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MASTERPIECE : With 20 Wins and 2.22 ERA, Mets’ Cone Is the Author of a Blockbuster Season

Times Staff Writer

As sports editor of the Rockhurst Register at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., David Cone envisioned a career in journalism.

Even now, Cone, who is 20-3 and is scheduled to start for the New York Mets against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, has not given up the idea that he eventually may do some sportswriting.

In fact, he will collaborate with a reporter from the New York Daily News in presenting his bylined thoughts during the playoffs.

What would he write about his own remarkable season, in which he won his last 8 decisions, finished second in the league in earned-run average at 2.22, finished second to Nolan Ryan in strikeouts with 213 and had the sixth-best percentage (.870) in major league history for pitchers with 20 wins or more?

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Cone, 25, paused, then offered a summation.

“I guess I’d approach it from the angle of truth being stranger than fiction,” he said.

And his 20-3 record does seem strange when weighed against:

--His previous major league record of 5-6.

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--The Mets’ plan to use him in 1988 as a reliever and spot starter.

--A minor league career that included an 8-12 record at Memphis, a 9-15 mark at Omaha and a full season spent recuperating from a knee injury.

Most of that, however, was before he developed confidence in a nasty split-fingered fastball, blossomed mentally in the pitching-oriented environment of the Mets and made the most of his chance when an elbow injury took Rick Aguilera out of the rotation in May.

Cone’s success has been such that Met first baseman Keith Hernandez calls the deal in which the Mets sent catcher Ed Hearn to the Kansas City Royals for Cone in March, 1987, “the steal of the century.”

That trade was made a year before the pitching-rich Royals traded Danny Jackson to the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Kurt Stillwell.

Now, with Cone and Jackson having won 20 and 23 games, respectively, to challenge Orel Hershiser as possible Cy Young Award winners, the embarrassed Royals responded in September by terminating the distribution of National League statistics in their press box, allegedly to save paper but more likely to avoid the daily reminder of how well Cone and Jackson were doing.

“If that’s true, I’m disappointed,” Cone said. “I thought the Royals had a little more class.

“No matter what people think of the trades now, Danny and my success is a positive reflection on that organization.

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“It was the Kansas City scouts who drafted and signed us, and it was their minor league organization that provided the groundwork for what we’re doing now.

“For the Royals to react that way is definitely disappointing.”

Stillwell, at least, gave the Royals much-needed stability at a key position. Hearn, however, injured his shoulder soon after the trade and has remained virtually useless.

“We felt our club was very close to winning a pennant in 1986 and that all we had to do was improve our catching,” Royal Vice President John Schuerholz said.

“Our scouts believed Hearn had the potential to be a No. 1 catcher, and I honestly think we would have won last year if he had been healthy, hit .270 and handled our pitchers like we expected. As it turned out--and I don’t blame the Mets--we got a catcher who couldn’t even throw the ball back to the pitcher.

“As for Cone, we hated to give him up. We thought highly of him. But I don’t think there’s too many people who thought he would do what he has done.”

Probably not even the Cone Heads who now occupy Cone’s Korner at Shea Stadium when Cone pitches.

And probably not Manager Dave Johnson, who calls Cone a “blue-collar competitor,” or pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who says Cone has been the best pitcher on a staff that includes Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling, or not even Joe McIlvaine, the Mets’ vice president of baseball operations and the man who made the trade.

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McIlvaine said his scouts were unanimous in their high regard for Cone, and he held firm during 6 months of periodic negotiations, refusing to yield Hearn for anyone else.

“It’s very unusual to be able to get the top pitching prospect in an organization,” McIlvaine said. “I was surprised because our reports on him were so good. It’s rare when you get that kind of agreement on a player, but we had it. I guess it came down to the fact that the Royals’ need was greater than ours.”

David Brian Cone is a 6-foot 1-inch, 180-pound right-hander who looks like an altar boy but displays the tenacity of a bulldog on the mound. He’s the shy-looking kid who fools everybody.

“A rascal,” Hernandez says.

On the afternoon of May 22 at Dodger Stadium, Cone kept boring in on Pedro Guerrero until he hit Guerrero in the shoulder. Guerrero made a halfhearted move toward the mound, then threw his bat at Cone, ultimately drawing a 4-day suspension.

Now Guerrero is with the St. Louis Cardinals, and Cone doesn’t think the incident will become an issue in the playoffs.

He was 2-0 in 2 starts against the Dodgers, allowing 2 earned runs in 13 innings.

“That was between Pedro and me,” he said, looking back to May 22. “As for the Dodgers, I think it’s behind us. I’ve shown that I’m going to pitch my game, that I’m going to do what I have to do to win. I think that not backing down to Guerrero has been a positive thing for my career.”

Cone’s father is a master mechanic who rises at 3 each morning to report to work at a meat processing plant. Much of Cone’s grit, the pitcher believes, stems from parental example.

At Rockhurst, Cone was an undersized quarterback who led his team to a state championship.

Rockhurst lacked a baseball program, but Cone made his mark in American Legion play. He was the third-round draft choice of the Royals in 1981 and rejected an athletic scholarship to Missouri, where he was planning to study journalism, for the Royals’ $15,000 bonus.

Two years later, in spring training of 1983, Cone tore knee cartilage covering the plate on a wild pitch, missed the entire season and needed two more, he said, to regain his mental and competitive feel on the mound. He then went 8-4 with 14 saves at Omaha in 1986.

Some were calling him the heir to Royal relief ace Dan Quisenberry when he was traded that next spring.

“I was devastated,” he said. “The Royals were my hometown team. I had rooted for them since I was 6. I thought the Mets represented another year in triple-A. Then I realized, ‘Hey, the one team wants you and the other doesn’t.’ You go where you’re wanted. It’s been a blessing.”

Cone started and relieved last year and spent 3 months on the disabled list with a broken finger, suffered when he was hit by a pitch attempting to bunt.

He finished the year 5-6, started this one 2-0 in relief, replaced Aguilera in early May, went 7-0 before his first defeat and could be 22-3, considering that in 2 starts, he pitched into the 10th inning without a decision.

Said Stottlemyre: “His development reminds me of what (former Met) Tim Leary has done with the Dodgers. It just took awhile for them to get it together. David was something of a thrower when he came to us. Now he’s a pitcher. He used to rattle. Now he doesn’t. He has better control of his emotions and his intensity.”

Not to mention improved command of a four-pitch repertoire that Tony Gwynn recently called an arsenal, the ability to throw from different angles--Cone calls his sidearm delivery the Laredo slider--and a fastball that people “have a tendency to short-change but is as good as there is in the league, considering velocity and movement,” according to Stottlemyre.

Aside from the improved confidence in his split-finger, Cone said he has prospered from the opportunity to pitch regularly and from the influence of Stottlemyre and the renowned Met pitchers, such as Gooden and Darling.

“I felt I could control my destiny if I got in the rotation, but I never thought I’d win more than 15 games,” Cone said. “I feel I’ve had a great year because I contributed to the winning of the division. The Cy Young is out of my control. Besides, Hershiser deserves it hands down.”

Could Cone have reached this level in Kansas City?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “The atmosphere isn’t as good for a young pitcher to grow and learn. The chemistry of that staff isn’t the same. Just getting the opportunity would have been a problem.

“Plus, there would have been the pressure of doing it in my hometown. I mean, it sounds strange saying that I got away from the pressure by coming to New York, but in my case it’s true.”

New York, though, has been good to Cone in a variety of ways. The Cone Heads, for example, have given him a special identity.

“I’m flattered,” he said. “The way I look at it, New York fans aren’t easily impressed. I enjoy it, but I try to keep it in perspective. The Cone Heads can just as quickly turn against me.”

Likewise, Cone has become one of the most popular Mets on the banquet circuit.

“I was one of the few guys who stayed around last winter,” he said. “I was the bargain. You could have Mookie (Wilson) for $2,500, (Tim) Teufel for $2,000 or me for a grand. I made it to a lot of bar mitzvahs.”

Cone’s surname was a critical factor in that. Members of the Jewish community, he says, are surprised to learn that it is not and has never been Cohen. In fact, Cone is Irish--the surname, he has been told, having once been McCone.

By any name, his appearance fee figures to go up, as will his bargain salary of $92,500.

“It would be tough to pitch better than he has, but I think he will,” Stottlemyre said of Cone.

“In fact, he plays a stronger role virtually every time he goes out there. His strikeouts are climbing up to double figures, and his hits per inning are diminishing. He also holds his stuff (during a game) better than anyone we have.”

The future? Cone, too, thinks he will improve, if only by refining the split-finger. The writer in Cone puts it in the context of an ongoing story.

“You have to break it down in different parts,” he said. “I went to spring training thinking I’d spend the year in the bullpen. Then, when I first moved into the rotation, I was the kid trying to establish himself.

“At the All-Star break, when I made the National League team, the kid set consistency as his goal. I didn’t want to have one good half and one bad half.

“Now that I’ve proved myself in the regular season, I have to do it in the postseason. It’s a never-ending process. The more you have, the more you want. It’s like money. Next year I’ll have to prove I can do it 2 years in a row.

“I mean, I haven’t been in the game that long, but I’ve been in long enough to see how fast it can turn around. I don’t want that.

“I want to be consistent year in and year out, like Ronnie and Doc have. That’s impressive.”

And what’s 20 and 3?


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