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John Ed Bradley
April 05, 1993
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April 05, 1993

The Headliner


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In one game David was struggling to make things happen. The fellow who was covering him stripped the ball away, and the officials called a foul. The kid threw the ball against David's chest, and David picked it up and slammed it right back in the kid's face. Suddenly the gym turned into a bucket of blood, the crowd going wild, whistles screaming. But David didn't back down. He was a Cone, by gosh, and when you're a Cone...well, just ask that old neighbor if you want to know what that means.

Rockhurst didn't field a baseball team, so David played summer ball in something called the Ban Johnson League. At 15 he was throwing against competition as ancient as 21 and holding his own. The next year he reported to an invitation-only tryout at Royals Stadium and an open tryout for the Cardinals. "Just want to see where I stand," he told anyone who asked. His old man was still telling him that he could be the next Ted Williams, the way he stroked the ball, but David's arm was more impressive than his bat. By the time he was 17 he was being clocked at 88 mph and being whispered about among scouts as the real thing.

Even then he had amazing stuff. David's hands were small, and so he gripped the ball a little differently from most everyone else, with his index finger at a two-o'clock angle to the right and his thumb at about 10. His fastball, as a result, had an unusual rotation and a natural cut to the left that befuddled hitters.

By then several colleges were recruiting him to play both baseball and football. The University of Missouri, just down the road a piece, went so far as to ask Ewing Kauffman to write David a letter on its behalf. David must have received 200 similar pieces of correspondence during his senior year, but the Kansas City billionaire's was the only one he answered. "He sat down and wrote Mr. K a letter," Ed recalls. "He thanked him for his interest and mentioned that he hoped to be a professional baseball player one day."

Cone enrolled at Mizzou, but the Royals selected him in the third round of the June 1981 free-agent draft, and he signed for $17,500. That was little more than half of what most kids in his position were getting, but Cone knew nothing about leverage or bargaining, and he worried that if he didn't accept right away the Royals would withdraw their offer. He was 18, and damn if he didn't feel rich.

"One day he's this crazy kid sitting next to you on the bus," says Jerry Rauschelbach, one of his old teammates, "and the next he's on his way to the Big Time."

The Big Time. Cone played rookie ball and went 6-4. The next year, in A ball, he went 16-3 and had a 2.08 ERA, but in a March 1983 exhibition game he tore some cartilage in his left knee colliding at home plate with a runner trying to score from third. Surgery and extensive rehab followed, as did a job in Kansas City with a company that produced conveyor belts.

Cone spent four months with a razor knife in hand, cutting strips of rubber and gluing them together and fantasizing about his return to the game. His hands were a grid of nicks and cuts; as soon as one healed, he would slit open another. But that year out of baseball proved to be a turning point: "Conie, you either make it happen, or this is the life in store for you," he told himself repeatedly.

True, he was getting pretty smart about the future, but he was still incredibly dumb about the present, particularly when it came to money. He started receiving letters from the Internal Revenue Service saying he owed back taxes. Instead of doing something about it, he filed the letters away as if they'd been mailed to him by mistake. By 1985 he'd worked his way up to Triple A and was in line to make almost $20,000 a year—a fortune, in his mind. His first paycheck, he figured, was going to be about $1,200, but when it finally arrived, the balance showed only $83. The IRS had garnisheed the rest.

The Big Time didn't happen until June 1986, when Cone pitched an inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Royals Stadium. He played in four games before being sent back down to Omaha, only to be recalled by the Royals about two months later and allowed to finish out the season. He was a hometown boy, and the fans loved him, and he loved them right back. Everybody knew he was the sort of person who didn't forget where he came from—a characteristic that, to some, seemed nearly as important as his ability to come with the heat. He was the same kid who still called his grandmother Ha Ho, having had a hard time saying her name, Cleo, when he was a child. A kid who had tracked down Handsome Harley Race, the wrestler, in a hospital one day for an autograph. And a kid who, going back to when he was in grade school, had listened religiously to Royal games on the radio.

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