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Baseball David Cone is the toast of New York, but he's still a backyard K.C. boy in a pinch

David Cone is the toast of New York, but he's still a backyard K.C. boy in a pinch

The thing with pitching that you've always got to tell yourself is that you, the pitcher, are in control. No batter can ever really know what's about to happen, so when you're spinning the ball on your fingertips, figuring whether to go slider or curve or cutter, remember you can do anything you want. You can, if you wish, dream up a pitch on the spot.

This idea first came to David Cone when the pressure was on, in back of his house at 5210 St. John Ave. He was behind on the hitter in a tight game. It was growing dark, and he knew his mother would be calling for him any moment. But he did not want to give in. So he loosened his grip on the Wiffle ball and nudged the taped-up part closer to the outside edge of his index finger and thumb. He would make the ball slide sharply off his hand. And he would let his arm find its groove toward the plate way down by his hips.

Naturally, this was the seventh game of the World Series, and all eyes were on him, and he was standing out there, in Coneway Field or Conedlestick Park, a lone figure using all his wits, trying to get out of trouble and save the day against a couple of dangerous hitters, his brothers, Danny and Chris, who knew his stuff all too well. He would peer in and think, I gotta come up with a new idea here. Those Wiffle balls were something else, how they would bend in midair. David Cone, 11 years old, would come up with something new, again and again, and when he was in bed for the night, still sweaty, he was champion.

The Yankees, who are finishing one of the most streamlined, focused seasons a baseball team has ever had, will be comforted to learn that David Cone's waking dream still lives. For surely, there will come this moment in a couple of weeks, maybe less, with all their great expectations on the line, when Cone will glare in at Mo Vaughn or Greg Vaughn, Kenny Lofton or Ken Caminiti, and he will need, the Yankees will need, for him to find something in reserve. And he will do what he has always done-return to the backyard in south Kansas City for a fresh idea.

He has gone there many times this season. When he managed to get his first victory after he was twice slammed around. When he pitched eight shutout innings against the Orioles in a 1-0 win with absolutely nothing working for him. Indeed, in nearly every game. That he was trying to become the first pitcher ever to win 20 games 10 years after doing it the last time underscores what his teammates and coaches already know about him-that he will always find a way.

"David is Thomas Edison every day," says Joe Torre.

"The best competitor I have ever seen," says his catcher, Joe Girardi. "He wills the ball to go places."

On the team of Jeter and O'Neill, Bernie and Tino, it is Cone who has emerged as the most influential, most identifiable Yankee. That's quite a thing, and not just because it is so rare for a pitcher to claim that role. In the three years he's been with the team, Cone has never made it through a complete season without an injury, not until now. He has traveled through the major leagues in several skins and shed each one-the young phenom with the combustible personality, the big-money free agent hurtling through town, the poised labor leader in the '94 strike, the veteran with the surgical arm-to get here: a 35-year-old heir to Munson and Gehrig, the unofficial captain of the Yankees.

His locker in the storied clubhouse is just off the short corridor to the manager's office, near David Wells and Andy Pettitte and Hideki Irabu. Each pitcher says that Cone counsels them not so much on how to throw, but how to think. Several players say that Wells, who is also 35, has come to believe, through watching Cone, that he too can impose himself on the game, even while struggling. Pettitte says that he is a student of Cone's. And upon Irabu's arrival last season, Cone took him out for a sushi dinner, setting the tone for how the rest of the team would respond to the rich free agent from Japan. Early this season, when one of the pitchers hid from reporters after a loss, Cone went to the trainer's room and told his teammate to take his place in front of his stall. No one has sought cover since.

Cone has become the supreme Yankee, not only among his teammates, but also, improbably, among New Yorkers, who still recall him as the wide-eyed, wild-eyed star who, with the Mets from 1987-92, always seemed to face one calamity or another. He is now seen around the city heading up the David Cone Foundation, which assists several other charities, from the Leukemia Foundation to a children's hospital to the Central Park Conservancy. With his charitable work, he has become something of a New York icon.

His transformation this year, of all years, is probably the most unlikely twist his 13-year big league career has taken. Since Opening Day, his mother, Joan, has been treated for lung cancer, he was bitten on his pitching hand by her dog and he has worried almost constantly that his arm will finally give out once and for all. He remembers the scare of his life in the spring of 1996, when they found an aneurysm in his right arm, and he remembers riding high last season until he felt a sudden twinge that would eventually put him back on an operating table.

"I am humble now," he says, sitting on a brown leather couch in the middle of the clubhouse. "Everything is so great with this team, but what happened last year is never totally out of my mind."

Cone began this season after his second arm operation in a year and a half and promptly gave up 16 runs in his first two starts. His arm felt sore and he could no longer read what that meant. After all, before 1996, he hadn't spent a day on the disabled list in more than eight seasons. Now he thought he might be finished. He went home and told his wife, Lynn, that he would give himself a couple of more starts, and then quit.

His next outing produced an efficient win (2 ER, 7 H, 5I1/4 IP), the first of nine straight victories without a loss that sparked buzz about a Cy Young candidacy. His manager, Joe Torre, and his pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre, discount his first two appearances, saying they amounted to an extended spring training. Cone agrees that a restored and healthy arm has been vital, but he says his comeback began as much in his mind.

"When I feel confident about my arm, I'm my old self," he says. "I can be creative, because I know my arm can take it, and then I can go anywhere. I can be playing again in the backyard, with the Wiffle ball, scheming, throwing sidearm sliders, trying to be like Luis Tiant. I swear, sometimes I revert back to that backyard just like I did as a kid."

Sometimes Cone will take a deep breath, gaze around Yankee Stadium, look up at the lights and see the floodlight his father attached to the back of the house. As an amateur pitcher, Ed Cone threw sidearm and imparted to his son what Cone still believes is the most important piece of advice on pitching he's ever received. His father told him it was not necessary to throw at top speed, that he was better off holding back. For Cone, this was a license to create.

His father worked the graveyard shift at a big meat-processing plant in Kansas City, maintaining and repairing the slicers and grinders and packaging equipment. "I remember the sound of the garage door opening every morning at 2:30," says Cone. "I'd think, there's Dad going to work."

Eventually his father developed rheumatoid arthritis working in the freezers, crawling under machinery on hard, cold tile floors. His condition became so severe that fellow workers had to lift him off the floor. When the younger Cone won his first million-dollar contract, his first big purchase was a condo in Florida for his parents-"anything to get my father out of that factory."

Cone's father had coached him to pause for an instant on the mound just before throwing. That is why, when Cone is really on, he will come to almost a complete stop, midstride, before delivering. This gives him a chance to invent a pitch, if he feels the need, during his windup. He can come straight over the top, three-quarters or sidearm on any of his pitches-fastball, curve, even his splitter. He will throw a loose slider, fingers centered on the ball, or a tight slider, his fingers on the seams but off-center, to manufacture the sharp spin that makes his breaking pitches slip quickly off the plane above home plate. He will throw any of these pitches in just about any order to either lefties or righties. And he can make the ball move left to right or right to left, to

baffle a hitter on either side of the plate. No other pitcher in baseball works with so many variations. "Pitchers always search for the arm slot that doesn't hurt, especially when you wonder if you're 100%, physically," he says. "For me, it's easier to create and find a rhythm and release point, rather than stay with a particular arm angle."

True genius in sports shows itself first and foremost with a look. Tiger and Jordan and Messier have one. So does Cone. His pale blue eyes, peering in at the catcher, can somehow appear at once soft and plaintive or daring and devilish. But at moments of high frustration, when he loses that connection with his creative side, his cheeks have a way of turning pink and flushed.

Joe Girardi knows this last look means trouble. He saw it this summer in a game against the Twins when Cone threw 11 straight balls out of the strike zone. Eleven. Girardi went out to the mound and before he could say anything, Cone said, "I know, Joe."

"Now and then, David snaps," says Girardi. "And then he kind of cools off." After the 11 straight balls, Cone emerged from the inning without giving up a run. Tellingly, he did this by throwing only three more fastballs, going instead to his more exotic pitches, like his shoot-from-the-hip slider. He made the last putout himself, at the end of a nifty 3-6-1 double play.

Girardi also saw the look in the eighth inning of a game with Detroit, with runners on second and third, just before Cone struck out Bobby Higginson with a slider. Cone threw the pitch with a classic three-quarters delivery. But it came after an extra delay in the motion that Girardi says he doesn't recall ever seeing from Cone before.

Torre has seen another look from Cone, one that gives him chills, the look that says I will get out of this jam no matter what. Leave me in no matter what. Torre saw it in the third game of the 1996 World Series, with the Yankees down two games to none against the Braves and Cone in a jam.

"I went out there and asked him if he was okay," Torre remembers. "He said he was. He wasn't telling the truth, but after he made the commitment to me, he knew he would have to figure out a way. He got out of it."

The manager also has mixed feelings about Cone's ability to hold the other pitchers on the team spellbound. Irabu, for one, tried to add a funky "flip" curve pitch to his repertoire only to fall out of sync in his motion. Says Torre: "Maybe I should blindfold the other pitchers."

Not a good idea, for there will come a point in a playoff game or in the World Series when everybody's eyes will be locked in on David Cone, in the center of it all. Cone will need a pitch, and he will find it in the backyard.