Inside Baseball

April 13, 2003

Rust-Free
How much more can the Mets expect from 40-year-old David Cone?

"Where am I?" David Cone asked no one in particular as he stepped
into a near-empty Mets clubhouse last Friday, three hours before
he would pitch in his first game in a year and a half. Cone, who
arrived at Shea Stadium an hour late for an optional pitchers
meeting, had to pause for a moment to scan the room for his
locker.

Pardon Cone's lost sense of time and place: The unexpected
rebirth of the 1994 AL Cy Young winner has surprised many,
especially the 40-year-old Cone. "Even the drive to the stadium
today was surreal," he said after tossing five shutout innings in
the Mets' 4-0 win over the Expos, Cone's first victory since
Oct. 6, 2001. "I still couldn't believe what I was doing. It's
all happened so fast."

After a one-year retirement, during which he worked as a
part-time announcer with the Yankees, played golf and never once
picked up a baseball, Cone is attempting to become only the
second pitcher in his forties to start 20 games after sitting out
the previous season. (In 1992 the Angels' Bert Blyleven went
8-12 with a 3.99 ERA after missing the previous season with a
rotator-cuff injury.) "For a guy who sat out a whole year, he
still knows how to pitch," says one NL scout.

Last spring the Mets toyed with the idea of inviting Cone to
camp, but with a set starting rotation the team ultimately
decided against it. This year, however, the Mets were in the
market for serviceable arms and approached Cone, who had won 80
games for them from 1987 through '92. With the fifth starter spot
up for grabs--Mike Bacsik, Aaron Heilman, Jason Middlebrook and
Jae Weong Seo, with 17 career big league starts among them, were
the other options--and Pedro Astacio sidelined with a shoulder
injury (he should return in about two weeks), Cone locked down a
spot on the staff with a solid spring (4.40 ERA, 12 strikeouts in
14 1/3 innings).

"His best weapon now is his head," says Mets pitching coach Vern
Ruhle. "He's a carpenter who's become a master carpenter: He
knows what tools to use and when to use them."

Cone, six wins shy of 200 for his career, has become a finesse
pitcher who lives and dies by an arsenal of deception--curves,
sliders and splitters--and location. More than half of his pitches
against the Expos were off-speed. "When you're thinking about
each pitch, it's more fun being out there than when you're just
blowing heat by the batters," says Cone, whose fastball last
Friday topped out at 88 mph, far below the 98 it reached in his
late-'80s heyday.

But what do the Mets expect from Cone, who has little to no trade
value and is good for no more than 90 pitches every fifth day?
"No one can say," says Ruhle. Astacio's return will push Cone
into the No. 5 spot, where he would receive a few extra days off
to nurse his biggest health concern: an aching back. The Mets
remain aggressive in their pursuit of free-agent righthander
Shane Reynolds, a pickup that could turn Cone into a reliever for
the first time in his career. "I'm willing to take any role that
I'm needed in," says Cone.

For now, Cone's role is clear. "He's our fourth starter," says
manager Art Howe. "Hopefully his start [against the Expos] means
he'll be in there all year. That would be a real blessing."

Texas's Tough Early Slate
Are the Rangers Overscheduled?

Being the weakest team in baseball's toughest division isn't
easy, but the unbalanced schedule makes the Rangers' lives even
harder. Thanks to 58 games against AL West rivals Anaheim,
Oakland and Seattle, playoff contenders all, the Rangers' 2003
opponents averaged an 85-77 record (.526 winning percentage)
last season, the best in baseball, and allowed a major-league-low
4.6 runs per game. No club plays more games against plus-.500
teams than Texas (92).

The Rangers' schedule is also front-loaded: They play their first
19 games against divisional foes, followed by the Red Sox and the
Yankees, and don't play a sub-.500 team until April 29 in
Toronto. "It'll be a great test for us," says shortstop Alex
Rodriguez.

But with that slate, Texas, 2-4 at week's end, risks duplicating
last April's quick tumble from contention: After playing its
first 18 games against the division, Texas was 5-13 on April 21,
9 1/2 games out of first place.

"It's a power start, but that's O.K.," general manager John Hart
says. "I talked to [manager Buck Showalter] about the division
when we hired him, and he said, 'John, I'm all over being in this
division. Let's go for it.'"

"If we can get through the first month with our head above
water," says team owner Tom Hicks, "we're going to have a great
season." --Daniel G. Habib

Greg Maddux on the Ropes
A Bad Start for a Great Starter

For the first time in his career Greg Maddux lost his first two
starts of the season, but most startling was that he was knocked
around by the Expos and the Marlins. In nine innings combined the
four-time NL Cy Young winner surrendered 11 earned runs and 17
hits. Maddux, who's coming off a 16-win season in which his
innings pitched (199 1/3) and strikeouts (118) were the lowest
since his first full major league season, in 1987, is not a
traditionally slow starter. In fact his 2.67 April ERA entering
this season was the lowest for any month in his career.

Over the past 10 years no player has pitched more innings than
Maddux (2,317). Is he wearing down? "I don't think so," says an
NL advance scout. "I think it's just a slow start. He's healthy.
His stuff is fine, his arm is working well, there are no red
flags. He still has the quickness in his arm that's the key for
him. I wouldn't be worried. Sooner or later all the innings he's
pitched might catch up to him, but Greg Maddux is never going to
forget how to pitch."

Back in Business
An update on five other pitchers who, like David Cone, were
hoping to come back in 2003 after missing at least one season.

NAME AGE THROWS TEAM

Steve Avery 32 LH TIGERS

Was: Out of baseball past three seasons following left shoulder
surgery in 1999.

Is: Reliever at Triple A Toledo after failing to make Tigers out
of spring training.

Nick Bierbrodt 24 LH DEVIL RAYS

Was: Sidelined last year after suffering two gunshot wounds in
Charleston, S.C.

Is: Tampa Bay's No. 4 starter; gave up seven runs in four innings
in 2003 debut.

Darren Dreifort 30 RH DODGERS

Was: On DL for half of 2001 and all of last season following
right elbow surgery.

Is: L.A.'s fifth starter; allowed three runs in six innings last
Friday.

Curt Leskanic 35 RH BREWERS

Was: Out last season while recovering from October 2001 shoulder
surgery.

Is: Middle reliever for Milwaukee; appeared in three of team's
first six games.

Gil Meche 24 RH MARINERS

Was: Sidelined past two years after surgery on right shoulder and
rotator cuff.

Is: Seattle's No. 5 starter; gave up six runs in five innings
last Saturday.

Tom Verducci's View

HEADS OR TAILS?

Derek Jeter (on a play at third base) joined Kenny Lofton (at
first base) and Manny Ramirez (at home plate) among star players
who have suffered major injuries in recent years as a result of
sliding headfirst. When was the last time you heard about
somebody being sidelined for weeks because of a feet-first slide?
The headfirst slide is telegenic and it did serve Rickey
Henderson well, but it has a lousy risk-reward ratio and should
be used sparingly.

One of its major proponents, Roberto Alomar of the Mets, says he
will continue to dive for the base. "How many times has an injury
happened? Once in a while," he says. "I do it because it gets me
there quicker. I never have to stop to dive. Why does an
outfielder dive for a ball? It's the quickest way."

Recalling how 205-pound Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby plowed into
Jeter's left shoulder with his shin guards, Alomar did admit,
"Jeter's lucky. It's a good thing he didn't hit Jeter's head. I
don't want to think what would have happened."

WHO IS ...?

Juan Cruz

He was part of what may turn out to be the best trade the Cubs
never made. Chicago and Boston danced around a Cruz-for-Shea
Hillenbrand deal in spring training until Cruz, 24, a wispy
righthander, recovered from the flu and started throwing 97 mph
again. On Opening Day, Cruz became the first Cubs reliever to
whiff six straight hitters since Bruce Sutter in 1977. Manager
Dusty Baker mused about trying him as a closer until Antonio
Alfonseca returns next month from a hamstring injury, but the
165-pound Cruz, who complements his heater with a changeup and
slider that also are above average, may have a long-term future
in the rotation.

THREE STRIKES FOR ...

Astros centerfielder Craig Biggio

1. What's the best advice you've received about playing
centerfield?

A: Catch it. Really. If you worry about making mistakes and
looking bad, you might as well pack it in.

2. Chipper Jones said he was bored sometimes after he first moved
from third base to leftfield. Any boredom issues in center?

A: Not at all. You're always running somewhere. [Former Astros
outfielder] Terry Puhl told me long ago, "If you're not tired at
the end of the day, you're not playing it right."

3. Isn't your batting helmet listed among the Superfund's toxic
hot spots?

A: Actually, this one is pretty clean. I got a new helmet when we
changed logos a couple of years ago. There's just dirt and pine
tar on it. The clubhouse guys are under strict orders never to
touch it.

SHORT HOPS

Good omen? In the first game of the Angels' world championship
season last year, pitching coach Bud Black went to the mound to
talk to a struggling Jarrod Washburn in the first inning. This
year a wobbly John Lackey couldn't get through the opening inning
without a word from Black....The most unbeatable pitcher in
baseball isn't Randy Johnson. It's the same guy who had a losing
record in the independent Western Baseball League in 1997: Giants
reliever Chad Zerbe. Including three World Series appearances and
games through Sunday, Zerbe was undefeated (5-0) in 85 career
appearances in the major leagues....Where have you gone, Iron
Man McGinnity? Of the 180 pitchers who started a game through
Sunday, none reached the 120-pitch mark.

STAT STORY

Best franchise records on Opening Day (the rest of the year is
another story).

TEAM RECORD PCT.

Devil Rays 4-2 .667
Mets 26-16 .619
Yankees 59-43-1 .578
Orioles 58-44-1 .568

Read Tom Verducci's Inside Baseball column every Tuesday at
si.com/baseball.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (2) Cone's first start thrilled the Mets (for whom he pitched from1987 to '92) and the Coneheads at Shea Stadium. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL A brutal 25-game stretch could cause A-Rod's Rangers to stumbleout of the gate. COLOR PHOTO: RICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES Jeter's headfirst is high-risk. COLOR PHOTO: JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: MARK GOLDMAN/ISM

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)