This is an article that was originally published on HardRockSports.com.
HardRock Sports columnist Scott A. Ham looks at an incredible day in Yankee history and explains why David Cone truly is perfect.
When the New York Yankees marched into the playoffs via the wild card spot in 1995, they did so with a purpose: to get Don Mattingly a ring. They had the components of a decent team but hadn’t been to the playoffs in thirteen years. The Seattle Mariners, a team that had played them tough all season and featured the toughest pitcher in baseball, Randy Johnson, stood in their way. The Yankees rotation was nothing special, Jack McDowell knocked down 15 wins, another 12 from Andy Pettitte. But the team was desperate and needed an ace, so they picked up David Cone, the former Met, from the Royals at the trading deadline.
It was a hard-fought battle. Both Johnson and Cone came out of the bullpen and pitched on their days off to try and wrangle the series away, but in the bottom of the ninth of game five, Edgar Martinez drove a ball into the left field gap that scored Ken Griffey Jr. from first and won the series for the Mariners. It was an incredible five games and branded an exciting inauguration to the Division Series.
It also marked the end of Don Mattingly’s career. After spending the season mulling over retirement, Mattingly finally decided to hang it up. Yankee fans everywhere watched the heart and soul of the pinstripes over the last decade walk off, content that he performed well in his only post season, but broken-hearted that it ended so quick.
The departure left the Yanks confused. All this time, Mattingly had been the guy who formed the inspiration for the club and now he was gone. Buck Showalter had departed to manage a team that didn’t even exist yet, and some broadcaster/former player named Joe Torre was taking his place. Players were coming and going during the off-season like the men’s room behind section 3. It was mayhem.
That winter, George Steinbrenner had a decision to make. He had lured Cone back to New York by giving up a few prospects, as George was known to do, but what did he have to do to keep him there? George dangled a no-trade clause in front of Coney’s nose, leaving David the possibility of finishing his career in New York and retiring from the pitcher-for-hire position he had unwittingly adopted for the last three years. Cone accepted and returned to the stage that he loved so much in his six years of pitching at Shea.
He also brought with him an attitude, aggressiveness, and a talent that the Yankees so desperately needed. Cone had already proved he was a fighter, throwing in the Division Series against the Mariners until his arm was about to fall off. Dejectedly, he placed some of the burden for that loss on himself when everyone knew he did more than could be expected.
He started the ’96 season 3 – 1 with a 2.61 ERA and became the rock of the clubhouse. Everyone knew when Coney took the mound, you would get everything he had. Then, on May 3rd, tragedy struck as an aneurysm of two arteries in his pitching arm put him on the 60-day DL and his career in jeopardy. Coney returned from the surgery in September, much earlier than anyone expected, and threw 7 innings of no-hit ball against the Oakland Athletics. He begged Torre to leave him in the game, but Torre had him on a strict pitch count. History would have to wait for another time.
The Yanks won the East and made their way to the World Series. The Braves pounded the Yanks at the Stadium the first two games, leaving Atlanta a 2 – 0 with the Series turning to Fulton County Stadium. Cone took the mound in game 3, the most crucial game of the Series for the Yanks and walked away with a victory, giving up one run in 6 innings, pitching out of constant threats and securing the Yankees a chance in the Series. The Yanks won the next three and hoisted their 23rd World Championship banner.
Cone went on to have a good ’97 season, posting a 2.82 ERA with 12 wins and 6 losses, but arm surgery awaited him again, this time in the off-season. The question marks began to rise as people wondered how much was left in David Cone’s arm. Two surgeries in three years were certainly enough to sink any pitcher.
Almost any pitcher. Cone went out in ’98 and posted a 3.55 ERA and won 20 games ten years after he first did it with the Mets. He was the cornerstone of a pitching staff that led the ‘98 Yankees to 114 regular season wins and another 11 in the post-season. He held the Padres to 2 earned runs in 6 innings to lead the Yankees to a 5 – 4 victory in game 3, paving the way for a World Series sweep and the Yankees 24th World Championship.
Again in the off-season, the questions were asked. Cone was good in ’97 but some people thought he was helped by a tremendous offense that lead the league in runs scored. Cone was tempted by free agency to see what he was worth on the free market, but ultimately decided to stay with the team he wanted to be with.
Cone has quieted the skeptics once again. In ’99, Cone is 10 – 4 with a 2.65 ERA. He has been the best pitcher in the American League, second only to Pedro Martinez, and has again solidified himself as the rock of the rotation. His demeanor on and off the field has made him the most respected player in the clubhouse, oftentimes working as the spokesman for the team. When David Wells was traded to Toronto, David Cone was the lone player to see him off as he left. His distress over Daryl Strawberry’s arrest last April and doubts over whether he had helped his friend during the tough times spoke volumes on how devoted a man David Cone is. In his times of absence, the Yankees seemed almost sluggish, often talking about when he would finally be returning. On his arrival, the team played as if new life had been breathed into them. If Reggie Jackson was the “straw that stirs the drink,” David Cone is the cup.
On Sunday, July 18th, in front of 42,000 people and countless Yankee greats who came out to honor Yogi Berra and the end of his fourteen-year feud with George Steinbrenner, David Cone threw a perfect game.
The timing for this incredible feat, only the sixteenth in baseball history, could not have been any better. The day started with a dozen former Yankees and players, out to present gifts and memories to the cherished catcher. Amongst the former players was Don Larsen, a pitcher who, in 1956, threw a perfect game in the World Series with Berra behind the plate. It had stood for forty-one years as the only perfect game in Yankee history before David Wells’ masterpiece last season. The game then started with Larsen recreating his 1956 performance, throwing out the first pitch to Berra, who happened to be wearing catcher Joe Girardi’s glove.
Call it magic, fairy dust, Yankee aura, or simply the stuff of legends, but the cute recreation of that fateful day turned into the afternoon of David Cone’s life. He went on to completely dominate the Expos lineup, never allowing a batter more than two balls, striking out 10, and enduring a 33 minute rain delay.
When the ninth inning finally came, the drama was unbearable. Cone quickly made work of Chris Widger, striking him out swinging. Ryan Mcguire pinch-hit for Shane Andrews and popped a short fly to left that Ricky Ledee almost lost in the sun, but caught at the last moment.
And then, Orlando Cabrera popped a weak fly ball to the foul side of the third baseline. Cone pointed to the sky, targeting the fly ball that was already captivating 42,000 people. As the dugout began to empty, Derek Jeter leapt up and down in his approach to the mound. Scott Brosius positioned himself under the ball, waited to hear it hit the glove, then squeezed, his arms raising in the air. Cone fell to the ground, his hands raised to his head in disbelief as Girardi landed in front of him, grabbing him and pulling him to the ground as the Yankees mobbed their leader. For nine innings on a sweltering day in Yankee Stadium, 8 guys went onto the field and gutted one out for their leader, the man that so often gave more of himself than was actually there.
Up in the owner’s box, Don Larsen applauded the scene, the mound of players all too familiar to him. When asked what passed through his mind as the game ended, Larsen responded, " I was just thinking about my day. I’m sure David will think about this every day of his life." Somewhere in the clubhouse, Yogi was heard to say “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Indeed. Perfection is hard to forget.