#52 David Cone
What's the first thing you think of when you hear the name David Cone? If you're a Royals fan, the answer is "Ed Hearn" just before you throw up in your mouth. For the uninitiated, Cone was a Kansas City native in the Royals organization dealt to the Mets in a five player deal, primarily for left-handed hitting catcher Ed Hearn. Two seasons later, Cone would win twenty games for the Mets, while Hearn would have already played his last Major League game.
Was it a truly boneheaded move to deal Cone for Hearn? I'm not really convinced that David Cone was considered some sure-fire top-line prospect at the time of the trade. Not a single Star columnist made a big deal of the trade at the time. Cone was a third round draft pick in 1981 out of Rockhurst High School in Kansas City.
"David has been a Kansas City fan his whole life. He always dreamed of playing baseball in Kansas City. When he was drafted by the Royals, he was so happy he couldn't contain himself."
-David's father, Ed Cone
He was excellent in his first two pro seasons, posting ERAs close to 2.00 in low A ball at a very young age. In 1984 at AA Memphis he took a huge step backwards, posting a 4.28 ERA with a staggering 114 walks in 178 2/3 innings pitched. He was just as bad the next season in AAA Omaha with a 4.65 ERA and 93 walks in 158 2/3 innings. His control problems caused the Royals to try him in the pen the next season, where he posted a much better 2.79 ERA and 14 saves in Omaha with much better control. He earned a cup of coffee with the big league ballclub and did not fare well out of the pen, with a 5.56 ERA in 22 2/3 innings.
After the 1986 season, the Royals determined that catcher Jim Sundberg was on his last legs and they needed a young catcher of the future to replace him. They had Jamie Quirk and Larry Owen as solid backups, but with both on the wrong side of 30, neither was seen as a catcher of the future. Mike MacFarlane was a promising young minor leaguer, but the Royals didn't feel they could wait for him. That fall the Royals contacted the Mets about a 26 year old left-handed catcher with rotator cuff problems who had hit well while starter Gary Carter was out with an injury. That catcher was Ed Hearn.
The Royals offered pitcher Israel Sanchez, a decent minor league swingman. When the Mets balked, the Royals beefed up their offer with minor league outfield prospect Van Snider. Still the Mets balked, and no deal was done. In the meantime, David Cone impressed scouts in winter ball with a 6-2 record and a 2.42 ERA in Puerto Rico. The Mets became very interested in Cone.
By spring training of 1987 the Royals already had their rotation set with Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson, Mark Gubicza, and Charlie Leibrandt. Bud Black would be the spot starter and long reliever in the pen. They had come off a season in which they led the league in ERA, despite a losing record. The Royals had an organization stocked with solid pitchers, including future Major Leaguers Scott Bankhead, Melido Perez, Jose DeJesus, Greg Hibbard, Luis Aquino and Tom Gordon. The Royals were not very convinced Cone would make much of a reliever. He seemed pretty expendable.
I think the biggest criticisms to the deal however, was why the Royals felt the need to trade for a catcher, and why they were convinced Ed Hearn would be a catcher of the future. Thirty-six year old veteran Jim Sundburg was pretty clearly on his last legs offensively, posting a .212/.303/.322 season in 1986, but his defense was still very solid. Quirk was coming off a poor season as well, and didn't seem like anything more than a backup. And Larry Owen couldn't hit his way out of a paper sack. But they had a 22 year old catcher named Mike MacFarlane coming off a season in AA in which he had hit just .241, but slugged .574, albeit in limited action due to injury. In 105 career minor league games, he had hit 20 home runs and slugged .516. If there was a catcher of the future, it was clear MacFarlane was that catcher.
Really, what the Royals needed was a stop-gap until MacFarlane was ready. Another season of Sundburg and Quirk would have probably been adequate until MacFarlane was ready in 1988 or 1989. Or the Royals could have pursued a free agent catcher like Mike Heath or Mizzou grad Tim Laudner. Ultimately, did it really matter? The average AL catcher in 1987 posted a .244/.303/.384. Royals catchers posted .223/.296/.341. That's worse, but was it enough of a serious detriment to warrant trading a decent pitching prospect?
What's more, Ed Hearn had not really proven he was going to out-hit that line. Hearn had been a fourth round pick by the Phillies who put up some decent minor league numbers until he slumped in AA and was mysteriously released, perhaps due to injury concerns. He was picked up by the Mets and his numbers seemed to decline every season as he rose through the organization. By 1986 he was a light hitting 25 year old catcher in AAA with rotator cuff problems when the Mets called him up to replace the injured Gary Carter. Hearn performed adequately, hitting .265 in 49 games, drawing the interest of the Royals.
I don't mind the Royals trading Cone so much, what I really mind is that they traded for a catcher. Trading for catchers is stupid. Most catchers are pretty lousy hitters, and those that aren't probably aren't available for trade. It was true back then as it is now. You know who the AL starter at catcher was in the All-Star Game that year? Terry Kennedy. He hit .250/.299/.385 that year. In the 80s, you were pretty luck if your catcher could post those kind of numbers. The Twins were coming off a Championship year in which their catcher had hit under .200. Any offense from the catching position was a luxury. What you needed from your backstop was solid defense.
So why you would trade anything of value for a catcher, much less a light-hitting catcher coming off injury with 49 MLB games under his belt, is beyond me. The Royals had a plethora of pitching in the late 80s, and instead of addressing their major need - big bats, they frittered it away with silly trades to plug perceived holes like Danny Jackson for Kurt Stillwell, Bud Black for Pat Tabler, and Melido Perez and Greg Hibbard for Floyd Bannister. Only once did they actually pursue a big bat, and that was a smashing success - Scott Bankhead (and others) for Danny Tartabull.
Anyway, late in spring training of 1987, still feeling like they needed to add a long-term catcher, the Royals finally pulled the trigger and dealt David Cone and outfielder Chris Jelic to the Mets for Hearn, pitcher Rick Anderson and pitcher Mauro Gozzo.
"David Cone is a fine prospect, and we didn't want to trade him, but we felt (catching) was an area we needed to strengthen. There are people in our organization that think he will evolve as the Number 1 catcher. We're going to get a twenty-six year old guy who can catch for us many years."
-Royals General Manager John Schuerholz
"It was a shock really....I thought they were kidding me."
The rest, as they say, was history. David got off to a rough start in the pen, but after May 1 he posted a 2.93 ERA in fifteen games, twelve of them starts. The following season the Mets once again had Cone begin the year in the pen. On May 3 they finally inserted him into the rotation where he fired an eight hit shutout in his first start. He won each of his next four starts, never allowing more than one earned run. He then went ten innings, allowing just one run in a no-decision against the Cubs. On June 19 he fired a two-hit shutout against the Phillies. On June 30, Ed Hearn underwent major reconstructive shoulder surgery.
"Ed Hearn for David Cone has to be one of the great steals of the century."
-Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez
Cone became a huge fan favorite in New York with fans dressing in "coneheads" during his starts. He was named to the All-Star team that July, and ended up winning twenty games over just five months, with a 2.22 ERA and 213 strikeouts, second in the league in both categories. He finished third in Cy Young balloting, and tenth in MVP balloting. Ed Hearn, Rick Anderson and Mauro Gozzo combined to appear in fourteen games for the Royals that season.
Cone went on to win 80 games for the Mets over nearly six seasons before they dealt him to the Blue Jays in 1992 for their pennant run. Cone started two games in the World Series as the Jays defeated the Braves for their first World Championship.
After the 1992 season, Royals management looked to shake things up by making a splash in the free agent market. They were coming off three straight seasons of a fifth place finish or worse, and they suffered their first 90 loss season since 1970. Despite supposedly losing $11 million the previous year, owner Ewing Kauffman publicly stated a willingness to bring impact free agents to Kansas City. They chased after slugger Joe Carter to no avail, but did manage to sign veteran shortstop Greg Gagne. Early in December, the Royals landed David Cone with a three year $18 million deal.
"Kansas City was my first choice all along...Mr. Kauffman is an amazing man. He's been great for Kansas City and he's gone the extra mile to make the Royals a winning team again."
Cone immediately became a part of the community, donating money to inner-city projects in Northeast Kansas City, funding area baseball leagues he had participated in as a youth, and donating money to his alma mater, Rockhurst High School to help them complete renovation of their athletic facilities.
I was in high school at this time, and this was a pretty exciting off-season for Royals fans. I had a bulletin board with pictures of Cone and Kevin Appier plastered all over it. It looked like the Royals were going to be real pennant contenders.
Instead, the club lost their first five games, and nine of their first eleven. Cone was a tough-luck pitcher much of the year. He dropped his first five decisions despite pitching well. But the team scored just sixteen runs over those seven starts. Cone posted a 2.15 ERA in May that included a two-hit complete game that he lost.
In May, the Royals finally began to heat up and they clawed their way back to first place where they spent much of June. Cone finally began to catch some breaks and won six of nine decisions from May to July. The Yankees came calling that July, offering the Royals former slugger Danny Tartabull in a trade for Cone, but Royals General Manager Herk Robinson made clear the Royals ace pitcher was "unavailable." The Royals then began to plateau while the White Sox ran away with the division. The Royals finished a disappointing 84-78, good for third place. Cone ended the season with a disappointing 11-14 record, despite a 3.33 ERA and 191 strikeouts, fourth in the league.
When the Royals opened up the 1994 season, they were without two major figures in the franchise - Ewing Kauffman and George Brett. Kauffman had passed away the previous August, and Brett had retired after the 1993 season, capping his 21 year Hall of Fame career. Kauffman had put together a succession plan to ensure the Royals stayed in Kansas City beyond his death, but without an owner, it was uncertain whether the Royals could continue to maintain their high payroll.
David Cone started the season with a lackluster performance in a loss in Baltimore. He then went on to win his next eight starts, including three consecutive complete game shutouts, capped off by a one-hit shutout of the Angels. His amazing streak would earn him a ticket to the All-Star Game. Still, the Royals played .500 ball much of the season and in late July stood 49-47, 9 1/2 games out of first place.
The Royals then embarked on an amazing fourteen game winning streak that would pull them to within a game of first place. David Cone won three games during that stretch, capping off a personal six game winning streak. A work stoppage would cut the season short, but Cone would finish with a 16-5 record and a 2.94 ERA. He would finish in the top six in the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts and shutouts. He would also become the only Royal pitcher other than Bret Saberhagen to win the Cy Young Award.
That off-season, Royals General Manager Herk Robinson was asked by new Royals CEO David Glass to trim $12 million from his $42 million payroll. Baseball was still in a work-stoppage, and few knew what the rules would be when play resumed. Cone was an active member of the Players' Union, serving as American League alternate player representative and organizing a trip to Congress.
When the work stoppage ended, Herk Robinson got to work cutting payroll, sending outfielder Brian McRae to the Cubs for a pair of minor leaguers. The next day, he sent Cone and his $5 million salary to Toronto for infielder Chris Stynes, shortstop Tony Medrano and pitcher David Sinnes.
"I guess I just have a tendency to wear out my welcome wherever I go. I don't know, I can't figure it out. I've done it twice here."
I completely understand why the Royals had to trade Cone. They claimed to have lost $25 million in 1994, and with Ewing Kauffman now gone, they could not afford to carry such losses. But why trade him for pennies on the dollar? Stynes was a nice defensive second baseman coming off a .317/.345/.435 season in AAA, but he was hardly the lynchpin for a deal involving the reigning Cy Young winner. Sinnes was a solid reliever, but you don't trade a Cy Young winner for a minor leaguer reliever. And Medrano had shown nothing with the bat by the time of the trade. The Royals could have had every team in baseball offering them the best deal possible, and also had guys like Kevin Appier, Jeff Montgomery and Tom Gordon to increase their flexibility in a deal. That they only received three marginal prospects in return for the reigning Cy Young winner is a testament to their incompetence. Not content in making one bad David Cone trade, the Royals were determined to make two.
Cone went from Toronto to the New York Yankees where he won 20 games in a season, threw a perfect game, and won four championships. After short stints with the Red Sox and Mets, he retired in 2003 at the age of 40. He finished his career with 194 wins and a 3.46 ERA.
Cone's Royals career represents to me the last real surge by this franchise to win a World Series just before it all fell apart in a cataclysm of doom and defeat. He was the last sign of Ewing Kauffman's dedication to winning, a symbol of his civic pride in Kansas City. I think that civic pride is slowly coming back, but its unfortunate it took us nearly fifteen years to emerge from the fog of defeatism.
And whatever happened to Ed Hearn? He retired from baseball in 1989 with a blown shoulder, then was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which causes kidney failure. After three kidney transplants, major sleep apnea, a diagnosis of skin cancer, and mood swings due to medication, Hearn contemplated suicide. A much lesser man would have packed it in, unable to bear the pain of disease and the humiliation of being a punchline for a joke of a trade. Hearn instead sought professional help and was able to use his pain as a source of inspiration for others. Today, he still resides in the Kansas City area as a sought after inspirational speaker.
"David Cone went on to an amazing career. He deserves credit for that. The guy was a great pitcher. If the worst thing that happened to me in my life was being traded for him, well, that's not so bad."