wondering where I fit in," Cone said recently. "I was promised a spot in the Royals rotation; now it looked like I'd be back in Triple-A."
But Gooden's two-month suspension for cocaine abuse and an injury to reliever Roger McDowell opened the gate for Cone, who would find New York very much to his liking. He established himself as one of the top starting pitchers in the Majors, and by the mid-1990s, his travels from team to team as a self-styled "hired gun" for postseason runs would land him in the Bronx, where he found Yankee Stadium as comfortable a fit for him as Shea had been.
The numbers bear this out, in bold. Cone's winning percentage in the two parks combined was .645, based on 78 victories and 43 losses, with a 3.16 ERA. Amazingly, he held opponents in games he pitched at both yards to the same batting average: .225.
In 87 games (82 starts) at Shea, Cone compiled a 42-23 record (.646) with a 3.01 ERA, 18 complete games and eight shutouts. During his rise to prominence with the Mets, fans in the upper deck at Shea took to wearing "Conehead" caps from the "Saturday Night Live" skits.
Cone's Yankee Stadium record includes games that he pitched there while with Kansas City, Toronto and Boston. After coming to the Yankees, Cone won 33 of his first 41 home decisions and had a 35-17 career mark with the Bombers at the Stadium.
"It has been amazing," he once said of his success in New York after a victory at Yankee Stadium in 1999. "It seems like whenever you get in trouble, the crowd is there to pick you up. You can't help but get a boost from that. You get to two strikes, and people stand up. The crowd gets into pitching here. In most places, people respond to home runs and hitting, but in New York, they really have an appreciation for what the pitcher is doing."
At Yankee Stadium in 79 games (78 starts), he was 36-20 (.643) with a 3.32 ERA, five complete games and one shutout, and what a shutout that was.
Cone delivered one of the greatest pitching feats in the park's history with a perfect game in 1999 that, due to the circumstances, is almost eerie to contemplate but no less memorable.
After all, that steamy July 18 afternoon was Yogi Berra Day, marking the Hall of Famer's return to the park after a self-imposed, 14-year exile caused by resentment of principal owner George Steinbrenner having dismissed him as manager in 1985 merely 16 games into the season. The former player who threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Berra before the Interleague game against the Expos was none other than Don Larsen, who had fashioned a perfecto in 1956 that remains the only no-hitter in World Series play.
"A perfect game on Yogi Berra Day with Don Larsen throwing out the first pitch? Come on, now what are the odds on that?" Cone said. "You probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than this happening, but what an honor. It makes you stop and think about the Yankees magic and the mystique of this ballpark."
The closest Cone had been to a perfect game was 15 months earlier (May 17, 1998), when his former teammate and night-riding partner, David Wells, got 27 outs without a baserunner against the Minnesota Twins at the Stadium. Cone sat motionless in the corner of the dugout that day with a towel tied over his cap and down his collar so as not to jinx Boomer's quest.
Wells was in Toronto with the Blue Jays when he learned of Cone's feat, and he arranged to fly to New York for some late-night celebrating.
Cone's 88-pitch gem did not include a three-ball count on a single hitter in manager Felipe Alou's lineup, none of whom had ever faced Cone in a regular-season game. Cone was hotter than the 98-degree temperature, and he proved that he had lost none of his stuff after a 33-minute rain delay earlier in the game. After retiring shortstop Orlando Cabrera on a popup to third baseman Scott Brosius, Cone fell to his knees between the mound and the plate, raised his arms to his head and embraced catcher Joe Girardi, now the Yankees manager.
"I had wondered if I would ever get the chance again," said Cone, who had pitched seven no-hit innings in Oakland in September 1996 but was removed from the game because it was his first start after coming back from surgery to remove an aneurysm in his right arm.
"Going into the latter innings, that was running through my mind, about how many times I had been close and how this might be the last chance I get. My heart was pumping. I could feel it through my uniform."
It was a feeling that Cone, now 45 and an analyst on Yankees games for the YES Network, experienced often while pitching in New York. His love for Yankee Stadium was expressed on Opening Day in 2002. Then without a baseball job, he took in the game from a seat in the right-field bleachers with his old "Conehead" supporters.
"I always wanted to watch a game from out here," he said at the time. "These guys are the real fans. It was my way of saying 'thank you' to them. If you want to see a Yankees game, this is where to see it."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.