BoSox Banking on Coney Renaissance
SportsTalk.com, January 15, 2001
During the winter of 1986, the Kansas City Royals acquired Ed Hearn from the New York Mets. Two years later, Hearn hit a team-leading 39 home runs. His .318 batting average was good for second in the American League. He drove in 117 runs, and was the starting catcher in the All-Star Game. The Royals made it to the ALCS.
Hearn's career path would lead him to the World Series in '92, '96, '98, '99, and 2000. His strike-shortened 1994 season was one for the ages, earning him AL MVP honors. In 1999, he slugged four home runs in a game. But he hit .227 with only eleven dingers since that historic day - including a paltry seven last year. A free agent this off-season, he is two-dozen home runs shy of 400. Yet he cannot seem to find a guaranteed contract. The above tale is a fib. That is, everything but the first sentence. Hearn was indeed traded to the Royals after the '86 season, but his career ended two years (and a mere thirty-five at-bats) later. His claim to fame is the aforementioned trade; in exchange for Hearn, the Mets acquired David Cone.
It is Cone with the two 20-win seasons ten years apart. He has the five All-Star appearances, and it is he who won the 1994 Cy Young. He ranks twentieth all-time in career strikeouts. He is the guy with enough World Series rings to fill his pitching hand. In 1998, he made even Yankee-haters smile he fell to his knees, making historic that masterful July day when he was nothing short of perfect. But since then, Cone has been horrific on the mound.
An uncharacteristic implosion last year, marked by 4-14 with a 6.91 ERA, all but extinguished his star. Cone got paid 12 million big ones last year - a nest egg that could have cushioned the blow of the $500,000 salary the Yankees offered for this year. After twelve seasons of convincing everyone that he was a true-to-life ace, Cone has to prove himself again. Just fourteen wins short of 200, he was a free agent who could not seem to find a guaranteed contract.
Boston finally inked him last week, but the Red Sox owe the righty only $160,000 if he is released more than two weeks before Opening Day. While Cone may earn up to $5 million in 2001, the contract is less about money and more about opportunity. Cone wants, and will get, a chance to yet again to shine again.
Indeed, Cone told the AP that he "felt like the Yankees thought [he] was replaceable," and turned down New York's contract offer. ESPN.com's Bob Klapisch reported that the once-perfect free agent waited five days for a call from the Mets, only to learn they simply were not interested. The Royals offered him a homecoming - as a closer. Texas made their way into the rumor mill by meeting with him in mid-December, but the low base salary did not pique the pitcher's interest. A move to Boston - whose rivalry with the Yankees may be the most storied in all sports history - is oddly poetic. He was to leave the House that Ruth Built. Now he has to rebuild himself in the house that Ruth left.
His self-rebuilding process will not be an easy task. After Pedro Martinez, the Red Sox have Frank Castillo, Rolando Arrojo, and Hideo Nomo penciled into the two through four slots. While it is possible that one of those three could falter - none have consistently displayed quality pitching - Cone will be fighting for primarily for that fifth and final slot in the BoSox rotation. The competition is a fierce group of no less than six others. Youngsters Tomo Okha, Sun Woo Kin and Paxton Crawford will push him. Tim Wakefield and Pete Schourek will be there if he falters. Bret Saberhagen will remind Cone that the ex-Yankee is not the only Cy Young winner in this competition.
For the Red Sox, Cone's history is old news. Boston's acquisition of Manny Ramirez amplifies the output of Carl Everett and Nomar Garciaparra, giving Beantown one of the more potent offenses in the majors. Pedro gives them a factor no other team can match. Their wealth of arms gives them a solid bullpen, if not by default. It matters not that Cone has a shot at 200 wins or that he was a perennial name on the leader boards. Boston fans, perhaps more so than all others, do not take kindly to losing. Red Sox skipper Jimy Williams has a real decision to make; Cone's addition to the rotation is far from guaranteed.
Cone will have to be the pitcher who, before 1999, never had an ERA above 3.70 over a full season. He will need to prove capable of outings like his 7 inning, one hit performance in the '99 World Series. He must demonstrate that his brilliance, while faded, is still there. Cone will need to stare down the Green Monster and win over the Fenway Faithful as he did the Bleacher Bums in the Bronx. His résumé is his greatest asset, but it is also his worst enemy. He must show that 1998 and 1999 were the real David Cone; the 2000 version was nothing more than a cosmic error. Without a doubt, the Red Sox are taking a gamble.
The smart money is on Cone.