A Pair of Pros Collaborate: Pitcher and Baseball Writer

A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with David Cone , by Roger Angell. Warner Books, 290 pages, $24.95.

Roger Angell’s profile of David Cone started out along one trajectory–a close study of the inner game of pitching–and then veered off along another–the blow-by-blow account of Mr. Cone’s excruciating 2000 season. As such, Mr. Angell has thrown a slider of sorts–precisely the pitch that went AWOL for Mr. Cone last year.

Mr. Angell, a national pastime in his own right, is invariably and deservedly described with gushy superlatives as baseball’s poet laureate. He has covered baseball for The New Yorker since 1962, always finding insights that elude the beat writers, and recording them in a graceful prose that mimics the game’s laconic pace far better than the hurried observations in the morning papers.

Not long ago, before his career went south, Mr. Cone was ripe for book treatment. A star pitcher for the Yankees, a Series champion five times (he had a cup of coffee with the 1992 Blue Jays), a Cy Young Award winner, the owner of a perfect game and a thoughtful, charismatic speaker, Mr. Cone seemed like the perfect subject for a serious bio. To his credit, our hero insisted on Mr. Angell–based on a sympathetic profile, “Conic Projection,” that appeared in The New Yorker in May 1996. Mr. Angell agreed, spurred no doubt by a reputed $600,000, but also motivated to write a book that does not exist: an insider’s view of what a star pitcher thinks about before, during and after a game. This book, at one point entitled Game Face , might have become something like The Science of Pitching –a useful corrective to Ted Williams and our primordial interest in hitting (I would have titled it Coney’s Island of the Mind ). Any fan worth his salt knows that everything from the tempo to the final result is dictated by the guy standing on top of the little hill. Still, our inner caveman keeps us enthralled by the big stick.

Mr. Cone was a logical choice for this brave experiment. First, there was his artistry on the mound (the former Met John Franco likens him to Pablo Picasso, though a calmer Northern European–Hans Holbein?–better fits the bill). Mr. Cone also offered unusual poise before the interviewer’s microphone (Mr. Angell sees him as a possible State Department spokesman), a few choice controversies in his past, and a link to both New York teams (with their legions of Coneheads). Great writer plus great pitcher equals great story–or so the theory went.

The only problem was that no one told David Cone’s right arm. As the 2000 season got underway, something unexpected happened. The eloquent explainer could no longer do the things he was so good at talking about. He lost game after game, and he lost ugly (his final record was 4-14, with a 6.91 E.R.A.). This makes for tough reading–it’s like watching slow-motion footage of a gazelle being chased by a slightly faster pride of lions.

Both Mr. Angell and Mr. Cone handle the disaster with impressive aplomb. The pitcher stays with the book even when it’s obviously bugging him (did he ever suspect a causal relationship–an Angell’s curse?). Mr. Angell stares at the train wreck longer than he wants to, out of hope that the unexpected makes for good baseball literature, and that failure can be as interesting as success. It’s a refreshing idea, in the abstract. How many thousands of baseball books have been written about the boring idea of perfection? Or worse, about grown men chasing their infantile obsessions like so many balding Ponce de Leons? What’s wrong with injecting a little failure into the game? Joe Torre, one of the many people who praise David Cone to the skies, explains his admiration by saying, “He’s real”–an unintentionally accurate statement after Mr. Cone’s abilities drop down to the merely human level.

Yet the two book ideas don’t always cohere, and often oppose each other. Mr. Angell offers penetrating observations about pitching, and we hear about things like arm slots, one-liners and two-seamers, but the original book is compromised by the black cloud that comes to rest squarely above Yankee Stadium on the days David Cone has the ball. That cloud is only briefly dispersed by the author’s urgent time-travel to a happier past–the kid in Kansas City, the minor leaguer, the wild young Met, the star Royal, the sober Yankee, the husband. Neither Mr. Cone nor Mr. Angell ever succeed in figuring out the pitcher’s demise, and we are left scratching our heads about pitching all over again. One feels as if the surprise ending is about to come at any second–and it may still this October, with David Cone on the mound for Boston–but the book ends reluctantly, without catharsis.

David Cone’s fabled eloquence, like his pitching ability, also grows strained. Nice guy? Sure. Good leader? Definitely. Able dispenser of sound bites? Affirmative. But his emotional core stays just out of reach, and despite Mr. Cone’s affection for Mr. Angell, his walls rise higher and higher as his E.R.A. shoots through the ceiling. Mr. Angell is a pro, and he gets the final out–but you feel as though he’s looking over his shoulder, hoping that someone is warming up for him in the bullpen.

There is, of course, much to enjoy in A Pitcher’s Story . Mr. Angell can’t write a bad sentence, and his reserves of baseball lore are apparently bottomless. Who else could or would describe a Sal Maglie curve as a scimitar? Or think of the Lafayette Escadrille when recalling how many injuries wiped out Mets pitching in 1987? Or call the statistics that follow all players throughout their careers a “gnat swarm”? Or describe Sid Fernandez’s breaking ball as a pitch “that emerged from behind his capacious middle at the last moment, like a cab around the corner.” For his persistence of memory, and his skill at summoning it, Roger Angell is nonpareil. He makes George Will look like a Little Leaguer clubbing himself in the batting helmet with his backswing.

Occasionally, Mr. Angell ranges afield of baseball, so quietly the reader barely notices. He writes evocatively of Mr. Cone’s old lower-middle-class neighborhood in Kansas City and the ways it disintegrated in the 1970′s, as the manufacturing base collapsed. He also plumbs the seismology of the volatile Cone family by interviewing all its members, including the father, Ed, a passionate sports dad and former night-shift master mechanic in a Swift meat-packing plant. There are tensions, to be sure, but the dominant story is that of a nuclear family whose toughness and mutual love ultimately eradicated the ceaseless obstacles that fate placed in its path.

One of the most intriguing subplots is the growing sense that David Cone and Roger Angell resemble each other (“Cone and I aren’t too different in some ways,” Mr. Angell writes early on). Mr. Cone is an aspiring journalist, despite the famous incident in the 1988 National League Championship Series when a ghostwriter’s column, written in his name, taunted the Dodgers–thereby enraging them. Mr. Angell, like all baseball writers, still wants to play the game, and though he doesn’t like to call attention to himself, both he and his subject are wrestling, in different ways, with their mortality. Mr. Cone was 37 and Mr. Angell turning 80 as they galloped across North America last season, like something out of Cervantes. In a recent interview, Mr. Cone described his current situation with the Red Sox by saying, “I’m trying like hell to make another chapter”–implying that his career and the book are one and the same.

At present writing, that final chapter is up in the air. David Cone is doing rehab in Fort Myers, Fla., searching for the Fountain of Youth in the state discovered by Ponce de Leon. You have to give him credit for drama–as Mr. Angell appreciates, ditching the Yankees for the Red Sox was a masterstroke. But the odds against him succeeding are long, and getting longer as the shadows lengthen on an old man fighting to stay in the summer game.

Ted Widmer is the author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City , and the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College .