Cone looks to win over Hall voters
Cy Young winner with five Series rings on ballot for first time
NEW YORK -- The Mets' dominance of the National League the previous season still resonated with their opponents in March 1987. No team felt the sting more than the Cardinals, who shared a Spring Training stadium and an intense rivalry with the Mets back then. That relationship made the co-tenants of Al Lang Field quite familiar with each other's personnel. Hence the Cardinals knew quickly when their rivals acquired a young pitcher from the Royals in a trade made in late March.
They became more familiar -- and uneasy -- when they were introduced to the new man, a right-handed 23-year-old with a cup-of-coffee resume, a disquieting glare and the kind of arm that shouldn't be traded.
Jack Clark, a slugger who never met a fastball he didn't like, was one of the first Cardinals batters to face the newest Met, David Cone. Even in late March, Clark was ill-prepared for the July stuff Cone brought to the mound, and upon his return to the dugout following a "take that" strikeout, he afforded his teammates a one-line scouting report: "They've got another one," he said.
His words were as much a warning as they were an evaluation. They were tinged with a sense of the rich-get-richer injustice. How could a team with Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Rick Aguilera, Bob Ojeda, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, not to mention a World Series trophy, get its hands on another power-plus arm?
That arm had yet to produce a big league victory, but before it was done overwhelming the best hitters in the game 18 years later, it had produced 194 wins, not to mention 20-victory seasons a decade apart, a perfect game, the 22nd most strikeouts in history, a Cy Young season, a 19-strikeout game, stellar postseason credentials and a cottage industry (see Coneheads gear).
"They call that a career," Mel Stottlemyre said last month. "Coney had a great one."
Stottlemyre was the pitching coach during Cone's 5 1/2-year tour with the Mets and again with the Yankees for five seasons beginning in 1996. No one is more familiar than he with Cone's through-the-years performance.
"There aren't many guys who've pitched in this game who can say they've done it better," Stottlemyre said.
Not the most accomplished pitcher of his time, Cone nonetheless developed a reputation for Bob Gibson resolve and the stamina of a marathoner that set him apart from most of those with totals greater than his. How his achievements, image as a Hessian and five World Series rings will resonate with those casting Hall of Fame ballots is yet to be determined. Cone is among 10 players new to the ballot this year. But he appears to be a candidate who will elicit support out of respect and not only for his statistical achievement.
Gaining the minimum support for election -- inclusion on 75 percent of the ballots distributed to more than 575 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- appears to be a long shot for Cone, particularly with a sure-fire candidate, Rickey Henderson, among the new 10 and three holdover candidates named on at least 60 percent of the ballots cast last year, Jim Rice (72.2 percent), Andre Dawson (65.9) and Bert Blyleven (61.0).
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Henderson, whose career spanned 25 seasons, played for nine teams -- the A's four times, the Padres twice -- and has yet to announce his retirement. As recently as summer 2007 when he was a coach with the Mets, he held out hope of resuming his career though he was 48 and hadn't played in the big leagues since a cameo appearance with the Dodgers in 2003.
He generally is regarded as the premier leadoff man in history and is the all-time leader in stolen bases (1,406) and runs (2,295) and is second, to Barry Bonds, in walks (2,190).
Rice, the former Red Sox slugger who is in his final year of Hall of Fame eligibility, was one of the most feared hitters in the American League for most of his 15 seasons. Dawson was an eight-time Gold Glove winner and one-time MVP who hit 438 home runs in 21 seasons, 11 with the Expos and six with the Cubs. Blyleven pitched for the Twins for 10 years and the Indians for five while amassing 287 victories, the second most by a pitcher eligible for induction.
The Hall of Fame exclusion of Blyleven and two other pitchers with comparable victory totals -- Tommy John (288) and Jim Kaat (283) -- suggests Cone will fall short despite his ranking among all-time pitchers in three categories. His strikeout total (2,668) and his strikeouts- and hits-per-nine-innings ratios (8.284 and 7.775, respectively) rank 22nd, 20th and 62nd.
He won eight of 11 postseason decisions, produced a 2.12 ERA in 29 2/3 innings in the World Series, and his teams won all five of his starts and 12 of his 15 postseason starts.
Traded by the Mets in 1992, he pitched for the Blue Jays, Royals, Blue Jays again and Yankees in his prime, winning the Cy Young Award with the Royals in 1994 and rings with the Yankees on 1996, 1998, 1999 and, after his career had taken a decided downturn, in 2000. Having returned to pitching after 1996 surgery to repair an aneurysm in his right arm, he was a quite viable force. Indeed, he allowed no hits in seven innings in his first start back, won 20 games two years later and pitched the perfect game in 1999 -- all with the Yankees.
"And I got to see most of it," Stottlemyre said. "I always thought my son Todd was the fiercest competitor, but Coney was right there with him. He had stuff that not too many guys have. He could beat you one day with his fastball and the next time dominate the same team with his slider. And then when he developed the splitter, he could put away 12 batters with that. And on those days when he had two or all three working, then it was over. They had no chance."
One of those instances occurred during the 1991 season. Cone had all his pitches working more often than not for weeks on end. He was, as they say, locked in, and so effective in successive starts against the Reds that Tim McCarver, the Mets announcer at the time, took the usual step of predicting a no-hitter before the end of the season. McCarver was wrong, though; Cone allowed one hit in seven innings against the Cardinals in St. Louis on Sept. 14 -- he was removed for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning with Mets being shut out -- and six days later, allowed one hit in a complete game against the Cardinals in New York.
"He had the ability to evaluate himself and his pitches and how batters were reacting to them," Stottlemyre said. "He was very good at that. He'd usually find something that worked. He had so many weapons. And he was so smart about it. I always said I'd want him next to me in a foxhole because he had so many things he could do. And if they didn't work, he'd still find a way to get you out. A mound wasn't a foxhole, but guys liked having him out there, especially in big games."
Cone retired -- not on his terms -- following an uneven 2001 season with the Red Sox but returned to the Mets in 2003. Pitching on fumes and an arthritic left hip, he shut out the Expos for five innings and won his first start. But three losses and relentless pain followed. His second retirement, the one on his terms, took. He now provide color commentary for the Yankees YES Network.
"Knowing him, he probably was frustrated by something he didn't get done," Stottlemyre said. "He shouldn't be. He had a great run."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.