Book Reviews   

 

 

A Pitcher's Story --

Innings with David Cone

By Roger Angell

Review by Richard Sheppard

 

Roger Angell, a sportswriter and author of some renown, had an idea for a book: he wanted to undertake an intensive study across an entire season of one of baseball’s most influential on-field participants, the pitcher. The pitcher is the guy who starts all the action in the game by trying to sneak the little white ball by the big dude with a bat. Angell was hoping to find answers to many questions; what motivates pitchers, what separates good pitchers from bad, and how they handle adversity. Ultimately, he wanted to get beneath the superficial statistical aspects of pitchers and pitching and get another answer: Given the millions of dollars that even a mediocre big league pitcher can command, who ultimately decides what happens to that pitcher’s arm – who, in effect, “owns” it?

300-330 Pitchers in All the World Play MLB

There are approximately 10-11 pitchers on every Major League ballclub. Thus the entire league of thirty teams has approximately 300-330 pitchers.  There are many who believe that there are not 300-330 bona fide major league pitchers in existence to fill these slots, and this pitching dilution has hurt the game. Too many home runs, high-scoring games, and too many pitchers who can’t throw strikes, and hence longer ballgames. This is surely a fun debate, but from among these 300 plus pitchers, who would Roger Angell select?

Cone Represents

Because of the way his career has unfolded, and continues to unfold as it nears its end, righty pitcher David Cone seemed for Angell a suitable representative of major league pitchers at the end of baseball’s first storied century. Although he was not the premier pitcher during his career (which began in 1986 and continues now in 2001, perhaps his final season), Cone has been among the top tier of pitchers throughout his ongoing career, and thus offers a varied background for dissection. In addition to the perspective offered from having pitched for five teams during his career, Cone won the Cy Young Award during the strike-shortened 1994 season, and pitched on five World Championship teams and five All Star teams.  He also pitched a rare perfect game (no base runners allowed - for the Yankees against the Montreal Expos in 1999). But apart from his proven pitching prowess, it has been Cone’s off-field activities and missteps, along with the varied injuries he’s had to “come back” from that also makes him a suitable subject for A Pitcher’s Story.

After a middle-class upbringing in Kansas City, where he was a 3-sport high school star, Cone was drafted by the Kansas City Royals and worked his way to the majors at the end of 1986.  Following that short-lived stint with the Royals, Cone was traded to the New York Mets, who had just won the 1986 World Series and looked to run a string of titles.  These were the rollicking Daryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez, and Dwight Gooden Mets, players who bestrode the New York nightlife as the sports princes of the city. In 1987, Cone climbed on the bandwagon and had a sensational 20-3 season, but a Cy Young eluded him because Dodger pitcher Orel Hershiser had a career-year of of 23-8 and had a record-setting string of 59 scoreless innings to close the year. Unfortunately for the Mets, Herscheiser’s hurling wizardry continued in the playoffs, as the underdog Dodgers bumped off the Mets in seven games on their way to winning the whole World Series enchilada.  Cone has a string of solid years with the Mets, and had some off field incidents including one episode where several female fans accused him of ungentlemanly behavior in the Mets bullpen (exposing himself and making masturbatory hand gestures).

In 1992 the Mets traded Cone to the Toronto Blue Jays, and in 1993 Cone signed back with the Kansas City Royals as a free agent. During this tenure with the Royals, Cone was a key player’s rep during the owners/players dispute which canceled the tail end of the 1994 season along with the Word Series. Cone roamed the hall of Congress and buttonholed anyone he could to stem the possibility that the owners would initiate salary caps. In the end the battle over who won or lost the labor dispute was a wash, but canceling a World Series did considerable harm to the national pastime. There is speculation that because of Cone’s union participation, the Royals traded David back to the Blue Jays, where he began the 1995 season in Toronto and ended it with the up-and-coming New York Yankees.

Loss to Seattle

Unfortunately, during the playoffs against the Seattle Mariners, Cone gives up a crucial home run, eliminating any Yankee championship dreams. This was probably Cone’s lowest point as a pitcher; and it turned out that this was Don Mattingly’s last year, and he thus was unable to taste the sweet success that was heading the Yanks’ way over the next five years. Though the Yankees underachieved during the 1995 playoffs, good things it seemed were in store for both the team and David Cone.

The Blood Clot & the Title

But early during the 1996 season, Cone experiences some puzzling symptoms and it turns out that he has an aneurysm (blood clotting and bad circulation) in his pitching shoulder. The moment every pitcher fears – a season or career ending in an instant – is upon Cone. Because of the seriousness of the diagnosis and the conflicting treatment options, author Roger Angell uses this incident to wonder who in the end can decide what happens to a pitcher’s arm.  In the end, it is Cone himself who determines his successful course of treatment and wills his splendid return to pitching. This included an important game 3 start in the Yankees’ 1996 World Series against the Atlanta Braves, with the Yankees trailing 2 games to zip. Cone comes through for the win, enduring an especially eventful 6th inning where he convinces Yankee manager Joe Torre to let him get out of the inning.  He does, and the Yankees win game 3 and go on to sweep the Braves and win their first World Series since the 1978 Yankees of Reggie, Catfish, Thurman.

Three More Titles

After this trying 1996 Series, Cone helps the Yankees win the World Series again in 1998 and 1999, along the way adjusting his pitching techniques to prolong his career.  But the year for which this book follows this Pitcher’s Story, the 2000 season, has Cone struggling to a very sub-par 4-14 season.  While the Yankees win the 2000 World Series, during the off-season Cone (who has made an astonishing $66 million dollars during his career) is offered a bare minimum $500,000 annual contract. Along with the signing by the Yanks of younger pitcher Mike Mussina, Cone departs for the rival Boston Red Sox, where he’s had an above-average 2001 season, which as mentioned may be his last.

In Summary

For Angell, he’s compiled an informative book about what it takes to pitch in the Major Leagues, and in David Cone, he selected an appropriately gifted and multi-faceted subject for his study.  Combine this with the many inevitable baseball anecdotes and quirky facts (including the difficult-to-solve “four forty” list – players who have 4 letters in their last name and have hit forty home runs in a season) and for the baseball or sports purist, A Pitcher’s Story is a pleasurable journey.

 If Cone makes the Hall of Fame, which is still an open question, he will be very hard-pressed to select the cap he will wear in his immortalization plaque.  One supposes it would be a Kansas City Royals cap, as K.C. is not only the first team Dave was drafted by and pitched for, but also David’s hometown.  Still, lately it seems that players are willing to “sell” their Hall of Fame cap to teams, so maybe Cone, with a tinge of the mercenary during his career, will peddle this valuable spot like a billboard.