The women told reporters that they were planning to amend their earlier suit to include additional charges, one of them alleging that some three years before, Cone had lured them into the bullpen at Shea on the pretense of giving them an autographed baseball and that they'd found him sitting on a stool with his pants pulled down below his knees and doing, as he would later call it, "the Pee-wee Herman thing."
Cone emphatically denies the incident ever occurred. Besides, he is a starting pitcher, not a reliever, so why on earth would he be hanging around the bullpen? "I'm never in the bullpen," he says. But the damage, coming in the wake of the Port St. Lucie rape case, was impossible to control. Lynn was still in New York—in hell, as it was starting to seem—taking questions that suggested her boyfriend of nearly six years was some kind of sex fiend. "But he's normal," she said. "Believe me, if there was anything abnormal about him, I'd know by now."
In April the Port St. Lucie police released its 400-page investigative file on the rape case, and the papers were quick to publish details about Cone's affair with the accuser. Once again reporters began to stalk him, and strangers sent harassing letters and made obscene phone calls. Everywhere he went people had fun at his expense.
One day at Shea fans pummeled the air with loosely clenched fists, imitating the act described in the lawsuit. Radio shock jocks invited Cone on the air and mercilessly quizzed him about his sex life. One newspaper cartoon showed him flashing a batter; another, appearing to masturbate in the dugout while the manager exhorted him to stop working out and hit the field.
Cone's energies now seemed as focused on self-preservation as on the new season. Someone asked him if he felt like a victim—an odd question, indeed, for a 29-year-old commanding $4.25 million a year. "Well, sometimes, maybe," came the reply. But by then he'd made up his mind that he couldn't win that way. "Don't let it get to you," he kept reminding himself. "Don't let them beat you." And he started to laugh at his detractors, because he knew that doing so would "stick it right back in their faces," as he said later.
He asked one of the cartoonists who'd skewered him to send an autographed copy of the drawing, and he went on Howard Stern's morning radio show and let Stern beat him up for a few minutes. He let another top New York radio personality, Don Imus, do the same. When Imus asked him about his peccadilloes, Cone responded with a big, happy show of laughter. Cone, one prescient sportswriter wrote, just might be "goofy enough" to survive this. And no one knew that better than Cone himself.
"My only haven was the pitching mound, the only place where I could get away from everything and no one could have a hand in what I was doing," he says. "I knew if I had a bad season, it would only magnify the off-the-field drama. But I had a good season, and I was the only Met on the All-Star team last year. It completely reversed the cycle."
By late August, Cone had won 13 games and was on course to become the first pitcher in 40 years to lead the National League in strikeouts for three consecutive seasons. But then, in a trade that shocked New York and Cone, the Mets dealt him to Toronto for infielder Jeff Kent and minor league outfielder Ryan Thompson. Cone was set to become a free agent after the season, and the New York front office doubted its chances of signing him. The market had gone haywire, and the Mets, according to reports, just weren't willing to ante up to keep Cone around. Was the team's management also tired of his off-the-field problems?
Cone didn't exit without taking a few shots at the Mets' front office. "The era of the arrogant Mets is gone," he lamented to reporters. Manager Jeff Torborg didn't want any individuals, Cone said. You couldn't even have a beer on the flight home after a game. Or, if you did, you had to hide it in your overnight bag. Grown men, one of them 37 years old, and they're sneaking sips of beer. What kind of atmosphere was that?
And once again he wondered whether he'd been born at the wrong time. It was 1992 now, and what used to be acceptable behavior had become taboo. You think someone would've told Babe Ruth he couldn't have a beer? Or Ty Cobb? Or Ted Williams? Why, they would've let Teddy Ballgame brew his own beer if he'd felt like it—right on the plane!