20 Years Ago, a Look Back at Cone’s Perfecto

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  Hi all.  Instead of writing about what’s happening in today’s game, I’m going to take you back to what began as a routine Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin, but stopped being routine thanks to David Cone, then pitching for the Yankees who is now a broadcaster on their telecasts. 

 Going back a year to 1998, the Yankees’ lefty David Wells had fired a perfecto at Yankee Stadium against the Twins.  As fate would have it, I was recording that game from WCCO, the Twins’ flagship.  My new bride and I had moved to the twin cities in October, 1997 since I worked for the St. Paul Saints.  As Wells mowed the Twins down, I just hoped I would hear the end, one way or the other, since my bride wanted to go to the mall and I was compelled to go if she went.  Wells got the job done and the recording was safe and sound before the ride came to take us to the mall. 

  Fast forward a year to July 18, 1999.  The Saints were finishing off a 3-game series in Madison, Wisconsin against the Black Wolf.  The recording of that game has not survived the years, so I don’t know if I was aware that David Cone was pitching against the Expos that afternoon.  I had admired him since the Mets stole him from the Royals for a bucket of curve balls.  I can’t put my finger on why I was partial to him.  There was just something about him once he matured.  After the Yankees got him in 1995, if you asked me what Yankee pitcher I would want on the hill if there was one game to play and my life was at stake, my choice would be David Cone. 

   I met him in 1996 when he came to Norwich, CT. for a rehab start following a frightening health scare.  He had suffered an aneurism in his shoulder which needed surgery. Had it burst, the bleeding might have killed him.  He was lucky to return to the hill in 4 months.  He pitched and won game 3 of the World Series in Atlanta with his team down 2 games to None and panic filling the airwaves, particularly on WFAN.  After winning a classic in game 4, the Yankees never looked back.  Cone, who had won a World Series ring with the Blue Jays won his second, and took his third in 1998. 

  July 18, 1999 was a broiling day on the east coast.  Before sundown, the temp would reach 98 at Yankee Stadium.  The place was packed, and no matter about the heat.  Almost 42,000 were there and would have been there if a cloudburst happened.  This was Yogi Berra Day.  Yogi hadn’t been back to the stadium since he was fired after 16 games in 1985.  With Suzyn Waldman playing the part of Henry Kissinger, Berra and Yankee owner George Steinbrenner buried the hatchet and number 8 agreed to return.  His old battery mate Don Larsen threw out the first pitch which Berra caught.  Larsen then shook hands with the Yankee starter of the day.  From then on, the stage belonged to Cone. 

  His opposition was the Montreal Expos.  Jim Lucas and I had covered most of their players when we were in AA with New Britain.  The future Expos played for Harrisburg.  Against our questionable pitching, they all looked like world beaters.  One grew to be a Hall of Famer, Vladimir Guerrero.  Cliff Floyd did well enough in the bigs, but he had been traded to the Marlins before Cone faced the Expos.  Cone made them all look like what they were–AA players in MLB uniforms.  Meantime, the Yankees put up 5 runs in the second inning off future Yankee Javier Vazquez.  The game was held up by a 33-minute rain delay.  Today, Cone’s day would have been done at that point.  Back then, Torre never considered taking his starter out.  When Cone came back after the delay, he found a new gear.  He only threw 7 pitches in the 4th inning.  Those were Greg Maddux numbers then, not the numbers of an aging Cone who was walking 5 guys per game by that time.  Upstairs in the owner’s suite, Larsen and Berra stayed to watch.  By his own admission, Larsen would normally have been gone by the 4th inning, but not on this Sunday.  By the 6th, the players were ignoring Cone in the dugout.  This is a baseball convention when a pitcher is working on a no-hitter or a perfecto.  With two gone in the 9th, pitch number 88 was a popup off the bat of Orlando Cabrera.  Yankee third baseman Scott Brosius caught it and held onto it so he could give it to Cone.  That took a while, as Girardi had grabbed Cone and the rest of the team surrounded him, congratulating him on the kind of performance pitchers dream about.  They hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him off into history. 

  1500 miles away, the game between the Saints and the Madison Black Wolf was in a rain delay.  I had quite a collection of baseball features so we could keep the air during rain delays.  At the same time, I always had a radio on hand when we traveled, so I could hear what was happening in the world of sports while we waited out the rain.  We were a low-tech operation, especially on the road.  I didn’t have a cell phone, and Jim rarely used his if his wife was with us on the road.  Neither of us had a laptop computer.  The very idea of watching games on our cell phones was still science fiction.  I got my bulletins off the radio as I had since boyhood.  On this day the bulletin had me yelling repeatedly “Oh my God! Oh my God!”  Jim knew something big was up.  My excitement level was up there with Russ Hodges when he yelled “The Giants win the pennant” at least 5 times after Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951.  This was like NBC using 4 chimes instead of 3, which they only did for extremely urgent news.  At first, Jim wondered if the news on the radio had been bad.  Eventually, I got the word out that Cone had pitched a perfect game.   Jim couldn’t believe it any more than I could at first.  Since the Saints were in the independent Northern League, we didn’t talk much about the day-by-day events from MLB.  This was a day to break that habit.  When we got back on the air, after telling our fans that our game was about to resume, I talked about Cone’s perfecto. 

  Once our game was over, my goal was to get home and get a recording of Cone’s perfecto.  This would be a simple matter in 2019.  It wasn’t simple at all 20 years ago.  MLB had only begun broadcasting on the Internet in the last couple of years, and hadn’t yet figured out how to archive the games for an entire season as they routinely do now.  Dial-up connections were still the norm, as were frequent computer crashes.  Since the Yankees wouldn’t play on Monday, Cone’s perfecto would be available until their game Tuesday night began.  If I didn’t have it by then, I couldn’t count on ever getting it.  I had been collecting games since 1991.  I had Wells’ perfecto from WCCO and badly wanted the Yankee broadcast of Cone’s gem. 

  In reality it’s a 5-hour run from Madison to St. Paul.  The trip that night seemed to take about a week.  Jim and his wife Lisa had bought a gigantic antique radio which barely left me room to move.  I kept thinking that God only knew if that radio would work, and hauling it a couple of hundred miles might very well be all in vain.  As uncomfortable as I was, I knew the trip was a chore for Lisa.  She was carrying their first son, and would give birth at the end of October.  My wife routinely traveled with us, so I told her I’d be up late recording Cone’s perfect game.  At first, it seemed like a routine job.  While there was no way to record directly onto the hard drive, (that would come 6 years later) I could record from the computer onto a cassette machine.  The plan was not only to get a permanent copy of the game, but also to use the call of the final play during the first pitching change of our game Monday night.  I got the recording and put it away for safe keeping.  Monday, I took the second tape with me to St. Paul’s Midway Stadium so I could copy the final play onto one of the many tapes we had for what we called “Alltime Gems.”  Each of these short clips ran during pitching changes.  When I tried to make the copy, I discovered the game tape had broken.  Now, not only did I not have the final play, I only had the first part of the game for my collection.  I had to spend part of Tuesday morning recording the second tape over again.  I got it done, and still have the game, now as an MP3 file.  Once the recording of the final play was safe, I copied it onto our answering machine and kept it there for weeks. 

In the years since, 7 men have thrown perfectos.  The next after Cone was Randy Johnson, almost 5 years later.  It would take another 5 years for the White Sox’ Mark Buehrle (Burly) to do it.  Then two men did the impossible in the same month.  On May 9, 2010 it was Oakland’s Dallas Braden.  Not 3 weeks later, on the 29th the late Roy Halladay of the Phillies saw 27 Marlins come up and 27 go down.  It happened 3 more times in 2012, with the White Sox’ Philip Humber, the Giants’ Matt Cain and Seattle’s King Felix Hernandez on the hill.  Since that astonishing stretch of 5 within 3 years, no man has thoroughly whitewashed the other side of the score card.  No-hitters or perfect games are happy accidents for the men who throw them, the fielders behind them, the broadcasters upstairs and the fans in attendance, not to mention the fans who weren’t there but claim they were.   No matter how many more may happen while I’m following the great game, none could cause me as much excitement as the one thrown by David Cone 20 years ago today.          

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