From 1982-94, the Yankees never once made the postseason. They finished higher than third in the division just twice during that time: second place finishes in 1985, 1986, and 1993, and a first place finish in 1994 before the work stoppage wiped out the postseason. The Yankees were 70-43 at the time of the strike and had a 6.5-game lead in the AL East.
So, when the Yankees were 41-41 and one game back of a postseason spot on the morning on July 28th, 1995, then-GM Gene Michael shipped three prospects to the division rival Blue Jays to rent 32-year-old David Cone for the stretch run. Cone won the 1994 AL Cy Young award and he pitched well down the stretch in 1995, though the Bombers were bounced from the ALDS in soul-crushing fashion by the Mariners.
The Yankees were able to re-sign Cone to a three-year contract after the season — he was reportedly deciding between the Yankees and Orioles before George Steinbrenner offered a no-trade clause — and he was the team’s Opening Day starter in 1996. He allowed two hits in seven shutout innings against the Indians to earn the win in Game One of the new season.
Cone’s first three starts of 1996 were brilliant: seven shutout innings against the Indians, seven innings of one-run ball against the Rangers, and seven innings of one-unearned run ball against the Rangers again. One earned run in his first 21 innings of the season. Pretty awesome. His fourth start didn’t go well (six runs in five innings against the Brewers) but Cone rebounded his fifth (two runs in five innings against the Royals) and sixth (one unearned run in nine innings against the White Sox) times out.
That sixth start on May 2nd would be Cone’s last start for four months. He had been experiencing discomfort and a tingling sensation in his fingers. His index finger turned white. Cone was soon diagnosed with an aneurysm in an artery under his right armpit. He was receiving treatment but surgery was always considered a possibility. When the treatment didn’t work as hoped, Cone underwent surgery in mid-May.
“Everybody wants to know, ‘When is he coming back?'” said team doctor Stuart Hershon to Malcolm Moran. “My concern primarily is his health and well-being. After that, we’ll worry about when he’s going to be a baseball player. That’s why I didn’t go into the issue of coming back. That’s important for me to convey. You worry about a patient’s well-being, then you worry about the occupation.”
The Yankees were not particularly deep with starting pitchers at the time, and now they were going to be without their ace for an unknown amount of time. Young Andy Pettitte stepped into the ace role, Jimmy Key was able to stay healthy after missing most of the 1995 season, and Doc Gooden was surprisingly solid, so the rotation was okay. Scott Kamieniecki, Ramiro Mendoza, Brian Boehringer, and Mark Hutton all made spot starts during Cone’s absence.
Cone had his surgery in May, rehabbed through June and July, and come August, he was in good enough shape physically to begin pitching again. Doctors gave him the okay to start throwing, and the Yankees, who were on top of the AL East and looking ahead to the postseason, were excited about getting their ace back. Cone made two rehab starts with Double-A Norwich before rejoining the big league team on September 2nd, a little less than four months following surgery.
The Yankees were in Oakland on Labor Day and they were in a funk at the time. They had lost six of their last eight games and eleven of their last 17 games. The AL East lead had dwindled from nine games to four games during that 17-game span. The A’s were not very good in 1996, but the Yankees needed to right the ship, and they needed Cone to show he could be effective following surgery. He did exactly that in his first outing off the DL.
Not the best start! Cone walked the first batter in his first game back on four pitches. He did rebound to strike out the next batter, and Joe Girardi did Cone a solid by throwing out Jose Herrera trying to steal second. That probably would have driven me nuts if I were an A’s fan at the time. You’ve got a pitcher coming back from a four-month layoff and he just walked the first batter of the game on four pitches. Why risk it? It looked worse when Cone walked Jason Giambi, the No. 3 hitter, on five pitches. A Mark McGwire pop-up ended the inning.
Much better second inning for Cone, who got three quick outs on eleven total pitches. He needed that after throwing 19 pitches in the first inning and putting himself in the stretch right away. The A’s weren’t any good, but Giambi and McGwire were hardly easy outs. Oakland scored runs 5.31 runs per game in 1996, not too far behind the eventual World Series champion Yankees (5.38).
Another quick inning in the third. Cone needed only eight pitches to get two fly balls and a strikeout. I remember watching the game live and thinking it looked like he was starting to get settled down and find his rhythm. I’m sure he was amped up after missing so much time and also a little nervous given the severity of the injury.
“I struggled in the first. I didn’t have a feel for anything,” said Cone to Jack Curry after the game. “The first five pitches weren’t close. I was just thinking, ‘Don’t let them get anything.'”
Giambi was 25 at the time and in his first full season, and he had yet to emerge as the offensive force he was in the late-1990s and early-2000s. He was still a very good hitter though, and in the fourth inning he worked another five-pitch watch to snap Cone’s string of eight straight retired. Giambi saw five pitches in the fourth inning. The other three batters saw seven pitches total.
Eleven pitches. The Athletics had drawn three walks on the afternoon but they did not yet have a hit through five innings against Cone in his first start off the DL. He had only thrown 61 pitches as well, so he was efficient. The Yankees had him on a pitch count — Joe Torre said Cone was good for 100 pitches before the game but indicated he didn’t want to push it — and he was giving them length. It was everything the Yankees wanted to see from him.
Three up, three down once again. Two fly balls and a strikeout. That seemed to be Cone’s formula for the afternoon. Fly balls and strikeouts. The Yankees finally broke through and scored a run in the top of the sixth — Cecil Fielder was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded — so Cone had a little bit of support. He was through six hitless innings.
Another three up, three down frame, though this one came with some warning signs. Giambi hit a line drive to Derek Jeter at shortstop. Charlie Hayes made a diving stop and threw McGwire out at first base, robbing him of a base hit. Berroa crushed a ball to dead center that Bernie Williams caught right at the top of the wall. All three batters made loud contact.
Hayes hit a home run to help break the game open in the top of the seventh and give Cone some breathing room. His pitch count was at 85 after the seventh inning and he had retired eleven straight and 19 of the last 20 batters he faced. Torre could have easily sent him back out for the eighth with the no-hitter intact, but that’s not what happened. Cone’s afternoon was done after seven hitless innings in his first start off the DL.
”If I would have left him in to throw 105 or 106 pitches and his shoulder would have been achy tomorrow or down the road, I never would have been able to live with myself. I would have always regretted it,” said Torre to Curry, keeping the big picture in mind. Girardi added, “He’s one of the best pitchers in the league. That’s why everyone wants him in September for the pennant run.”
Did Cone want to go back out for the eighth inning? Of course. “I was ready to go back out. I was ready to throw caution to the wind. Joe did the right thing,” he said. The aneurysm was a scary, career-threatening thing. Cone couldn’t have possibly known he still had several years left in the tank and would later throw a perfect game.
Fielder hit a home run in the top of the eighth to give the Yankees a 5-0 lead. Torre went to ace reliever Mariano Rivera to close out the no-hitter, and after a clean eighth, Rivera allowed a ground ball single to the speedy Herrera with one out in the ninth. Jeter almost threw him out from deep in the hole but couldn’t get the out. Torre argued to no avail. The Yankees settled for the one-hitter and a 5-0 win.
The Yankees needed the win given their slide in the standings, and they needed Cone to show he could be effective following the aneurysm. He did that and then some. Cone continued to shake off the rust in September before helping the Yankees win the World Series in October. He came close to a no-hitter that afternoon in Oakland. More importantly, the Yankees had their ace back.
“I’ll never wonder if this could have been my last opportunity to throw (a no-hitter),” said Cone to Curry after the game. ”I wouldn’t think that way. I appreciate that they took me out of the game. It’s more important for us to get to the playoffs and the World Series.”