David Cone has the corner locker at the Yankees' brand-new spring training complex, across the way from Tampa Stadium, home of the Buccaneers, who, as the talk-show hosts screamed on Cone's car radio on the ride to the ballpark this morning, are threatening to leave town if they can't get some sort of new stadium deal.
There is a sprinkling of freckles on Cone's face, a product of the spring training sun, which has left him looking like he'd glow if you scrubbed him hard enough. And though it's way too early in the morning to be serious, Cone has chosen to discuss how baseball should do a better job of educating the young players before they are let loose on some unsuspecting city with a pocketful of cash and a penchant for causing all kinds of trouble.
The topic is easy to associate with Cone, what with his propensity for on- and off-field disasters in the early days of his career. And when he talks about the dangers, he's earnest, and he's wise, and you find yourself nodding and listening carefully, and suddenly he's in the midst of another pearl of baseball-accumulated wisdom and you stop and think to yourself: This is David Cone?
This is the guy who was pictured on the cover of the New York Post next to a headline that read: "Weird Sex Act in Bullpen"? This is the guy who once let two Braves baserunners score because he was too busy arguing with an umpire to pay attention to the game? This is the guy who prompted the legendary George Brett to remark, upon hearing that the then-24-year-old had been traded from the Royals to the Mets (and, consequently, would soon be let loose on the city that never sleeps): "Well, gentleman, I think we should all go buy some stock in No-Doz"?
Of course, Cone always has looked one part choirboy and one part Dennis the Menace, and maybe that's part of the problem. Dress him up all neat with shined shoes and combed hair and he'd look like an angel on his way to the all-boys Jesuit High School he attended in Kansas City. Just be prepared for what might happen when the teacher's back is turned.
But Cone's 33 now (though he looks all of 26 on a bad day) and newly signed to a three-year contract with the Yankees. He's the American League's chief player representative in baseball's union negotiations, George Steinbrenner's self-described "go-to guy" and, of all things, one of the models by which Doc Gooden, fresh off a one-year suspension for violating baseball's drug policy, is trying to refashion his career, now that he's donned Yankee pinstripes.
"He's a leader," said Gooden, who, it must be pointed out, last spent a spring training with Cone in 1992, when Gooden and two other Mets were accused of rape (no charges were ever filed) by one of Cone's "girlfriends" in one of the ugliest incidents in Mets history. "I wanted a chance to pitch with him again," Gooden said.
So what's happened to Cone since Gooden last lockered alongside him that tense, silent spring four long years ago? Well, many will argue that Cone's maturation, so to speak, coincides quite nicely with his marriage to Lynn DiGioia, who had been his ever-patient girlfriend since 1987. Certainly, Cone owes a lot to Lynn, to whom he ascribes "the patience of a saint, for lack of a better term."
But there can be a case made, too, that Cone has grown up in response to the growing demands of his career, a career that could read as the ultimate blueprint for the life of the '90s athlete-in-demand. Ever since August 1992, when the Mets traded him to the playoff-hungry Toronto Blue Jays, Cone has become baseball's most visible Rent-a-Hero, the quick-fix guy who can make any franchise a contender, as long as they have the players to trade or the money to spend.
It was this new way of life that brought Cone full circle last July, when the last-place Blue Jays (who had acquired Cone a second time prior to the 1995 season) traded him to the Yankees, who were desperate to make the postseason after missing out for 14 years. With ace Jimmy Key (who finished second to Cone, then a Royal, in the 1994 AL Cy Young voting) out for the season with an injury, Cone led the Yankees to a wild-card berth and a playoff series against the Mariners, where he left his heart, and most of his arm, on the mound as the Yankees lost in the decisive Game 5.
His gutsy performance only made him more desirable this winter, when Cone became the most sought-after pitcher in the crop of free agents. After some pretty tense negotiations, Cone eventually spurned the Orioles to sign a $19.5 million, three-year deal (plus options) with the Yankees that included, among other things, a no-trade clause.
With options, the new contract could keep Cone in New York for as many as five seasons -- the longest he's been anywhere since his days as a Met. And the fact that those years will be spent back in the city that once scarred him so deeply seems somewhat fitting to Cone, who is bound and determined to make sure things work out different this time.
"I don't know if I've grown up," Cone said that morning in the Yankees' Tampa clubhouse, as always, honest to a fault about his personal failings. "But I'd like to think that by now I've learned from my mistakes." A Matter of Maturation
For much of his career, Cone has been one of those legions of guys who firmly believe that one of the biggest advantages of being a professional baseball player -- other than the money -- is that you never had to grow up. Perhaps Bret Saberhagen, the two-time Cy Young Award winner and Cone's ex-teammate in both New York and Kansas City, described the attitude best. Saberhagen, who has been known to light a firecracker or two in the clubhouse (not to mention his adventures with a syringe full of bleach), once explained his love for baseball thusly: "Baseball is about being a kid playing a game, and getting dirty, and that's what I still want to do -- play a game and get dirty. Why should I have to grow up?"
Cone was far from perfect from his first days in a Mets uniform, and things only seemed to get worse the longer he stayed. A kid who grew up with dreams of becoming a sportswriter -- Cone wanted to be Jim Murray, not Jim Bunning -- he attempted to live out his fantasy in 1988, when the Dodgers played the Mets in the NL Championship Series. Writing his own column for a New York City tabloid, Cone enraged the Dodgers with his insults -- and enraged his teammates when the opposition, citing its anger at Cone as a prime source of motivation, bounced the Mets out of the postseason.
Then there was that time in Atlanta in May 1990, when he let those Braves score because he was too busy venting his spleen at the umpire. And the time he tried to beat up his manager, Bud Harrelson, in the dugout, with television cameras trained on him.
And that's not even approaching his troubles with women -- troubles that always seemed to go public, and nearly drove Lynn to leave him a time or two. In 1991, he got sued by three women who insisted he had threatened to kill them at Shea Stadium (the suit never went anywhere) and was later accused of rape during a road trip to Philadelphia (no charges were filed).
All that was nothing, though, compared to 1992.
"There's no way to ever forget that year -- or that spring training, for that matter," Cone said. "I don't think we'll ever see another one like that."
It started during the preseason, when a woman Cone had dated filed rape charges against three Mets (Gooden, Vince Coleman and Darryl Boston) stemming from an incident that had taken place the previous spring. Although no charges would be filed, the investigation dragged on through spring training, and Cone's pivotal role in the situation -- records of his interviews with police, later published in the New York tabloids, would include intimate details of his relationship with this woman and one of her friends -- put him square in the spotlight.
"I take a lot of pride in that I was able to take some of the toughest blows New York can deal you," Cone says now. "Part of it was unfair, but a big part of it I brought upon myself."
How bad did it get? Well, Cone was the butt of editorial cartoons all over the country, and Lynn could barely hold up her head in New York. Then, in the thick of the investigation, the New York Post published a story in which he was accused of having masturbated, while in the Mets bullpen, in front of three women in the stands during a game the previous year (Cone called those accusations "ridiculous"). After that, tabloid television cameramen literally hid in the bushes outside his rented condo in Port St. Lucie (where the Mets train). Reporters followed him out to dinner at night. Suffice it to say, his life was out of control.
"Basically, it reached a point where I figured I had two choices -- withdraw, or learn how to laugh at myself," he said. "And it seemed a lot easier to me to just roll with the punches."
And that's precisely what Cone did, and continues to do, openly and honestly answering questions about the most humiliating part of his life.
"I guess you could say I just had this self-destructive mechanism," Cone said. "Lynn was pretty upset, but anybody in their right mind would have begun to get that way then."
As is his wont, Cone opened his mouth again when he was traded by New York to Toronto in August of that awful season, complaining that then-Mets manager Jeff Torborg wanted only choirboys, that he wanted to take all the life out of the clubhouse. Despite everything that had happened, Cone was unhappy to leave New York. In the end, though, it turned out to be the best thing for him. A Mercenary's Burden
When Cone sat in the SkyDome Hotel room that he made his makeshift home in Toronto that fall, he came to a few realizations. Tops on the list was the fact that he has suddenly been burdened with a lot of responsibility and expectation -- heck, all of Canada expected him to deliver the country a World Series championship.
Cone went 4-3 for Toronto in the regular season and 1-1 in the 1992 postseason as the Jays won their first world championship. Toronto won both Series games Cone started, although he didn't get the win in either. Over the winter, he signed a three-year, $18 million deal with the Royals, a deal that included a whopping $9 million signing bonus and that returned him to the town where he had grown up.
He won the Cy Young award in his second season with the Royals, the strike-shortened season of 1994, but found himself traded back to Toronto before the start of the next year. Cone has to think that his trade was, in part, a reaction by Kansas City's conservative ownership to the role he played during the strike.
By the spring of 1995, Cone had become what to some what might have seemed the most unlikely of spokesmen for baseball's labor union, given his past tendencies for irrational behavior, if not irrational thought. In a lot of ways, though, Cone was perfect for the role. He always has been one of the most thoughtful and articulate voices in a baseball clubhouse. And he also happened to be the son of a mechanic, a blue-collar worker who raised David in a blue-collar neighborhood and taught him about standing up for your own.
"Maybe I should have stayed on the golf course, I don't know," Cone said. "But I thought we needed some leaders to step up on the players' side, and the young guys -- they had to worry about the repercussions. I figured they weren't going to do anything to me. I was in a position where I could make decisions for myself."
Cone's latest decision -- to spurn Baltimore for the Yankees -- prompted a little rabble-rousing in baseball circles by those who thought Cone had gotten greedy and had placed the money in New York ahead of the chance to pitch for the Orioles, who many think have made the greatest effort to build a contender for this season. After what he did last October, though, it is hard to question Cone's desire to win.
For those who think baseball players these days don't care about winning as much as they do themselves, check out the decisive Game 5 of the Mariners-Yankees AL division playoff. Cone started and threw nearly 150 pitches before all but collapsing, and Randy Johnson, the Mariners' ace, came storming out of the bullpen to pitch in relief on a mere one day's rest.
How much does Cone care about winning? That game haunts him still; his last pitch in particular. He remembers it clearly: The Yankees ahead 4-3 in the eighth inning, bases loaded, Doug Strange at the plate. Want more pressure? Steinbrenner had come to him in the clubhouse before the game and told him "you're the guy," and apparently Buck Showalter, the Yankees manager, believed that, too, because he didn't even have a guy up in the bullpen.
His arm aching as if it were about to fall off, Cone threw a forkball. It fell short. Strange walked. The game was tied, and Cone was finished. The Mariners won in extra innings, and Cone went back to New York, collapsed on his couch and didn't move, he said, "for nearly two weeks."
"There's so much pressure, when you bounce around from team to team and you're still expected to perform -- and last year made me realize that more than anything," Cone said. "But I guess it goes both ways, because I've learned a lot from being put in all these different situations. You could say it's part of what helped me grow up, so to speak." CAPTION: David Cone ends 1995 season throwing 150 pitches, walking in the tying run in AL playoff.