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It's no surprise that David Cone has become a great listen as a Yankees broadcaster. He is unique in his ability to translate analytical data -- the language of modern baseball -- in a way the average fan can appreciate, and still relish the telling of anecdotes about the human side of the game, often in self-deprecating style.
For much the same reason, Cone was a delight to cover as a player throughout his career. Indeed, he was a thinkinman's pitcher who offered great insight into his craft, but also a player with a rebellious streak who challenged authority at times, enjoyed speaking his mind, and believed a pro athlete should be accountable publicly in good times and bad.
Even if that once meant having to explain how he rather famously allowed two runs to score while arguing with an umpire about a call at first base. Yep, there was Cone at his locker that night in Atlanta some 30 years ago, sheepish grin and all, owning up to his brainlock.
No surprise, either, then, that Cone -- together with Jack Curry of the YES Network -- has authored a book, "Full Count. The Education of a Pitcher," which is both revealing and entertaining, offering an unfiltered look at what made a great pitcher tick, for better or for worse, on the mound and off it.
Last week, Cone appeared on SNY's Baseball Night in New York as part of his promotional tour for the book. Afterward he sat down with me and offered his always-provocative thoughts on a variety of Mets-related subjects, from his own playing days in Queens to the state of their current starting rotation.
The One That Got Away
Perhaps most intriguing, Cone feels strongly that history would have been different in a lot of ways if the heavily-favored Mets had defeated the Dodgers in the 1988 NLCS, rather than losing in seven games in a series that turned on Mike Scioscia's shocking home run off Dwight Gooden in the ninth inning of Game 4.
Cone believes that Mets team would have gone on to defeat the A's in the World Series, and if that had happened, GM Frank Cashen wouldn't have been nearly so quick to break up the core group from those '86 and '88 teams.
However, he also thinks Davey Johnson's lack of regard for defense, which became a way of thinking in the organization, was a factor in the underachievement in the late '80s into the early '90s.
"If we had won in '88 they would have kept that core together," Cone said. "At least that's what I think. The dynamic of winning two of three years: I saw it with the Yankees. It was a whole different dynamic when we won in '98. It validated '96.
"Then you build instead of thinking, 'we've gotta break it down.' There's a big difference between adding and subtracting.
"But also, the thing the Mets always underestimated was defense. They traded Lennie Dykstra. They traded Mookie Wilson. They tried Juan Samuel in center field, and Davey had this offensive lineup whenever Doc and I pitched. He'd put Howard Johnson at short. Because we were strikeout, fly-ball pitchers, we're going to play guys out of position defensively? I didn't understand that.
"I don't know if winning again would have kept Darryl (Strawberry) from leaving as a free agent a couple of years later. That's a different issue. But you look at a lot of things then through a different prism if you've got two rings. We'll never know for sure, but that's what I think."
The Long Goodbye
To take the '88 theory a step further, Cone wonders if getting that second title and how it might have changed the next few seasons would have influenced Mets management to sign him to a long-term deal done rather than trading him in August of 1992 as he approached free agency.
"I wanted to stay," Cone said. "The Mets made a decent offer (three years, $16.8 million) in spring training, but I thought it was short. I was so close to free agency that I decided to play it out. I always thought the Mets would be there, even after they traded me, but they weren't.
"I never got the sense they were bitter I didn't take their offer, but I did start to wonder if they made the decision I wasn't coming back because there were massive pitch counts that year. There was a stretch when I averaged 135 pitches over several starts, and one of them was a 166-pitch, 1-0 shutout."
(According to baseball-reference.com, in fact, Cone made six straight starts in which he threw 132 pitches or more in each, the fifth of which was the 166-pitch, 1-0 shutout of the Giants on July 17).
"Barry Foote was the bench coach that year (Jeff Torborg was the manager), and sometime during that stretch he kind of joked with me one day. He said, 'yeah, we're trying to blow you out so we can keep you.' Joking or not, this was right after I'd thrown that 166-pitch game. Pitch counts weren't what they are now, but I was being pushed to throw a lot more than normal.
"I'm not accusing anybody of anything, but I did get a sense of wow, maybe they've turned that page."
The Mets held onto Cone at the July 31 trade deadline that year, as they were still on the fringe of contention, but when they fell completely out of the NL East race in August they dealt him in a waiver trade to the Blue Jays for Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson.
Cone wound up winning the World Series that year with the Blue Jays, then signing a three-year, $18 million deal to go back to his hometown team, the Kansas City Royals, which included a $9 million signing bonus, and got traded to the Yankees in the summer of 1995.
"As much as I loved being a Met, I can't look back now with regrets about leaving," he said. "I got a chance to prove my worth in the postseason for Toronto, I got to go home for a couple of years to Kansas City, and eventually got back to New York with the Yankees. When you win four championships in five years, that's a run that's just unheard of, and I was right in the middle of it. So the way it worked out, it just felt right."
Tuning In To Watch The Mets
When Cone isn't doing games on YES, he says he makes a point of watching the Mets as well as the Yankees, at least partly because of his deep roots with SNY analysts Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling -- his one-time teammates.
"I think the Mets have a lot of potential," Cone said. "They have pitching, and those young guys, Alonso, McNeil, they've got some life, some energy. I watch McNeil and I'm like, ' wow this guy's a gamer.' He reminds me a little of Wally Backman. They've got the nucleus now, definitely.
"And I love watching Keith and Ronnie on the broadcast. They're my guys.
"As a fellow pitcher Ronnie was great to me when I came over to the Mets (in 1987), and Keith was such a big influence on me. The thing I loved about him was during games, he gave me such confidence, coming to the mound, pumping you up, telling me, 'this hitter's going to do this,' or 'throw your fastball to this guy -- he can't touch you.'
"Keith was ahead of the curve defensively too, the way he shifted so far over, the way he played the bunt. But the best thing was just how locked in and wired he was during games. He and (Gary) Carter would bump heads sometimes over calling pitches. Sometimes Keith would just bark it out at first base, and he knew the nuances of every hitter.
"Also, those guys introduced me to New York City. A lot of players lived out on Long Island at the time, but Keith and Ronnie and Rusty (Staub) were the ones who told me, 'don't be afraid of the city.' They had that mentality of embracing the experience, and I bought into it and I've lived in the city ever since."
Breaking Down The Starting Rotation
The Mets' top four starters -- Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler, and Steven Matz -- haven't been as dominant as expected this season, but Cone sounded convinced they'll figure it out over the course of the season. Although he does think Syndergaard needs to re-define himself somewhat to overcome his inconsistency.
In any case, here's what he had to say when I asked about each of them:
"I love him. Love, love, love. The guy's a gamer. He's fearless on the mound. Obviously his stuff is great, but to me his conviction in his pitches and his presence on the mound, which to me are so important, set him apart too. He reminds me of Pedro Martinez that way."
"For me it goes back to his weight training two years ago, when he went stronger, harder, bigger (and then suffered a torn lat muscle a month into the 2017 season). He needs to go the other way. He needs to throw that slow curve. One of best games I've seen him pitch, against the Reds, he really disrupted the timing of the hitters with that pitch.
"He needs to protect that power fastball, and the only way to do that is get the hitters off of it. El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) used to flip curve balls up there for strike one. It's such an easy way to get strikes.
"Syndergaard needs separation in terms of velocity. Hitters are geared up for velocity now. You've gotta pitch. And there is something to spin rate, which probably explains why he can't pitch as effectively up the zone as guys like deGrom and Wheeler."
"When he commands his fastball he can dominate anybody. And the splitter has become a tremendous weapon for him. There are going to be blips now and then, but he's got the formula now. He knows how to go about it. He's not in search mode, where Syndergaard needs to refine the formula a little bit."
"With Matz you just worry about health: as long as his elbow is solid, he'll continue to improve. You're starting to see more confidence and conviction on the mound, which is everything, I think.
"He still looks a little unsure at times. He needs a long run of success and then he'll get that fire in his eyes, that conviction. Does he trust himself? It sounds like a cliché but it really comes down to presence, confidence."