There’s no telling how the Royals’ fortunes might have been altered if they hadn’t traded David Cone. Twice.
The pitcher who grew up in Kansas City, was drafted by and debuted with his hometown team, went on to a stellar career as a five-time All-Star and Cy Young Award winner who pitched for five teams that won the World Series.
But only three of his 17 seasons were spent in Kansas City and two of those were abbreviated. Growing up on St. John Ave., in Northeast Kansas City, Cone could only see himself in a Royals uniform.
“The best memories I have are in the backyard of that house on St. John Avenue, playing wiffle ball, pretending to hit like George Brett and listening to Denny Matthews on the radio. I was an avid Royals fan,” Cone said in an interview with The Star.
Cone has shared his life story and explores baseball issues in his new book, Full Count: The Education of a Pitcher, written with Jack Curry. Kansas City shaped Cone, who went on to post 194 career victories, with 27 coming in a Royals uniform.
The Royals could have used Cone’s other triumphs.
The first trade occurred just before the 1987 season. Cone, drafted by the Royals in 1981, made his major-league debut in 1986. He figured to be part of the rotation the next year but was dealt to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn in one of the baseball’s most lopsided trades. Hearn played a total of 13 games for the Royals in two seasons.
Cone went 20-3 for the Mets in 1988 and led the National League in strikeouts twice in his six years there.
“I was completely floored by it,” Cone said of the trade. “I was the hometown kid, about to crack the rotation. ... I went to my locker, packed up my bag and left as quickly as I could. I didn’t know how to act. You just feel rejected.”
Cone had an idea why he was traded, and that day more than three decades ago is never far from his mind.
“To this day still,” Cone said. “The best I can tell, it’s a combination of things. My reputation as a minor-leaguer, butting heads with pitching coaches and being stubborn and my style of pitching, changing arm angle and throwing sidearm was really frowned upon by some of the pitching coaches.”
Cone said the Royals believed he was “a young, head-strong, kind of flaky young pitcher they didn’t know and like his style so much.”
So Cone was gone. But after a stint with the Mets, where Cone fell in love with New York, and finishing the 1992 season as a hired gun for Toronto and helping the Blue Jays win a World Series, Cone was back on the market. And Kansas City made the best offer.
In December, 1992, the health of Royals owner Ewing Kauffman was fading. He wanted to make a championship run and sought to sign Cone, now one of baseball’s best pitchers. Cone met Kauffman at the Winter Meetings in a hotel room in Louisville, Ky.
“It was an incredible meeting,” Cone said. “He looked me in the eye and said, “You’re (part of) the worst trade we ever made, I want to bring you back home, and I want to give you a $9 million signing bonus up front. He had his check book with him. He showed me his check book. My mouth hit the floor.”
Cone said he wanted to step in the hallway to speak with his agent. But mostly he wanted to calm himself from the excitement of the offer. “I was bursting,” he said. “It took me all of about five minutes to shake his hand and say, yes, I’ll take it. Thank you. I want to come home.”
He was home for two years. In 1993, Cone went 11-14 but posted a career best 254 innings, stuck out 191, the ninth-best in team history, and a 3.33 ERA. The next season was perhaps the best of Cone’s career: 16-5, 2.94 ERA, 1.072 whip, and the Cy Young Award.
But baseball in 1994 ended in August with the players’ strike. The game’s economics had changed, and so did Cone’s team again. He opened 1995 in Toronto, ended it with the New York Yankees and became part of a rotation for four World Series title teams.
Today, Cone is color commentator for the Yankees’ YES Network. And now an author with a book that debuted at No. 13 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list.
“I was able to peel back some layers and get into some deeper stuff that happened to me in my career,” Cone said.
Like his Royals years.