In Kansas City they make a top-notch steak and some fine barbecue. And first-rate music if you go for jazz. And maybe a decent sportswriter or two—they make that. Or used to. Wasn't it Hemingway who had a start there, long, long time ago? But hot young baseball talent...they just don't make much. And, no sir, they never have.
When David Cone was a kid living in a blue-collar neighborhood on the northeast side of Kansas City, he never imagined he would grow up to be the best-paid pitcher the game has ever known. He told people he wanted to be a scribe, like Oscar Madison, the irascible slob in The Odd Couple. Have a beat and lots of dizzy dames. Have an apartment and keep it ear-deep in filth. Have a drink and a smoke before getting out of bed in the morning. Have whatever, since Oscar Madison didn't seem to give a hoot.
Have a ball, in other words.
When Cone finally gets around to writing his life story, as he plans to do one day, he'll have to start with a chapter called "Defining Moments" and include therein a mention of how the Kansas City Royals, desperate to improve on a lousy 1992 season, gave him a three-year, $18 million contract to bring his big right arm back to town. He might want to describe what it felt like to hear team owner Ewing M. Kauffman offer him a $9 million signing bonus and to suddenly be able to buy entire towns in the Midwest.
April 4, 1993
It wasn't about the money, he might begin this section. O.K., maybe it was about the money, but K.C. was my kind of town and always would be....
"What I mean by defining moments." somebody's telling Cone now, "are times that shed light on who you are, that help to make sense of how you turned out the way you did."
As if anyone in creation could ever hope to explain that. And, besides, it's much too early in the morning, about 8:30, and no one has had coffee yet, and Cone was up past one last night reading a book by Brandon Tartikoff, the former programming chief of NBC, of all people.
Each winter the Royals send players out on a publicity junket called the Goodwill Caravan. A few days ago Cone went to Nebraska; today he's visiting Kansas; day after tomorrow it'll be Missouri. This morning first baseman Wally Joyner is traveling with him. Joyner's in the front seat of the car, idly chatting with the Royals' p.r. boss, and Cone's stuck in the too-warm back, mumbling the words defining and moments over and over.
Well, O.K. There was that time with the New York Mets in May 1990 when he got into a jawing contest with an umpire and let two Atlanta Brave base runners score. That's something he'll have to put in his book. It helped define him, after all: his often hard-to-hold temper, his pugnacious nature, his tunnel vision. It'll be up to Cone to describe the moment, since he's a pretty fair hand with language.
A white-hot fury brought a blush of color to my cheeks as I wailed against this most unexpected and untimely injustice....
And then there will be a riff about the time he and Met manager Bud Harrelson went at it in the dugout after Cone shook off a pitchout call from the bench. Cone, come to think about it, might need a whole chapter to explain his behavior, since it has mystified so many for so long—how one minute he can seem a precious cherub and the next a woolly, screaming beast: "You put your hands on me, Bud, it's no longer manager to player! It's man to man! Man to man, d'ya hear!"
He'll also want to mention his trade from the Mets to the Blue Jays late last summer since as a hired gun he went 4-3 (on the way to his third major league strikeout crown) and helped Toronto win the World Series. He didn't earn a victory against Atlanta in the Series, but the Blue Jays won both games he started.
And if he really wants to move some books, he'll be compelled to deal with his off-the-field problems. He might even stick in a headline from the tabloids, such as the one that ran on the front of the New York Post last March. New bombshell rocks Mets as woman says pitcher David Cone performed...WEIRD SEX ACT IN BULLPEN. Potentially the stuff of great literature, as even he has argued: to be lampooned as the second coming of Pee-wee Herman while you're trying to be the second coming of, say, Nolan Ryan.
Anyway, defining moments are what he's contemplating this morning. And he seems to be having a hard time lassoing them in. Oh, yeah. All right. Don't forget about the time in 1988 when Los Angeles Dodger first baseman Pedro Guerrero sent a bat helicoptering over Cone's head and then charged the mound. Don't forget how Cone, then in only his first full season in the majors, didn't back off an inch. It says a lot, that moment. It says: combative, combustible, crazy.
It also says: But why on earth, Conie?
"Here's one you wouldn't know about," Cone is saying now. "I've never really talked about this before." And he launches into a story about how his father shot the neighbor—that's right, the neighbor from the apartment building next door!
"He shot him?" Cone is asked.
At the time Ed Cone has four children and a wife named Joan, and he works the graveyard shift at the Swift meat-processing plant in Kansas City—a mechanic, Ed is—and they're living in a neighborhood two quarters Italian, one quarter Irish and one quarter everything else. There's a park across the street from the Cone house, and one night David's big brother Danny gets into a fight there with the neighbor. To begin, the thing's mostly cussing back and forth, but it quickly graduates to pushing and shoving, and before you know it, Danny and the neighbor have moved near the Cones' front porch, and the whole household is up, everybody throwing robes on, yammering "What the...? What the...?"
The neighbor goes about 6'4", 250, but Danny, who's a skinny 6'1", 175, is undeterred. He lets loose a hard right jab and drops the man. The blow prompts Joan to jump on Danny's back and wrestle him to safety, and Joan in turn finds the neighbor's girlfriend jumping on her back and trying to wrestle her to who-can-say.
The parties finally break apart and retreat to their respective domiciles, but in minutes the neighbor returns, screaming and slamming his fists against the Cones' house. "I'm going to kill you!" he's shouting. "Going to kill you all!" He's also holding something shiny—something that, to David's eyes, looks like a small-caliber pistol. The Cone family has gone to perch in rooms at the top of the stairway. And from there they hear the awful crashing of the glass door in front, the man's hysterical laughter, his voice even louder now: "I'm going to kill you...going to kill!"
Then comes the sound of Ed ordering everybody back. "——gun," he's muttering. "——gun!" Ed's now brandishing a .22-caliber rifle, and it's jammed, and David, who's just a kid of 14 and can't possibly envision the great, blistering adventure of a life waiting for him, is thinking: We're going to die tonight. All of us. The neighbor's going to break in. And we're going to die.
Turns out it's only a knife the man's holding, and he's still at the front door when Ed's gun finally fires, a single pop that seems to suck the air from the house.
The man leaves a trail of blood as he runs limping home; then in minutes an ambulance comes and takes him away. He doesn't die, thank god, and eventually he and Ed, through a third party, reach an agreement: The Cones won't press charges if the man doesn't bother Danny again. And everything will be forgotten.
Everything will be forgotten until this cold winter day half a lifetime later, when David Brian Cone, now 30 and arguably the best pitcher in baseball, comes to think of it as the one moment that defines him better than any other. He's staring out the window at snowy fields rushing past, at little country houses with chimneys emitting thin ribbons of smoke.
"And what does it tell you about yourself?" he's asked. "That a man's got to protect his own, no matter what? That he backs down from nothing and no one? That he does whatever it takes?"
"Right," he says, still watching the fields. "All of that. Plus, don't be bullied by anybody." He gives his head a long, lazy shake. "The worst thing you could be called in this world is someone who didn't stand up for his family."
David Cone belongs in any time but this one, as he would be the first to tell you. In 1993 not even a strikeout king gets away with much. He should've played the game back in Babe Ruth's day, when teams rode the train and sportswriters stuck to stats and fancy adjectives and looked the other way when you screwed up. The old St. Louis Cardinals, the Gashouse Gang, he could've been one of them. Or a teammate of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. Or anybody else who sharpened his spikes and cussed fate and just raised a whole fantastic lot of hell. "I'd give up all the money I make to go back to a certain era," Cone says. "Back to when the I guys were gods. I'd give it up for the glory the players got way back when."
Any number of pop psychologists, disguised as reporters, have tried to make sense of Cone ever since he found himself in trouble at the 1988 National League Championship Series between the Mets and the Dodgers. That was when the New York Daily News fulfilled Cone's dream of being Oscar Madison and gave him a column.
Dodger starter Orel Hershiser, then in his prime, is "lucky," Cone wrote after Game 1. And reliever Jay Howell? "This is the Dodgers' idea of a stopper? Seeing Howell and his curveball reminded us of a high school pitcher."
Cone needed some creative editing, was all. Or a better ghostwriter. After apologizing to Howell, he came up with this explanation: "Remember the time someone said the way Bo Jackson plays football, it appears he's playing with boys? Well, I mean Jay had a great curveball. And, as I remember, in high school a guy with a great curve can blow hitters away."
He gave up the column after that. You can't be the art and the artist at once. God gives you either the fastball or the words to describe it, that way everybody has something to do.
"A complete psychological overhaul is not the answer," Cone told a reporter last year when asked about his propensity for self-destructive behavior. But what he should've done was call a press conference and come clean about the Cone blood. He should've put it all on Edwin, his late grandfather.
Some people heard "Cone" and figured it was Jewish, a bastardization of "Cohen," but what it was, was Irish, from "McCone," the prefix having been lost some generations back. Old Edwin, don't you know, had possessed a spirit as wild and restless as David's—and one so big that people wondered how a single body could contain it. Back in the 1940s he ran a string of B-grade hotels in Kansas City, and he ran the streets, too. Whenever Edwin went on a binge, his wife, Cleo, would rustle up his checkbook and enjoy a little shopping spree, often dropping thousands of dollars. There was a price to pay for everything, even back then.
That same blood regenerated in Edwin's son, Ed, who grew into an accomplished street fighter with, some said, the quickest hands in all of Kansas City. You just didn't get up once Ed Cone connected with his patented right cross.
Ed was David's first coach, going back to Little League. He was a quiet man who preached independence and didn't much believe in public displays of affection, but people from the old neighborhood still remember the epic shouting matches he and David had. "When they hit the breaking point," recalls Steve Doherty, David's lifelong friend, "you'd better take cover." But what people also knew was that they really were devoted to each other, even when they were arguing.
"David, go home," Ed said to end one fight at the Little League field. And David, kicking dirt and spitting, beating his cap against his leg, did as he was told.
He was just a child of seven or eight, but already an essential weirdness had been revealed: This boy didn't much mind toeing up to the edge of calamity, and he didn't much mind leaping over it, either.
A couple of things finally slowed Ed Cone down. One was being a father and having to answer to all that that meant. Two was rheumatoid arthritis. Ed reported to the meat plant at around two each morning, bundled up in insulated clothes and boots, and stepped into huge coolers where the temperature never passed 50°. By the time he got home at noon he was exhausted and stinging with pain. David was the youngest of Ed's four, but he was the one who was always trying to figure a way to get Ed out of the plant. Maybe the big money of pro ball was the answer.
But which sport to go after? That was a serious question in David's case. At Rockhurst High, an all-boys Jesuit school, he quarterbacked the football team to the district championship and was the star of the basketball team. He played point guard and was a pure, beautiful shooter who took guff from nobody.
In one game David was struggling to make things happen. The fellow who was covering him stripped the ball away, and the officials called a foul. The kid threw the ball against David's chest, and David picked it up and slammed it right back in the kid's face. Suddenly the gym turned into a bucket of blood, the crowd going wild, whistles screaming. But David didn't back down. He was a Cone, by gosh, and when you're a Cone...well, just ask that old neighbor if you want to know what that means.
Rockhurst didn't field a baseball team, so David played summer ball in something called the Ban Johnson League. At 15 he was throwing against competition as ancient as 21 and holding his own. The next year he reported to an invitation-only tryout at Royals Stadium and an open tryout for the Cardinals. "Just want to see where I stand," he told anyone who asked. His old man was still telling him that he could be the next Ted Williams, the way he stroked the ball, but David's arm was more impressive than his bat. By the time he was 17 he was being clocked at 88 mph and being whispered about among scouts as the real thing.
Even then he had amazing stuff. David's hands were small, and so he gripped the ball a little differently from most everyone else, with his index finger at a two-o'clock angle to the right and his thumb at about 10. His fastball, as a result, had an unusual rotation and a natural cut to the left that befuddled hitters.
By then several colleges were recruiting him to play both baseball and football. The University of Missouri, just down the road a piece, went so far as to ask Ewing Kauffman to write David a letter on its behalf. David must have received 200 similar pieces of correspondence during his senior year, but the Kansas City billionaire's was the only one he answered. "He sat down and wrote Mr. K a letter," Ed recalls. "He thanked him for his interest and mentioned that he hoped to be a professional baseball player one day."
Cone enrolled at Mizzou, but the Royals selected him in the third round of the June 1981 free-agent draft, and he signed for $17,500. That was little more than half of what most kids in his position were getting, but Cone knew nothing about leverage or bargaining, and he worried that if he didn't accept right away the Royals would withdraw their offer. He was 18, and damn if he didn't feel rich.
"One day he's this crazy kid sitting next to you on the bus," says Jerry Rauschelbach, one of his old teammates, "and the next he's on his way to the Big Time."
The Big Time. Cone played rookie ball and went 6-4. The next year, in A ball, he went 16-3 and had a 2.08 ERA, but in a March 1983 exhibition game he tore some cartilage in his left knee colliding at home plate with a runner trying to score from third. Surgery and extensive rehab followed, as did a job in Kansas City with a company that produced conveyor belts.
Cone spent four months with a razor knife in hand, cutting strips of rubber and gluing them together and fantasizing about his return to the game. His hands were a grid of nicks and cuts; as soon as one healed, he would slit open another. But that year out of baseball proved to be a turning point: "Conie, you either make it happen, or this is the life in store for you," he told himself repeatedly.
True, he was getting pretty smart about the future, but he was still incredibly dumb about the present, particularly when it came to money. He started receiving letters from the Internal Revenue Service saying he owed back taxes. Instead of doing something about it, he filed the letters away as if they'd been mailed to him by mistake. By 1985 he'd worked his way up to Triple A and was in line to make almost $20,000 a year—a fortune, in his mind. His first paycheck, he figured, was going to be about $1,200, but when it finally arrived, the balance showed only $83. The IRS had garnisheed the rest.
The Big Time didn't happen until June 1986, when Cone pitched an inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Royals Stadium. He played in four games before being sent back down to Omaha, only to be recalled by the Royals about two months later and allowed to finish out the season. He was a hometown boy, and the fans loved him, and he loved them right back. Everybody knew he was the sort of person who didn't forget where he came from—a characteristic that, to some, seemed nearly as important as his ability to come with the heat. He was the same kid who still called his grandmother Ha Ho, having had a hard time saying her name, Cleo, when he was a child. A kid who had tracked down Handsome Harley Race, the wrestler, in a hospital one day for an autograph. And a kid who, going back to when he was in grade school, had listened religiously to Royal games on the radio.
But in March 1987 the Royals dealt Cone and another player to the Mets for two undistinguished pitchers and a promising catcher named Ed Hearn. "The worst trade we ever made," Kauffman would call it.
Hearn, according to Royal general manager Herk Robinson, seemed the one piece of the puzzle Kansas City needed to win its division, but he reported hurt and just never panned out. Cone, on the other hand, turned into a world-beater in less than two seasons, going 20-3 in 1988 and finishing third in the Cy Young Award voting behind Hershiser and the Cincinnati Reds' Danny Jackson.
This is a fact: When you're young and your star shines bright in the firmament, it's easy to love a rat hole like New York. Though at first devastated by the trade, Cone learned to love his new home, his new city. He went to fancy Broadway shows and even fancier art galleries. He picked the paper up in the morning, and people like Dwight Gooden were singing his praises, calling his stuff "nasty, nasty." Fans referred to him as "Dave" and "Conie," and some reported to Shea Stadium wearing Coneheads, a show of admiration if ever there was one.
He had an apartment away from the bright lights, in Queens, and he renewed the lease after the 1988 season even though he had no plans to reside there again. He'd won 20 games while living there, and he figured something about the place must've contributed to his great good luck. Not that he was superstitious. He just wanted to be careful.
Heading into the 1989 season Cone commanded a salary of $332,500, a not-so-kingly sum for someone who'd dominated as he had the year before. Players had once been eligible for arbitration after only their second year in the majors, but the rule had been changed in 1985, before Cone reached that milepost. Other pitchers, such as Hershiser, had negotiated million-dollar contracts after two seasons, but Cone wouldn't be a candidate for that kind of money until after he'd completed his third. He felt as if he were being screwed out of $700,000, and it burned him mainly because he knew that his old man was the real loser. David wanted Ed to retire from the meat plant, and the extra money would've been enough for David to make that happen.
Cone won 14 games in 1989 and went to arbitration after the season. Steve Fehr, the Kansas City lawyer who represents Cone, submitted a figure of $1.3 million, but the Mets wanted to pay about $500,000 less. The arbitrator ruled in Cone's favor, and the newly minted millionaire flew home and had his long-anticipated sit-down with his father.
"We've got to get you out of the plant," David began. "Maybe we can think of a small business for you, but we've got to get you out." Ed was reluctant to throw such a burden on his youngest, but finally David said, "Look, we'll make it work, O.K.?" David said they could buy a Jiffy Lube franchise or maybe open a Hallmark gift shop somewhere.
Ed was quiet for a moment, then said, "O.K., I'll stop."
The next year, 1990, Cone won another 14 games and led the majors in strikeouts with 233, one more than Nolan Ryan. His salary for 1991 jumped to $2.35 million, and he bought a condo in Florida and moved his parents there. As defining moments went, David figured this one came in second only to the one involving his old man and the neighbor. In a way, his and Ed's roles had been reversed, the chain had gone full circle, the snake had swallowed its tail. This was who David was now: the provider, the protector. He also gave to his brothers, Danny and Chris, and to his sister, Christal. Back when they were in school, Christal had gone half an hour out of her way each morning to drive David to Rockhurst, so, as a symbolic nod her way, he bought her a pretty, new car.
He was living in Manhattan now, not far from the United Nations, and his girlfriend had moved in with him. Her name was Lynn DiGioia, and she was a New Englander who worked as an interior designer. Lynn was everything David wasn't. She was urbane and sophisticated, a "real whirlwind," he liked to say. They'd met several years before when he was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. There she was on the beach one day, a vision in the sun and sand. "Lynn's so classy she brings me up a notch," he was often heard to say. "But then, I take her down one."
"That's true," she would reply, meaning it.
When it came to women, Cone might not have been a virgin, but he was the closest thing: a rookie. In high school he'd dated only two girls, and one had left him because he lacked sexual experience. Maybe the problems he would have later on stemmed from the old-school Catholicism that the Jesuits at Rockhurst had instilled in him. To their way of thinking, he joked, if you just thought about girls it was a sin. You didn't even have to do anything, and you were going straight to hell.
In September 1991 three women filed an $8.1 million lawsuit against Cone and the Mets, alleging that Cone had approached them one day that August at Shea and threatened to kill them. One of the women had had a relationship with New York pitcher Sid Fernandez, occasionally traveling with him to away games.
Cone readily admitted to having confronted the women one afternoon between games of a doubleheader, but he denied making a death threat. He says the women had repeatedly harassed Noelani Fernandez, Sid's wife of a few months, in the stands. And that one day he just blew up and let them have it.
"In a span of 15 seconds," Cone says, "I must've dropped 90,000 F-bombs. I wasn't shouting, but people in that section heard every word I said. I'm not proud of what I did, but it was a farce of a lawsuit, to get publicity." The suit is still languishing in the courts.
Three weeks after the charges were filed the Mets threw a party in Philadelphia to celebrate the end of the season, or maybe just to acknowledge it. They were out of the running for the pennant, and the next day, Oct. 6, they would play the Phillies at Veterans Stadium in their last game of the year. Cone was scheduled to pitch, but he stayed up all night anyway, guzzling beer and chain-smoking, having as wild a time as was lawful.
Drunk, he stumbled into the hotel at 6:30 in the morning and two hours later got a call from Frank Cashen, then the Mets' general manager.
"David," Cashen said, "you need to know you've been accused of rape."
Cashen went on to tell Cone that the police were launching an investigation and that Cone could be arrested at any moment. A New Jersey woman was claiming that Cone had invited her up to his hotel room and forced her to have sex.
Cone spent the entire day in a fog, but he was determined to play against the Phillies. On the mound that afternoon he kept looking in the stands for the police. He checked the tunnel that led to the field, anticipating the sight of burly silhouettes packing weapons. Between hitters he closed his eyes and saw men in blue marching out to handcuff him and read him his rights. Mr. Cone? Mr. David Cone? I'm afraid you're under arrest! He imagined the crowd applauding as he was led off to 20 years of hard time. But he also found that in this moment of trial, he was pitching better than ever. "If anything, it made me stronger," he says. "It gave me a cause. Either fold or get mentally strong, that's how I was thinking. I chose to get strong."
Rushed onward by adrenaline and some fierce emotion he couldn't define, he accumulated one strikeout after another, eventually amassing 19 and tying the National League record held by Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton. The Mets won 7-0 as Cone allowed but three hits and one walk.
"Be brave," Ha Ho told him when he called her after the game. Within 72 hours the police had determined that the woman's claims were "unfounded" and dropped the probe. But the New York tabloids were descending on Cone, and he hid in his apartment for three days, afraid to venture outside.
Lynn had a hard time understanding what was happening to them. David was innocent, she knew that, but the public humiliation was almost too much for her to bear. "Why don't we spend some time apart?" she suggested. And with little hesitation he agreed. This was the woman, after all, who'd always taken him up a notch, and god knows how many notches he was pulling her down now.
By Christmas, though, they'd managed to patch things up and get back together. Then, in February 1992, David left for spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Lynn for a wedding in California. Upon her return to the city she started planning a trip south to meet him, but he called one night and told her to cancel her reservations. "You can't come down now," he said. "And I can't tell you why."
The next morning Lynn read in the paper that Cone's "girlfriend" was alleging that she had been raped by three Met players. Lynn was devastated, and people started asking her if she was the one who was claiming to have been assaulted.
The complaint named Gooden, Daryl Boston and Vince Coleman and involved an incident in Port St. Lucie on March 30, 1991. Lynn's family and friends were confused, but no more so than she. If she wasn't the "girlfriend" of Cone's who'd brought the charges, then who was?
As Cone would later tell police, he had been involved with the accuser, but she wasn't his girlfriend. He'd met her the previous year at the ballpark where the Mets train. She and one of her friends had been in the stands, and he had asked them out for a drink after the game. A few hours later they'd gone home with him. "We get back to my house," Cone says, "and [the accuser's] friend strips down buck naked and gets in the pool behind the house. I jump in the pool too. And later on we all go into the bedroom."
He and the accuser had seen each other two more times after that—once with her friend and once without—but that, Cone said, was the extent of their relationship. "Your ego runs away from you," he says. "You start thinking, Hey, I've got groupies who want to sleep with me just because of who I am. I got caught up in that."
He was nothing if not stupid, he told people. And it was humiliating to find himself dragged into another rape investigation—even when this one too would soon be dropped by the police.
For two weeks Cone managed to dodge any hard questions reporters asked about the probe, and he was starting to feel he was in the clear when the New York Post unloaded with yet another story alleging sexual improprieties. "Mets pitcher David Cone allegedly masturbated in front of two women in the bullpen of Shea Stadium, according to a lawsuit," read the caption beside his picture on the Post's March 26 front page. And there, inside, was a photograph of the women who'd sued him the previous September for allegedly threatening to kill them, CONE'S PLAYPEN read the headline.
The women told reporters that they were planning to amend their earlier suit to include additional charges, one of them alleging that some three years before, Cone had lured them into the bullpen at Shea on the pretense of giving them an autographed baseball and that they'd found him sitting on a stool with his pants pulled down below his knees and doing, as he would later call it, "the Pee-wee Herman thing."
Cone emphatically denies the incident ever occurred. Besides, he is a starting pitcher, not a reliever, so why on earth would he be hanging around the bullpen? "I'm never in the bullpen," he says. But the damage, coming in the wake of the Port St. Lucie rape case, was impossible to control. Lynn was still in New York—in hell, as it was starting to seem—taking questions that suggested her boyfriend of nearly six years was some kind of sex fiend. "But he's normal," she said. "Believe me, if there was anything abnormal about him, I'd know by now."
In April the Port St. Lucie police released its 400-page investigative file on the rape case, and the papers were quick to publish details about Cone's affair with the accuser. Once again reporters began to stalk him, and strangers sent harassing letters and made obscene phone calls. Everywhere he went people had fun at his expense.
One day at Shea fans pummeled the air with loosely clenched fists, imitating the act described in the lawsuit. Radio shock jocks invited Cone on the air and mercilessly quizzed him about his sex life. One newspaper cartoon showed him flashing a batter; another, appearing to masturbate in the dugout while the manager exhorted him to stop working out and hit the field.
Cone's energies now seemed as focused on self-preservation as on the new season. Someone asked him if he felt like a victim—an odd question, indeed, for a 29-year-old commanding $4.25 million a year. "Well, sometimes, maybe," came the reply. But by then he'd made up his mind that he couldn't win that way. "Don't let it get to you," he kept reminding himself. "Don't let them beat you." And he started to laugh at his detractors, because he knew that doing so would "stick it right back in their faces," as he said later.
He asked one of the cartoonists who'd skewered him to send an autographed copy of the drawing, and he went on Howard Stern's morning radio show and let Stern beat him up for a few minutes. He let another top New York radio personality, Don Imus, do the same. When Imus asked him about his peccadilloes, Cone responded with a big, happy show of laughter. Cone, one prescient sportswriter wrote, just might be "goofy enough" to survive this. And no one knew that better than Cone himself.
"My only haven was the pitching mound, the only place where I could get away from everything and no one could have a hand in what I was doing," he says. "I knew if I had a bad season, it would only magnify the off-the-field drama. But I had a good season, and I was the only Met on the All-Star team last year. It completely reversed the cycle."
By late August, Cone had won 13 games and was on course to become the first pitcher in 40 years to lead the National League in strikeouts for three consecutive seasons. But then, in a trade that shocked New York and Cone, the Mets dealt him to Toronto for infielder Jeff Kent and minor league outfielder Ryan Thompson. Cone was set to become a free agent after the season, and the New York front office doubted its chances of signing him. The market had gone haywire, and the Mets, according to reports, just weren't willing to ante up to keep Cone around. Was the team's management also tired of his off-the-field problems?
Cone didn't exit without taking a few shots at the Mets' front office. "The era of the arrogant Mets is gone," he lamented to reporters. Manager Jeff Torborg didn't want any individuals, Cone said. You couldn't even have a beer on the flight home after a game. Or, if you did, you had to hide it in your overnight bag. Grown men, one of them 37 years old, and they're sneaking sips of beer. What kind of atmosphere was that?
And once again he wondered whether he'd been born at the wrong time. It was 1992 now, and what used to be acceptable behavior had become taboo. You think someone would've told Babe Ruth he couldn't have a beer? Or Ty Cobb? Or Ted Williams? Why, they would've let Teddy Ballgame brew his own beer if he'd felt like it—right on the plane!
Cone rented a two-room suite in Toronto's SkyDome Hotel. The furniture was comfortable, and at least the place felt like a home. He drank plenty of beer there and smoked tobacco too, and when he needed air, he took the freight elevator down and went for a walk in the parking lot or out on the field. He didn't sleep much at night. He'd never known such pressure to pitch well and win. It felt as if a whole country were riding his back: Canada on its way to the World Series. He hadn't done much to help the Blue Jays get to postseason play, and so, he reminded himself daily, he didn't have the right to fail in the playoffs and the Series. He was a hired gun. He'd call Lynn just to hear her voice. It let him know everything would be O.K. He called Ed and Joan down in Florida and then Ha Ho in Kansas City whenever he needed to be reminded that he could do it.
He ended up winning four games for the Blue Jays, and now another city loved him. He'd beaten every adversity, tamed every doubt, silenced every critic. The issue of character was no longer mentioned when people brought up his name. Some of the best clubs in baseball were his for the asking, and he planned to shop around. The Braves, the Phillies, the Blue Jays, the Yankees, the Cubs, the White Sox. The Royals...don't rule out the Royals.
"I don't know if they're a viable option," he heard himself say quite a lot. He might just as well have said, "I don't know if they can afford me."
Back home one day in Kansas City he put on his best navy-blue suit and tie and went with Fehr to the offices of Marion Merrell Dow Inc. They were led into a conference room with a long table and shown where to sit. Cone and the company's chairman emeritus, Ewing Kauffman, exchanged small talk along with the Royals' Robinson.
K.C. has one of the smallest markets in baseball, and the last two years it had lost millions, and why would anyone play for the Royals when the Yankees were courting him? "A Mets-Yankees monster," that was how Cone had been seeing himself lately. But then the old man started to talk. "The only pitcher we're going after...a unique, creative offer...won't present it to you until you can sit in a room with me and look me in the eye and tell me that you want to come home."
David left the meeting feeling as if the way suddenly had been made clear to him. He called Lynn, knowing she'd have mixed feelings. She was an East Coast woman and wanted him nearby, but she knew he needed to be out of New York. He called his parents and his siblings and his friends. Then three days later he and Fehr met again with Kauffman. A deal was put on the table, and Cone smiled in astonishment at the size of the bonus.
"I knew we had him then," Kauffman would say later. "The answer was right there in his eyes."
Cone and Fehr adjourned to a room down the hall, and each of them got on the telephone. Fehr made some business calls, and Cone made a private one. He called Ha Ho and told her the news. Ha Ho sounded happy and full of life, but at the same time she was careful not to sway his decision. "Follow your heart," she said. "Do what makes you happy."
And that was when he knew he was going back home to Kansas City.
So at the end of this long January day on the Goodwill Caravan, David Cone returns to his new house in a Kansas City suburb a very contented man. Of all the places in the world he can now afford to buy, he has chosen Bret Saberhagen's old one. Not that Cone likes it much; in fact, he would much prefer a more storied house, something with a history that had evolved slowly. He could afford a marble mansion, and this place cost only $250,000. But Sabes did win two Cy Young Awards while living here, and Cone figures the house must have a third one left hanging around somewhere. Not that he's superstitious.
He just wants to be careful.
As far as furniture goes, the house is empty. There's a bed, a chair and an entertainment center with a TV set in it. Lynn was here last week meeting with furniture people, wallpaper people, drape people. A real whirlwind, she was; so organized. David pretty much let her have the run of things. They decided to go with class everything, no cheap stuff like most ballplayers go for. There won't be a trophy room in this house, David'll guarantee you that. No huge portrait of the occupant over the fireplace. No scuffed-up bats in glass hanging over the John.
You'll walk into David Cone's house, and it won't say: jock. You walk in there and one word and one word only will come to mind: home.
David and Lynn have talked about marriage, that's another thing. David's not sure whether he's "quite ready to pull the trigger yet," but they have been dating for six years now, and...well, he's put her through a lot. "You either do it or get off the proverbial pot" is how he says he sees it now. Also, Lynn's sick and tired of being referred to as "pitcher David Cone's live-in girlfriend." Whenever the New York papers called her that, she resented it, and he heard about it. It made her look cheap, she said, as if they were shacking up.
True, he and Lynn were shacking up, but they could've called her by her name. It's 1993, he reminds himself, and even a strikeout king doesn't get away with anything anymore.
A guy goes looking for defining moments, and this is where he ends up: In Bret Saberhagen's old house. In the kind of place and the kind of neighborhood David Cone only dreamed about knowing as a boy. It's 10° outside and the wind is blowing snow, and Cone's all alone, wondering if maybe he should just turn this place over to his parents. Ed and Joan can come up from Florida to see him pitch, and they can have the place. His sister and brothers can stay here too. They deserve a house like this. They helped to make him, after all. And what is it he likes to say? "The worst thing you could be called in this world is someone who didn't stand up for his family."
David will rent an apartment somewhere closer to the ballpark. Or, better yet, he'll buy one. Home, it'll say, just like this place.
Two houses in one town, and he just turned 30. Now isn't that a thought! Even Oscar Madison never had it so good.