• Sal Maiorana

The scariest day of the year: David Cone diagnosed with an aneurysm

NEW YORK (May 2, 1996) – Following the madness in Baltimore the previous two nights, order was restored – seemingly on a couple fronts – when David Cone baffled the White Sox and led the Yankees to a routine 5-1 victory at Yankee Stadium.

After the pitching woes the Yankees endured when, despite winning both games, the Orioles battered New York’s staff for 16 runs on 24 hits and 13 walks, Cone threw a 127-pitch complete game gem. He limited Chicago to an unearned run on five hits and a walk while striking out eight as he improved his record to 4-1 and lowered his ERA to 2.03, a performance that had Cone, and many others, shaking their collective heads.

Through the first month Cone had been struggling with a mysterious numbness in the ring finger on his pitching hand which was preventing him from properly locating his pitches, not that you could tell given his impressive stat line.

The problem had forced Cone to skip his previous start because he was at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center getting tests to determine what was causing the issue. Nothing came up, so Cone took the mound against the White Sox and, for one night at least, all was well.

“I think everyone was holding their breath wondering whether I could do it or not,” Cone said. “I didn’t know what kind of pitcher I’d be. As the game progressed, I felt much better and I was able to locate much better. It was nice to pitch like that.”

When he sent Cone out, Joe Torre knew his bullpen – weary from the marathon Baltimore series – might not get a rest as he’d made it through only five innings in each of his last two assignments. Instead, Cone flat out dominated in registering New York’s first complete game of the year.

“You talk about the right time for something,” Torre said. “That was great. It was much more than I could have expected.”

Not that anyone was surprised because this was who Cone was – a gritty competitor, a true ace who was always able to pitch in a big spot, be it on a chilly October night in the postseason or on a chilly night in May when the Yankees needed some length to give their relievers a break.

“It tells you what kind of guy he is,” said Jim Leyritz, who caught the game and helped deliver the victory by hitting a tiebreaking two-run homer in the fifth. “He’s always going to go out there even if he’s not 100 percent. He just goes out there with his guts and pitches.”

That is, until he couldn’t.

Cone would not take the mound for another four months because barely a week after this sterling performance, he was on an operating table after additional tests revealed the problem: An aneurysm in the front of his right shoulder.

It was a shocking blow to the Yankees on multiple levels. Obviously, not having him take his turn every fifth day, possibly for the rest of the season, but more pertinent, how serious this might have been had it not been caught in time. Just the word aneurysm strikes fear.

“I’m stunned,” Wade Boggs said, a sentiment shared by the entire clubhouse. “It puts everything in perspective. We’re all concerned for his well-being and hope for the best. The pitching is secondary. We’re not machines or robots. We’re human beings. And in the blink of an eye something can happen. This is reality. The sad part about it is that it happens to a great guy.”

Said Torre, “It’s not only his ability to pitch and win. His presence here is big and will be big again when he gets back.”

The surgery was performed on May 10 and doctors emerged with an encouraging report. They successfully removed the aneurysm without creating trauma in the surrounding muscles in his shoulder. Cautiously there was hope for a late-season return, but there was every reason to believe that Cone’s season was finished and the Yankees would have to press on without the man who they’d just given the richest contract ever afforded to a pitcher.

“At this point I have to assume David isn’t going to pitch again this year,” Torre said in Chicago where, hours after Cone came out of surgery, the Yankees lost 5-2 to the White Sox. “I have no choice but to think so. For me to think or plan any other way would be unfair. I have to deal with reality, and the reality is that David isn’t here. If he comes back to pitch, if it’s next year, fine. If he comes back this year, it’s a bonus.”

Scott Kamieniecki had been first up in Cone’s spot May 7, but he left in the top of the sixth on the wrong side of the score and did not get credit for the victory when the Yankees rallied to score eight runs in the bottom of the sixth to crush the Tigers 12-5.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Kamieniecki said of starting in Cone’s spot. “You can’t even think about trying to replace him.”

Ultimately, Kamieniecki couldn’t and he was sent down to Triple-A in the last week of May to make room for rookie Ramiro Mendoza and never pitched for the Yankees again.

Mendoza wasn’t exactly the answer, either, as he wound up starting 11 times and pitching to a brutal 6.79 ERA, but because Andy Pettitte, Kenny Rogers, Jimmy Key and Dwight Gooden all made between 29 and 34 starts, the Yankees were able to survive until Cone’s somewhat surprising return in September.

None of this was known, though, as Cone began his recovery, and all the Yankees could do was hope for the best.

“I’m a David Cone fan,” John Wetteland said. “I love to watch David Cone pitch. I guess I’m going to have to put that on hold for a while.”

NEXT Post on April 17: Dwight Gooden throws a no-hitter.