It was a portrait of a young man coming apart at the seams, leaking composure, nearing his panic threshold.
David Cone was very much alone on the Dodger Stadium pitcher’s mound Tuesday night.
First inning, he walked Dodger leadoff man Steve Sax on four pitches, then threw two balls to Mickey Hatcher.
The Mets’ star pitcher had been hounded out of Game 2 of this series after his now-infamous newspaper column. Now he was back in town, charged with the assignment of keeping the Mets alive.
During pregame introductions, Cone got the night’s biggest crowd reaction, and unless his nickname is “Moose,” the local fans were booing the former journalist.
Now he was in real trouble. The fans were howling. The strike zone seemed the size of a matchbook. Mel Stottlemyre, the Met pitching coach, popped out of the dugout and jogged quickly to the mound. Mel doesn’t remember ever visiting his starting pitcher so early in a game, but geez, the kid looked nervous.
Stottlemyre was joined by catcher Gary Carter, first baseman Keith Hernandez and second baseman Wally Backman.
What goes on in a meeting like this?
Stottlemyre: “He was nervous. I could see it on his face. I could see he was tense and over-keyed up. He didn’t say anything. I said, ‘I know you’re nervous. Try to relax, step off and throw to first twice, three times if necessary, to get loose.’ ”
Carter: “I went out and said, ‘Hey, settle down. You don’t need to be as pumped up as you are. Have some fun.’ I was assertive, I was on him, rather than ‘OK,’ because he wasn’t OK.”
Hernandez: “I was just trying to pump him up. He was tight, nervous. I was trying to bring out the competitor in him, I was screaming, trying to pump him up.”
Backman: “I just told him to concentrate a little more, go get ‘em. I was trying to build the guy up, in a calming way. I was cheering him, patting him on the back, telling him, ‘That’s the same team you pitched against in the regular season. Go out and do what you can do.’ ”
So his pals were trying to pump Cone up and calm him down, soothe him and ruffle him, pat him on the back and yell in his face and kick him in the butt, in a nice and hostile way.
It was group therapy before a mean crowd of 55,000. Nothing to worry about, kid, just relax right now, or else the whole team is dead, done for the season, and you go down as New York’s No. 1 goat, and your magnificent season goes down the toilet.
Throw strikes. Have fun. Please, please don’t choke.
Then they all walked off and left Cone alone.
He went into his stretch and threw over to first, stumbling and almost falling. He threw to first again.
Then he threw two balls to Hatcher, including a wild pitch.
For those who know Cone as a likable young man, an innocent and easygoing lad with wide eyes and the smallest ego on the ballclub, this was painful to watch.
“Carter and Hernandez were telling me to sit back on my back leg, stop lunging,” Cone said. “But it’s real hard to do when your heart is jumping, and at that point, all I wanted in the world was to throw a strike.”
He threw one to Kirk Gibson. Then Gibson did what all the Mets hadn’t been able to do--he calmed Cone down. Gibson bunted the ball into the air, directly to Cone.
From that point on, the nervous kid was the ice-water ace. The rest of the evening, he toyed with the Dodgers, allowing five singles and one run and pitching New York back to life.
Gibson’s bunt saved Cone.
“Oh, my gosh, that was a bonus for us,” Carter said.
The gamble failed. A successful bunt might have undone Cone. The popup was just what he needed.
From then on, Cone handled the Dodgers as if they were high school hitters. He showed them how he won 20 games this season.
“The whole country saw the real David Cone tonight,” Kevin McReynolds said. “The kid has some of the nastiest stuff I’ve ever seen.”
Who would suspect it? Cone is 25 but looks younger, and on the mound, even when things are going good, he looks a little anxious. He is hardly an intimidating presence. Compared to Cone, Orel Hershiser looks like Charles Bronson.
But once he gets in a groove, forget it. He works fast, sometimes taking less than five seconds between the time he gets the ball back from the catcher and the time he rocks into his windup.
Maybe that’s the old newspaper man in Cone, the instinct for beating the deadline.
The Dodgers would step out of the box on him, but not often enough. He retired 10 batters in a row, then 12.
They made a big mistake, the Dodgers did. They had the kid on the ropes, they had him so rattled he didn’t know which hand to put his glove on, then Gibson swung at the first pitch, then Mike Marshall swung at the first pitch.
This may have been a good time to let the young man bury himself, challenge him to put the ball over the plate.
Instead, they helped him out of the toughest jam of his life, and helped the Mets make it to Game 7.
This would have been a great game for Cone to write if he still had his newspaper column.
He could have explained how, six pitches into the game, he found it necessary to call time out and settle down his first baseman, second baseman, catcher and pitching coach.
Those guys were really keyed up, nervous as hell, Cone could tell, could see it on their faces.
He could relate, and he called the guys together out on the mound just to let them know everything was cool, Coney was in charge.