Roger Angell, writer and editor for The New Yorker, was granted access to Yankees pitcher David Cone during the 2000 baseball season to chronicle that season and pay tribute to one of the great pitchers in baseball history. However, it soon became apparent that the story would play out differently from what either had anticipated. The 2000 season would be the worst of Cone’s career, indeed, one of the worst of any of the great pitchers’ careers. A Pitcher’s Storybecomes a story of success and failure, injury and rehabilitation, pitching technique and personal resilience. Ironically, the unforeseen turn of events ultimately makes it a more satisfying book.
Angell begins his book with a chapter entitled “Perfection,” which focuses on David Cone’s single perfect game, one of only sixteen such achievements in baseball history. In many ways it was atypical of his style of pitching and certainly atypical of his disastrous 2000 season. In that July 18, 1999, game against the Montreal Expos, Cone never went to ball three on any batter and threw eighty-eight pitches in nine innings, a remarkably low number considering that he typically had high pitch totals with frequent 3-2 counts on batters. In fact, more characteristic of Cone was his 1992 1-0 shut out of the San Francisco Giants in which he threw 166 pitches: “an insane admixture of prodigality and thrift,” according to Angell.
Angell implies that it was stamina—Cone’s ability and will to stay in baseball for nineteen years—that increased his odds of reaching perfection. He meditates on the “Sisyphean burden” of fan expectations that baseball heroes carry during a season. His year of studying David Cone opened his eyes to the many factors, including injury, that militate against perfection. He also makes clear that Cone did everything possible in the 2000 season to continue performing at the high level to which he was accustomed. The author of two twenty-win seasons, three one-hitters, and a perfect game, Cone once struck out nineteen batters in a game, won the Cy Young award in 1994, and earned five World Series rings. His personal heroes were pitchers who showed great stamina: those who, over many years, played through pain and overextended themselves, often with negative long-term physical effects.
The 2000 season, his nineteenth in professional baseball, was a nightmare for Cone. He finished 4-14 with a 6.91 earned run average (ERA); he was removed from the starting rotation in midseason to become reacquainted with pitching basics at the Yankee training facility in Tampa, Florida; then, after he returned to the starting rotation and won three games in August, he suffered a dislocated left shoulder. Barely included on the playoff roster, he was assigned to the bullpen, and threw only five pitches in the World Series. This final appearance, however, both ironic and triumphant, not only indicates the vicissitudes of baseball but also hints at the character necessary to persevere in such a profession. To Angell, Cone’s 2000 season epitomized the haphazard, luck-shaped careers of baseball players who take their triumphs and defeats as they come, always hungry for another opportunity, however slight their role may be.
Adversity was not new in Cone’s career. Playing minor league baseball early in his second year as a professional, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his knee and was lost for the season. Several years later, he broke a finger on his pitching hand that plagued his sinker ball in seasons to come. In 1996, he suffered numbness in his pitching hand due to an aneurysm in his shoulder. “With me it’s always been about pain management,” he told Angell.
As if this is not enough, pitchers also face mechanical problems unrelated to injury—loss of speed, breaking pitches that do not move sharply enough, pitches that do not work at all—due to almost undetectable changes in timing, weight shifts, and body positioning. In short, Cone had the problem of any athlete: making the body do the mind’s bidding. In the 2000 season, for example, he could not get his famous slider to work. According to pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, pitchers with multiple pitch types might lose track of one of them and never get it back. Cone was not about to be defeated by this problem, however. Throughout his career, he had had easy games and what he called “struggle games.” In his estimation, the latter—when one had to adapt to a situation in which he did not have his best pitches—made pitchers great.
If he had not observed him when he was struggling, Angell may not have appreciated so well the...
(The entire section is 1890 words.)