• Sal Maiorana

Cone's brilliant return couldn't have come at a more perfect time

OAKLAND (Sept. 2, 1996) – What a story it would have been if David Cone had thrown a no-hitter in his return to the mound four months after having an aneurysm removed from his shoulder.

Well, that’s exactly what he did – for seven innings – before Joe Torre made the call he felt he needed to make, lifting Cone after 85 pitches with the Yankees comfortably ahead of the A’s 4-0.

Guess what? It was still a great story. Amazing, actually, that Cone could be away for so long and then put forth a performance that immediately became one of the most memorable in the illustrious history of the franchise. Especially the timing of it given the current state of the Yankees, stuck in a free fall for more than a month, a team desperate for someone to pull the ripcord.

“I try not to think about what a big story this is, but in my own mind I know it’ll be huge that I was able to come back this year,” Cone said. “I said I would, so in that regard it’s a big event. It’s huge to come back from an aneurysm. But that’s not enough for this team. We need a good performance. We need a win.”

He wasn’t kidding, and for the moment, even though Mariano Rivera allowed an infield single to shortstop by Jose Herrera with one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees 5-0 victory kept the charging Orioles – on a 22-12 run since late July – at bay, four games out of the AL East lead.

“He’s always been a gamer,” catcher Joe Girardi said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the league. That’s why everyone wants him in September for the pennant run.”

Cone got off to a rocky start as his first five pitches were balls and he walked two men in the top of the first before retiring Mark McGwire on a pop fly to Girardi.

“I struggled in the first; I didn’t have a feel for anything,” he said. “The first five pitches weren’t close. I was just thinking, ‘Don’t let them get anything.’”

He didn’t, and over the next five innings he settled in and was outstanding, allowing only one baserunner when he walked Jason Giambi in the fifth.

The Yankees had been unable to touch Oakland starter Ariel Prieto, but finally in the sixth Mariano Duncan and Girardi hit back-to-back singles and after Prieto recorded two outs, he intentionally walked Paul O’Neill to get to Cecil Fielder. That decision proved costly when he plunked Fielder with his second pitch to force in the only run Cone needed.

The Yankees then pulled away in the seventh as Charlie Hayes homered and consecutive singles by Duncan, Girardi, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams pushed the lead to 4-0.

Now, all that was left was the no-hitter. Cone had to face the heart of the Oakland order in the seventh – Giambi, McGwire and Geronimo Berroa – and though he needed only 13 pitches, it was eventful. Hayes robbed McGwire with a fine play at third, and then Williams leaped over the center-field wall to take a home run away from Berroa.

At that point, Torre knew what he had to do.

“I couldn’t let the no-hitter cloud what we set out to do,” Torre said. “He wasn’t going to pitch the ninth anyway, so why tease this thing and send him out for the eighth? He said it was our call. If I leave him in there to throw 105 pitches and he wakes up with a sore arm tomorrow, I’d never forgive myself for that.”

Ever the great teammate, Cone had no qualms about the decision Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre made to lift him.

“I’m not going to worry about the no-hitter because I know that was the right thing to do,” Cone said. “I’m not going to look back and say this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance (turned out it wasn’t). I told Joe and Mel, ‘If you leave it up to me I’m going out there.’ I wasn’t even thinking about the ramifications down the road. Fortunately, they’re smarter than I am. I appreciate that. I’m going to be thankful to Joe and Mel for looking out for me. Getting to the playoffs and World Series is more important.”

George Steinbrenner was of course asked to comment on Torre pulling Cone, and the owner said, “I totally, totally, absolutely, totally, support my manager. He made the right decision.”

Wow. Torre should have printed those words and framed them, or perhaps asked a reporter for a copy of the audio.

Steinbrenner then praised the grit Cone had shown in coming back to the team and pitching like that.

“It was like someone wrote a Hollywood script,” the Boss said. “Here was a guy with a disease that has clobbered so many other people, beating it and pitching that way. It was sensational. That had to lift the whole team. He is a consummate teammate. It says on Mickey Mantle’s monument that he was the consummate teammate. Well, David Cone is like that. David says he’s going to do it and does it. That’s the kind of player he is. I think he picked up the whole team. That was really key. We’ve got to take it and go with it from there. We’ve got to win.”

With Cone back in the rotation, winning would presumably be easier, at least when his turn came up.

“He’s remarkable,” said Torre. “He’s got such a heart and such a stomach. It’s nice to have him back.”

NEXT post on May 20: Rivera was the hero, but not the one you think.