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An oral history of David Cone's perfect game

20 years ago, the 36-year-old Cone made baseball history in the Bronx
@BryanHoch
July 18, 2019

The temperature was sizzling in New York City on the morning of Sunday, July 18, 1999, inching toward a high of 98 degrees. Bathed in broad sunlight, David Cone navigated the three northbound lanes of the FDR Drive, guiding his vehicle toward the players' parking lot on the third-base side

The temperature was sizzling in New York City on the morning of Sunday, July 18, 1999, inching toward a high of 98 degrees. Bathed in broad sunlight, David Cone navigated the three northbound lanes of the FDR Drive, guiding his vehicle toward the players' parking lot on the third-base side of the original Yankee Stadium.

For the 18th time that season, the ball would be entrusted to the battle-tested 36-year-old, but the Montreal Expos' lineup was not at the forefront of the right-handed pitcher's mind as he made the 12-minute commute from his apartment at the corner of 56th Street and Second Avenue.

The painted white No. 8 on the grass behind home plate promised that this day should be memorable for everyone in attendance. No one could have guessed how historic it would prove to be.

For the 20th anniversary of David Cone’s perfect game, we spoke to some of the key people at the stadium that afternoon who witnessed one of the greatest summer days in Yankees history.

A PERFECT REUNION

David Cone, pitcher: It was Yogi Berra Day. There was the anticipation of all the festivities before the game and how Yogi would react. There would be a big crowd there early. That was the main focus, leaving my apartment in Manhattan, easy drive on a Sunday. Care-free. Yogi Berra Day.

The Hall of Famer had not returned to Yankee Stadium since being dismissed as the team's manager 16 games into the 1985 season; Berra's gripe was not so much that he had been let go, but that principal owner George M. Steinbrenner did not do so personally, instead deputizing general manager Clyde King to deliver the message.

Early in 1999, a truce between Berra and Steinbrenner was brokered by television and radio analyst Suzyn Waldman, with the long-awaited meeting held at Berra's museum in Little Falls, N.J. Berra attended Opening Day, and the Yankees scheduled a date for the beloved backstop to be feted that summer.

Larry Berra, Yogi’s son: It had been so long since we'd been to Yankee Stadium. Dad's whole thing was, all Mr. Steinbrenner had to do was apologize to him. Over the years, other people would call up and try to smooth things over, but it was never George making the phone call. Dad watched every Yankee game at home; we'd watch all the games on TV and he always rooted for them. He would just not go to Yankee Stadium until he was apologized to.

The Berras joyously milled about the field en masse, and as he warmed up in the right-field bullpen, Cone said that he had trouble focusing on his preparation. He was distracted by the ovation that trailed Berra, who waved as he and his wife, Carmen, were driven around the Stadium's warning track in a vintage white Ford Thunderbird convertible. Yogi would again be a regular at Yankee Stadium after this day right up until his passing in 2015 at the age of 90.

Cone: I remember watching Yogi almost the whole time. You just looked at Yogi and laughed; Carmen and Yogi and the way the crowd reacted to him. It was a nice distraction for me. I wasn't even thinking about anything; just watching Yogi ride around in a convertible.

Suzyn Waldman, broadcaster: When he came around in that cart, I'll never forget it. I remember crying and saying to myself, "I did this." I grew very close with Yogi and Carm, but at that time, I had never met Yogi. I was introduced to him once at Mel Allen's funeral, and Phil Rizzuto introduced us. Otherwise, I'd never met him. I knew that different people had tried [to reconcile Berra and Steinbrenner] over the years, and George always said no. I guess I got him at the right time.

Don Larsen was a terrific choice to toss the ceremonial first pitch, having teamed with Berra in 1956 for the only perfect game in World Series history. Berra caught Larsen's lob with a borrowed mitt, having no sense of the mystical connections that were about to be formed.

Joe Girardi, catcher: Gary Tuck, our catching instructor, used this little catcher's mitt like Yogi used to use. We actually had Yogi sign it as a reminder and a motivator that we want as many rings as Yogi's got. We used it every day. So what I did is, I gave Yogi my glove and put that glove in my chest protector. I gave it to him when we got out there and he's like, "No, I want a bigger glove."

Berra handed Girardi his game glove, telling him, "You take it from here." Observing the exchange from the back of the mound, Cone felt sheepish after flubbing a historical reference, gleaned from black-and-white footage of Larsen's perfecto over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Cone: Don came out, he threw out the first pitch and I said, "Are you going to go run and jump in his arms again?" And he said, "Kid, you got it wrong. He jumped in my arms." I messed that one up. I thought I was pretty good at history. Apparently not.

SAVED IN THE FIRST

Berra and Larsen vacated the field and Cone recorded the first out, freezing Wilton Guerrero looking for a strikeout. The Yanks' defense was tested as No. 2 hitter Terry Jones lifted a fly ball toward right-center field. Off the bat, Cone thought it was a triple. He felt tremendous relief as Paul O'Neill ran it down with a tumbling grab, skidding to a halt on his backside.

Paul O'Neill, right fielder: You just know it's early in the game, so you'll take more gambles to try and keep teams off the board. You know that you might have saved a run, but you don't know, it might come into play as a perfect game, believe me. It would've been a lot harder play to make if I knew he was going to throw a perfect game.

Rondell White flew to deep left for the final out, and after Montreal's Javier Vazquez set the Yanks down around a Derek Jeter single in the bottom of the first, Cone returned to work. Vladimir Guerrero struck out on a slider away, then Jose Vidro and Brad Fullmer grounded out weakly.

Joe Torre, manager: It was my 59th birthday. It was funny; people were talking about Yogi and Don Larsen. I was at that game as a 16-year-old. I got off from school. God forbid I saved the ticket; you didn't do that stuff in those days. Coney starts pitching and he's throwing a lot of strikes, which was so uncharacteristic of him.

The Yankees gave Cone a five-run lead in the second inning, with Ricky Ledee and Jeter homering. A confident Cone struck out the side in the third: Chris Widger, Shane Andrews and Orlando Cabrera went down in order. Though his 4.9 walks per nine innings was 10th-worst among qualified starters that year, Cone managed to get through the first three innings on just 32 pitches.

RAIN DELAY THEATER

Then the rain came, for what would be a 33-minute delay. Cone nervously gripped a baseball in front of the clubhouse door, summoning batboy Luis "Squeegee" Castillo as a throwing partner.

Cone: I'm a little worried. If it goes on too long, at my age, I might be in trouble here. There were low ceilings; I was skipping them off the ceiling and Luigi was ducking on the ricochets. I was maniacal about, "How long is this rain delay going to be? I've got to keep my arm going." Just fidgety and flaky, as usual.

The topic of a pitching change never reached Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.

Torre: It was too early in the game. If it had happened in the sixth inning or so, then it's a concern. Coney would make his own decision. It's not like you had a young pitcher and you want to make sure you don't hurt him. At that point in his career, you're going to let him tell you if he can do it. He's not going to lie to you.

Clear skies returned and the Yanks were retired in the third. Vazquez enjoyed only a brief respite as Cone retired the Expos in a seven-pitch fourth inning, with two flyouts to O'Neill and a strikeout.

Cone: When I came back from the rain delay, and Joe Girardi has told me this [in the years since], that gave me a little bit of a breather and my stuff actually got better. My arm was nice and loose and stayed loose. When I got back out there, everything seemed to click. Everything started jumping out of my hand a little better.

Waldman: It was a FOX 5 game locally, with Tim McCarver and Bobby Murcer [broadcasting]. In either the third or fourth inning, McCarver turned to me and he said, "Dare I say, perfect game?" They were kind of laughing, but he started talking about it right then. Then when Bobby came back in the sixth inning, they both started talking about it.

A trio of routine flyouts got Cone through five, and a murmur started to filter throughout the Stadium. David Wells' perfect game -- at that time the 15th in MLB history -- had taken place just 14 months prior, so it seemed improbable that a historical feat would happen again so soon. Then again, Berra and Larsen were still in the building, observing the action from Steinbrenner's private suite.

Larsen: I shook hands with David before I threw the pitch to Yogi and we sat and watched the game. Usually, I'm gone after three or four innings, with something to do. As time went on, they made us both stay. We both stayed and watched him do his marvelous performance.

Lindsay Berra, Yogi’s granddaughter: What I remember about being in the Steinbrenner box was that, when we realized what was happening around 4 1/2, five innings, everybody was a nervous wreck. Nobody wanted to move, except for Donnie [Larsen] and Grandpa, who were yapping the entire time. They couldn't understand what everyone was getting so worked up about. They were getting up to get hot dogs and Grandpa got his vodka, like nothing was happening.

Cone's teammates began to offer solitude in the dugout; Girardi did not say a word to his hurler, ignoring his presence on the bench.

Girardi: I stayed away, just like I always did. I never really talked to a starting pitcher a whole lot during the game unless I felt like we had to make some adjustments. We had our game plan and they would go in their area and be nice and cool and we would go out on the field working. We left him alone.

Scott Brosius, third baseman: By the fourth and fifth inning, you're realizing, "Wow, Coney can be a magician out there." When he's got multiple pitches and he's locating, you start to wonder, especially on the heels of being in [Wells'] perfect game the year before. The idea of it is still pretty fresh in your mind. You go, "Wow, could this actually happen again?"

A popout, flyout and foul popout moved the game through six innings, and Cone said that he could practically feel his heart thumping through his soaked undershirt as he returned to the mound for the seventh.

CHILI CALMS, CHUCK’S CLUTCH CHUCK

Cone received a valuable moment of levity when designated hitter Chili Davis emerged from the dugout to catch Cone's warmup tosses for the top of the seventh. Girardi had been the on-deck hitter when the sixth inning ended and needed time to strap his gear on. With Jorge Posada in the bullpen, Davis volunteered.

Cone: Chili and I were close. He was a veteran. We talked a lot on the plane rides. He was a catcher in the Minor Leagues, but I didn't know it. Chili grabbed a glove and ran out there, and I kind of laughed. I started lobbing them into him, and he got on me in the dugout. He said, "I can catch your [stuff]. I used to catch in the Minor Leagues. You ain't that good." Something as small as that broke the ice and made me laugh.

Wilton Guerrero opened the seventh with a chopper to the left side of the infield, which Brosius flagged down and fired across the infield.

Cone: If it got past him, it would have been a tough play for Jeter at short. Wilton Guerrero was very fast. Those little plays where the third baseman goes over and cuts it off in front of the shortstop in the hole, that's a big play.

Brosius: I don't remember a ton about it. I guess, in my mind, it must have felt fairly routine. I do know that as the games go on, these games for an infielder, you start to feel more intensity. Even moreso than in the playoff games, because the truth is you don't want to be the guy that the ball gets through. You're really on edge to make sure that you can make the play.

Cone went back to the slider to strike out James Mouton and White, and now Yankee Stadium was surging with electricity, the crowd of 41,930 showering the veteran with love. Cone kept his head down as he returned to the dugout.

In the eighth, Vladimir Guerrero fouled out to Girardi, bringing Vidro to the plate. Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch was dealing with well-publicized throwing issues, so Cone gasped as Vidro hit a hard shot to the right side of second base. Ranging toward the middle of the diamond, Knoblauch flagged the ball down, planted and fired a strike to first baseman Tino Martinez.

Cone: Part of me was worried for my teammates. I didn't want them to be put in that position to have that Bill Buckner moment, even though it's a regular-season game and not a World Series game. There's a lot of responsibility. When he made that play, it's like, "This might be my day." I think that was the loudest cheer of the day, until the end.

Brosius: As a player and a teammate, watching [Knoblauch] go through those struggles, you hurt for him. The plays that he had struggled with that year were more the routine plays, where he had more time to set his feet. He had always been great at those types of plays. Once he got to that ball, I felt confident that he was going to make the play. I felt so good for him to make that play at that moment.

Knoblauch's play came on Montreal's fourth, and last, ground ball of the day; 13 outs came in the air and 10 via strikeout.

O'Neill: You start to get nervous out there. You don't want to misplay a ball or anything like that. It's not like a no-hitter, where if you make an error, you've still got a no-hitter. This is a perfect game. Until the eighth or ninth inning, you're just playing the game. Then you start to count every pitch, make sure you're positioned right. You get nervous, because you're rooting at the same time.

Fullmer looked at a vicious breaking ball for strike three to end the 8th and Cone marched up the tunnel toward the clubhouse, making the hard left turn into the vacant restroom. Staring at his weary, sweaty reflection in the mirror, Cone engaged himself in an out-loud conversation.

Cone: It was weird. I'd never done that, and haven't done it since. If you would have seen me doing it, you would have thought, there's something wrong with this guy. It was, "OK, you can do this, three more outs. You've waited your whole career for this." And then the other part starts: "What if you blow it? What if you hang a slider? How are you going to react?"

The Yankees gave Cone plenty of time to converse with himself, with Williams' RBI single chasing Vazquez in a lengthy eighth inning. As O'Neill touched home plate to make it 6-0, Cone said that he thought to himself, “Five runs was enough, guys. Let's get this going.”

Cone: I was dying. Anxious, anxiety-ridden, insecurity. You'd be surprised. You'd think somebody in that position should be supremely confident. It was a battle.

THE FINAL INNING

In Kansas City, Joan and Ed Cone were alerted to their son's effort, flipping on ESPN to view live coverage. Cone's first pitch of the ninth inning was a slider that looked like a strike but was not, generating a feeble swing from Widger. The next was a slider that the Montreal catcher took for a called strike. Cone decided to stick with what was working.

Cone: The slider was the pitch of the day. They kept swinging at it. They were a free-swinging team. I had him set up. I knew I had him in-between and tried another one, dropped down a little bit more sidearm to get him to chase.

Two outs away. With Ryan McGuire at the plate, Cone threw a first-pitch fastball that felt so good, he shook off Girardi for the only time that afternoon on 0-2, missing up and away with a heater. On a 2-2 count, Cone left a slider over the plate, a little bit up. His heart sank as the ball was rapped to left field, where Ledee struggled to find it in the sun.

Cone: I'm thinking, "Oh, geez. There it is." This angel on the left shoulder told me about the hanging slider, that you're going to blow it. I saw Ricky, and the ball hit his glove and snapped his glove back. He didn't catch the ball, the ball caught him.

Try as he might to slow his emotions down, Cone said that the adrenaline rush was now so intense that he believed he could feel his hair growing.

The final pitch of the day was a 1-1 slider to Cabrera that Cone said was not his best by any means. Cabrera hacked, lifting a popup to Brosius in foul territory near third base.

Cone: Just tremendous relief. The popup went over to the third-base side and the sun was setting over the old Yankee Stadium. I got blinded the minute I looked, so I pointed. Brosius had it the whole way, but I'm thinking, "He might get blinded, too."

Brosius: The ball was hit in the air and you're happy, like, "A popup! Yes!" I'm going for it, but in my mind, I'm thinking Girardi is maybe hustling over. I'm thinking everybody is going to be chasing this ball. I start waving everybody off right away, calling everybody off, because I'm fearing some crazy collision or bumping into Joe, something like that. When I made the play, I realized there was no reason for that, because Joe and Coney were already next to each other, ready to hug. Here I am calling literally nobody off the ball.

As Cone watched the play, his hands moved to the sides of his head, dropping to his knees on the Stadium turf. As a 12-year-old, Cone vividly recalls watching the 1975 U.S. Open finals on television, when Manuel Orantes defeated Jimmy Connors and had the same reaction. This was Cone's unplanned homage to the Spanish tennis pro, and Girardi was the first to reach Cone, pulling the pitcher down on the grass.

Girardi: He just gave me a big hug. And Coney meant so much to my career here because Coney was the one that really stuck up for me when I first got here. I replaced Mike Stanley, who was a fan favorite, and Coney was in my corner and always supported me. It meant a lot.

A hot crush of pinstriped humanity followed, ecstasy and gravity melding them as one.

Cone: I'm like, "Get me out of here!" Joe thought he was protecting me so he pulled me down on top of him. We were down there for a long time. I thought I heard Jeter say, "Enough! Let's go, get up!"

Brosius: We were so excited for a guy like Coney -- I was on the other side in Oakland when he came back from the aneurysm. He meant a lot to our team. I stuck the ball in my pocket right away and after the initial celebration on the field, I don't know if it was a minute in or a couple of minutes in, but somewhere on the field I gave the ball back to Coney.

THE AFTERMATH

Cone completed his perfecto having thrown just 88 pitches, by far the fewest in any of his 56 complete games. It was also a happy coincidence, as Berra's uniform number was No. 8.

Lindsay Berra: That's the kind of thing that Grandpa would have just shrugged at and said, "Go figure." I think the rest of us look at it as a crazy, mystical coincidence, being that Grandpa caught Don's first pitch and then it happened again. Grandpa had a really good relationship with Cone and Girardi. For me, that game symbolizes Grandpa's second era with the Yankees, and his ability to be there with the team that he loved.

The world moved in a blur as Cone was whisked toward the clubhouse. Girardi, Davis and Knoblauch hoisted the pitcher off the field, and Cone remembers overhearing someone arguing with media relations director Rick Cerrone about who would speak with Cone first. Cone again moved toward the bathroom in search of solitude.

Cone: I got out to the tunnel and there's Don Larsen. I went up to him and hugged him like he was my father. Nothing needed to be said.

Cone spoke to his proud parents in Missouri, then was told there was a call waiting for him on the extension in Torre's office. It was Wells, who had watched the final nine outs from the cramped visitors clubhouse at Fenway Park, where his Blue Jays were playing the Red Sox.

David Wells, former teammate: I felt bad, because he was there for mine. I kid you not, someone said he was throwing a perfect game, and I was like, "No way." I went up there and then after the seventh inning, I'm like, "I know this son-of-a-gun has got it." I almost left. I was going to find a way to get to New York; I was going to rent a private jet, I didn't care. I just wanted to party with him like he did for mine, but I was pitching the next day and that would've looked really, really bad.

Torre: If it had been reversed, neither one of them would have pitched the perfect game. Coney pitched in the hot weather and Boomer pitched in cool weather, which kept him strong. Coney needed to stay loose with all the injuries he had.

The celebration spilled from The Bronx to Manhattan, where Cone remembers seeing the sun rise before he finally closed his bleary eyes. O'Neill bypassed the revelry, opting instead to see Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band perform in East Rutherford, N.J., but Cone and Martinez were pounding beverages long after The Boss closed his second encore with "Land of Hope and Dreams." A few of the Expos even crashed the party.

Cone: I was still in my favorite watering hole -- a place called Veruka, a club downtown -- and one of the cops that was on duty in that area came to me with the morning newspaper, the Post or the Daily News. I had to go to City Hall because Mayor Giuliani gave me the key to the city. You're still on Cloud Nine, running on fumes but floating.

Wells: Good thing I wasn't there. We'd still be going. We would've gone into another universe.

Two decades after, Cone -- who won five World Series rings in his career, four with New York -- views the 16th of the now 23 perfect games in Major League history as his signature moment, and one that he has grown to appreciate more with each passing year.

Cone: People come up and tell me stories about where they were: "I was on the Jersey Shore with my grandfather, one of the last games we listened to together." That hits home for me, that the moment was much bigger than me throwing a perfect game. It connects the people that shared that moment.

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.