But in March 1987 the Royals dealt Cone and another player to the Mets for two undistinguished pitchers and a promising catcher named Ed Hearn. "The worst trade we ever made," Kauffman would call it.
Hearn, according to Royal general manager Herk Robinson, seemed the one piece of the puzzle Kansas City needed to win its division, but he reported hurt and just never panned out. Cone, on the other hand, turned into a world-beater in less than two seasons, going 20-3 in 1988 and finishing third in the Cy Young Award voting behind Hershiser and the Cincinnati Reds' Danny Jackson.
This is a fact: When you're young and your star shines bright in the firmament, it's easy to love a rat hole like New York. Though at first devastated by the trade, Cone learned to love his new home, his new city. He went to fancy Broadway shows and even fancier art galleries. He picked the paper up in the morning, and people like Dwight Gooden were singing his praises, calling his stuff "nasty, nasty." Fans referred to him as "Dave" and "Conie," and some reported to Shea Stadium wearing Coneheads, a show of admiration if ever there was one.
He had an apartment away from the bright lights, in Queens, and he renewed the lease after the 1988 season even though he had no plans to reside there again. He'd won 20 games while living there, and he figured something about the place must've contributed to his great good luck. Not that he was superstitious. He just wanted to be careful.
Heading into the 1989 season Cone commanded a salary of $332,500, a not-so-kingly sum for someone who'd dominated as he had the year before. Players had once been eligible for arbitration after only their second year in the majors, but the rule had been changed in 1985, before Cone reached that milepost. Other pitchers, such as Hershiser, had negotiated million-dollar contracts after two seasons, but Cone wouldn't be a candidate for that kind of money until after he'd completed his third. He felt as if he were being screwed out of $700,000, and it burned him mainly because he knew that his old man was the real loser. David wanted Ed to retire from the meat plant, and the extra money would've been enough for David to make that happen.
Cone won 14 games in 1989 and went to arbitration after the season. Steve Fehr, the Kansas City lawyer who represents Cone, submitted a figure of $1.3 million, but the Mets wanted to pay about $500,000 less. The arbitrator ruled in Cone's favor, and the newly minted millionaire flew home and had his long-anticipated sit-down with his father.
"We've got to get you out of the plant," David began. "Maybe we can think of a small business for you, but we've got to get you out." Ed was reluctant to throw such a burden on his youngest, but finally David said, "Look, we'll make it work, O.K.?" David said they could buy a Jiffy Lube franchise or maybe open a Hallmark gift shop somewhere.
Ed was quiet for a moment, then said, "O.K., I'll stop."
The next year, 1990, Cone won another 14 games and led the majors in strikeouts with 233, one more than Nolan Ryan. His salary for 1991 jumped to $2.35 million, and he bought a condo in Florida and moved his parents there. As defining moments went, David figured this one came in second only to the one involving his old man and the neighbor. In a way, his and Ed's roles had been reversed, the chain had gone full circle, the snake had swallowed its tail. This was who David was now: the provider, the protector. He also gave to his brothers, Danny and Chris, and to his sister, Christal. Back when they were in school, Christal had gone half an hour out of her way each morning to drive David to Rockhurst, so, as a symbolic nod her way, he bought her a pretty, new car.
He was living in Manhattan now, not far from the United Nations, and his girlfriend had moved in with him. Her name was Lynn DiGioia, and she was a New Englander who worked as an interior designer. Lynn was everything David wasn't. She was urbane and sophisticated, a "real whirlwind," he liked to say. They'd met several years before when he was playing winter ball in Puerto Rico. There she was on the beach one day, a vision in the sun and sand. "Lynn's so classy she brings me up a notch," he was often heard to say. "But then, I take her down one."