Just a Cone in the Crowd

As usual, David Cone was an optimist.

“The whole dynamic seems different to me this time around,” he said. He was talking about the possibility of another Major League Baseball strike. During the last one, Mr. Cone, as assistant American League player rep, was on TV practically every half-hour, the friendly, wracked face of the rebels, issuing reports, warnings, quiet remonstrations. This year, on a warm July night on Staten Island, the former Yankee and Met pitcher was getting ready to work as a cable-TV analyst on a minor-league game between the Yankee and Mets minor-league teams.

“There is not as much rhetoric as there was the last time,” said Mr. Cone, still boyish and clear-eyed. “I still believe the framework is there for a deal.”

That Mr. Cone found hope for baseball is not surprising. At 39 and on the sidelines, he remains baseball’s preeminent hoper. Passed on by the Yankees, dumped by the Red Sox, Mr. Cone continues to keep his body in shape, waiting for a team to let him reboot a pitching career that resulted in 193 wins and 2,655 strikeouts.

Mr. Cone, in a gray suit, sat on a pine bench in the 6,500-seat Richmond County Bank Ballpark, looking out at its sprawling view of Wall Street. Gangly young players shagged flies in the outfield. They had been born after Mr. Cone graduated from Rockhurst High in Kansas City. Neither major leaguers nor millionaires, they had what Mr. Cone still wanted.

“I can’t let go,” he said. “It’s just really hard for me to say it. On certain days, I wake up and I think, ‘I still can do this.’ On other days, I realize it’s not the thing I should do anymore. But I’m still sort of holding out some hope in terms of maybe getting out there one more time.”

That is David Cone’s song, of course. Throughout his career, he’d been counted out many times-after injuries, after the terrifying aneurysm in his throwing shoulder, after a 4-14 season with the 2000 Yankees-only to crawl back again with his intelligent face, his stalwart, elastic demeanor. His perfect game in 1999, his super-intense championship appearances, his 66-27 record with the Yankees through 1999-Mr. Cone’s crescendos and collapses became a well-chronicled New York melodrama, and each time he fell, he stood up and steadfastly faced his public battering. His raw, articulate self-flagellations won him new admirers. Roger Angell wrote a book about him. Victories made Mr. Cone great, but the lines on his face made him human, and a particular kind of pained New York hero; with his face of experience, he could easily have had a running part on Law & Order as a D.A. who’d seen too much.

Now baseball was once more a wreck-labor trouble, steroids, a certain crummy facelessness, that putrid All-Star tie-but Mr. Cone wanted in. His former Yankee teammate Paul O’Neill, who surely had a few hundred more hits and helmet tosses left, managed to depart peacefully, but Mr. Cone was fitful and wriggling for more. He long-tossed in Tampa, kept his apartment on the East Side, and sat in the Yankee Stadium bleachers on opening day. The latter gesture was at once whimsical and a little sad. It wasn’t just another David Cone media moment, served hot for the sports hacks; he really couldn’t let go.

Mr. Cone allowed that a return this season was increasingly a stretch. Earlier in the year, when the Yankees’ pitching staff was injured and depleted, he thought he might get a call from George Steinbrenner. The call didn’t come, and Mr. Cone conceded that the first-place Yankees, with their six starters, were fine without him. “Things have seemed to really straighten out for the Yankees,” he said.

He would think about next year. His preference, of course, would be for a final-season, 14-rocking-chairs-in-14-parks send-off, but one scenario was that Mr. Cone could be invited into spring training as a Yankee and retire in spring training as a Yankee. A grace note. “It very well could happen that way,” he said.

Scandalized as a Met wild child early in his career, Mr. Cone was insistent on ending his run with dignity. But his departure already felt messy, as if he were an undecided heavyweight-stop, come back, stop, come back again. Surprisingly itinerant during his career-Kansas City, New York, Toronto, Kansas City, Toronto, New York and then … Boston!-he did not want to scrounge. Even if people said 200 wins would be a nice round number, a potential Hall of Fame number, he did not want to trek to a woebegone town for a woebegone club. “The last thing I want to do is go out there and schlep around,” Mr. Cone said.

He wanted to be a Yankee again. He looked like he could give Joe Torre six innings every fifth day. Television makes Mr. Cone look like a pencil-necked Xerox repairman, but in person he is broad-shouldered and svelte, with a rigid stomach and wide, powerful pitcher’s hips. Across the diamond, a trio of former Met teammates-Bobby Ojeda, Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson-displayed various progressions of paunch and gray, but the blond Mr. Cone showed neither. One young woman who wandered by the booth later that night during the game looked at Mr. Cone and said, “Nice ass.”

But sometimes the other parts felt 39 years old. “The wear and tear over the years has certainly taken its toll,” Mr. Cone said. The physical erosion was the hardest thing to accept, he said, the realization that “maybe you don’t have the same type of stuff that you once had, or maybe you aren’t the same type of pitcher that you once were.”

Mentally, he hoped his brain would tell him when to put it to rest. As a young player in 1987, he watched a tired, wide-bodied Tom Seaver try and make a return to the Mets: “He came in and threw a simulated game and said, ‘No, I can’t do this anymore.'” Mr. Cone said he admired the way Don Mattingly took a year off after he left the Yankees and evaluated his opportunities before hanging it up. Mr. Cone also said he wasn’t interested in playing in Japan.

But he knew that the more time passed, the less likelihood there was of a triumphant return. “One year is pretty strong,” said Mr. Cone. “The further removed I get from the game, the more likely it is that I stay out.”

In the meantime, there was broadcasting. Mr. Cone was one of those players everyone expected to become an analyst. He was well-spoken and insightful and, best of all, unwary of the media. Here, Mr. Cone had plenty of suitors. The Yankees may have not wanted him for six every fifth day, but the Yankee cable people did. “He has everything you look for,” said John Filippelli, the executive producer of YES, the Yankees’ cable network, who hired Mr. Cone as a studio and game analyst.

Mr. Cone, raised on the verbal stylings of Tony Kubek and Dizzy Dean, got the network to indulge his desire to keep in playing shape and ponder another go. YES’s offer, he said, was “a great opportunity to learn this side of the business.”

So he sat down, and in the booth he was David Cone exactly as you remembered him on the mound-smooth, intelligent, subtle. His play-by-play colleague, Ed Randall, was a bit of a honey-coated ham-“A wonnnderful play!”-but Mr. Cone showed his usual restraint. He noted Staten Island pitcher Ryan Bicondoa’s “little baby drop-step.” He discerned a splitter from a sinker. When Mr. Bicondoa yielded a titanic dinger to left field, Mr. Cone admired the shot, then dryly noted, “That’s a home-run pitch all the way, even with the wind blowing out to left.”

Jim Kaat, Yankee analyst and also a former pitcher, instructed Mr. Cone to “just let the game come to you. Don’t try to manufacture things before they happen.” Mr. Cone followed the advice. He already seemed like a natural. Mr. Filippelli pronounced Mr. Cone’s performance “excellent.”

Yankee fans have already forgiven him for his sojourn in Boston. Mr. Cone called his 9-and-7 2001 tour with the Red Sox “gratifying.” “If I walk away, I’m content,” he said, “because of Boston last year.” He called the Ted Williams cryonic crisis “bizarre,” then said, “It’s kind of fitting for Boston.”

As for baseball itself, Mr. Cone monitored the strike threat particularly closely. As player rep, he was a hard-liner during the 1994 strike, but he believes the current collective-bargaining impasse with ownership-the issues are salary containment and revenue-sharing-is not as severe as it was eight seasons ago. “In 1994,” he said, “the owners had a concerted effort to break the union, all the way down to replacing the players. I think it was a plan that was premeditated and set into motion, and I don’t think there was anything we could have done back then to remedy the situation.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Cone contended that the onus for settling the deal in 2002 was upon the owners, namely owner and commissioner Bud Selig. “I think when Bud Selig is ready to make a deal, he’ll call Donald Fehr and both of them will compromise and make an agreement,” he said.

Mr. Cone acknowledged the difficulty of comparing the baseball players’ union issues to the grievances of steelworkers or bag carriers. “It’s almost impossible to explain our case to the public,” he said. “But even though it’s hard to differentiate between millionaire ballplayers and billionaire owners, it still comes down to rights for the players-freedom of movement and the right to chose where you want to work at some point in your career.”

Then there’s another lingering cloud-anabolic steroids, and the issue of if and how baseball should test for them. Mr. Cone party-lined the issue, saying that recent claims about steroid abuse-50 percent of players are juiced, some have said-are overcooked. But he allowed that players are physically bigger and more powerful than when he began his career.

“When I first broke into the big leagues in the mid-1980’s, we didn’t have a weight room in the Royals’ clubhouse,” Mr. Cone said. “George Brett never lifted a weight his whole career. Weight-lifting, supplements, Creatine, vitamins and all sorts of front-line marketing products have really changed the game, including weight training. I’m not excluding the possibility that somebody is using steroids, but it’s not the only variable involved.”

Mr. Cone has also involved himself in another skirmish, traveling to the Bronx at YES’s request to testify at a wild hearing about the network’s dispute with Cablevision. “It was different, ” Mr. Cone said.

It wasn’t the kind of pitching he wanted to be doing, but it was an association with the Yankees. He wasn’t ready to be a coach, but he wanted to advise young players on the New York ropes, even on how to find an apartment. Mr. Cone said he wanted to talk to new Yankee Jeff Weaver, in from Detroit, who’s been getting creamed on the back pages of the Post and News . “I’d like to talk to him about a few things that I went through,” he said. “This is something he couldn’t have been prepared for.”

Mr. Cone said he still wandered into the Yankee clubhouse from time to time and talked with his former teammates and with Joe Torre. But he said he felt a little like the graduated senior still hanging out in the high-school parking lot.

It was a hot summer night, the kind that sits in your mouth. Not far away, young men, to whom the major leagues were a distant hope, were tossing baseballs to each other.

“Right now,” David Cone said, “I’m still a little lost.