Cone's comeback already a big accomplishment

4/9/2003 - New York Mets

NEW YORK -- David Cone will step on the mound Friday night, take a deep breath -- the kind that's guaranteed to stretch the lining of his lungs -- and begin a journey into his own past. Cone is asking his arm to forget it's 40 years old, and that the days of his 90-something fastball have long since evaporated.

But regardless of how Cone actually pitches against the Expos, the most compelling comeback story in Mets history is already being written.

Not only has Cone made the 25-man roster against impossible odds, he's become the club's No. 4 starter while Pedro Astacio is on the disabled list. Put it this way: The Mets aren't just looking at Cone as a long-lost family member, but as a bona fide weapon in the National League East.

"Guys want to play behind him," is what Al Leiter told Newsday this week. It's not just nostalgia, either. Little by little in Florida, Cone proved he had just enough octane in his fastball to give his splitter and curveball credibility. And while he won't ever match the miracle of Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson -- throwing 97 mph at age 40 -- Cone won the Mets' hearts and minds in his last spring training outing, shutting out the Dodgers for five innings.

He threw soft, loopy curveballs, running two-seamers, and splitters out of the strike zone -- brilliant fake-out artistry from the very first pitch. Still, even without much heat, this was no small accomplishment, considering Cone sat out the entire 2002 season.

He wasn't retired, at least not officially, but Cone had obviously moved on to Plan B in his life, working for the Yankees' YES Network. Cone missed baseball, sure, but he wasn't exactly straining at the leash, either. In his words, "I was in golf shape."

Cone might've remained in George Steinbrenner's corporate embrace, had it not been for an appearance at John Franco's celebrity bowling tournament in Manhattan in late January.

There, Franco, the Mets' reliever, cornered Cone and pressed him to at least consider a comeback.

Franco told Cone, "You said they'd have to rip the uniform off your back to get you to retire. Whatever happened to that David Cone?"

Cone really didn't have an answer. In fact, he never understood why the phone stopped ringing last year. He ended the 2001 season respectably, posting a 9-7 record with the Red Sox, leaving him just seven victories shy of 200 for his career.

For some players, that would've been the perfect last lap, because what was left for Cone to accomplish? He'd won a Cy Young Award, twice been a 20-game winner, pitched in the playoffs in eight different seasons, and now had a chance to go out on a winning note.

Yet, Cone couldn't let go. Not yet. Not after Franco and Leiter had successfully wrapped him in their tentacles. In fact, all Cone had to do was remember how empty the summer of 2002 felt.

"It hit me last year on Opening Day. I sat in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium and kept thinking, 'I should be out there,' " Cone said one day during spring training. "I guess it's my insecurity. I wish I could've been more graceful and say, 'This is the time to walk away.' But I couldn't. I really missed being a Met, a Yankee, being a ballplayer, in general. I needed one more chance for closure.

"My brother said I'm like some old elephant that has to make one more trek through the jungle before he dies. That's pretty much true."

So Cone accepted the Mets' invitation, which at first was a PR fantasy made flesh, at least for the Mets. It was a brilliant move, actually. Cone was one of theirs, a human bridge to a more prosperous era in the '80s, back when the Mets were on a first-name basis with New Yorkers.

There was Straw, Doc, Mex ... and Coney.

So there he was, back in his time tunnel, back in Port St. Lucie, Fla. -- feeling like he'd made a mistake, actually. After throwing off the mound for the first time, Cone realized his arm was killing him, and even worse, that probably ended his career in the Yankee broadcast booth.

That's because Cone had asked Steinbrenner for permission to pitch for the Mets. Not that Cone needed it -- he was a free agent, after all -- but he wanted to show The Boss respect.

Steinbrenner's response was lukewarm, at best.

"I'd rather you stay here with us," the owner said. "But if this is something you have to do, then do it."

Cone still isn't sure if he has a job waiting in the Bronx, but Mets officials have already told him he can work at Shea forever. Even if the experiment fails, one Mets official said, "We want David to be with us in any capacity he wants."

Of course, the core question is: Can Cone's arm really endure over an entire summer? He sufficiently rebuilt it to reach 86 mph on the radar gun, which is just fast enough to make hitters take him seriously. Still, if Cone succeeds, it's because he's smart enough to stay out of the middle of the strike zone.

If he doesn't ... well, Cone was brave enough to at least try.

Either way, Cone has triumphed over time's relentless passage. Even for one night, he'll make us all a little younger.

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.