On July 18, 1999 my father decided to take my brother and I to Yankee Stadium to catch a ball game. Dad always thoughtfully did this sort of thing to break up the monotony of a long work week, which was usually met by our brattish reluctance to do something exciting outdoors as we preferred to stay home, eat Chinese food and play Crash Bandicoot. Dad knew we could never say no to a Yankee game. The day was humid and in the eighties, normal weather for July baseball in the Bronx. My brother, Warren, and I had no idea that we were about to witness a nearly impossible athletic feat to achieve in professional baseball, let alone sports in general.
In 1999 David Cone had already amassed championship rings, all-star selections, broken records, and made millions of dollars as a Major League Baseball pitcher. But, at the age of 36, Cone was on the back end of his career, heading towards the inevitable finality of retirement. Yet the seasoned veteran was a trusted staple of the New York Yankees pitching rotation during their 1990s championship reign. Cone had won twenty games in 1998 and maintained a 3.55 ERA, not too shabby for a man in his mid-thirties - he was in the midst of a miraculous resurgence that very few athletes experience. Throughout most athletic careers, especially in baseball, players make their way up the amateur ranks or “farm” leagues until they are deemed worthy enough to be called up to the professional stage. If an athlete is even capable of becoming a successful player in the professional leagues then he might eventually find himself labeled a star who can consistently deliver for his team, in turn, earn great pay. But, after this stardom comes to an end, retirement is the next and final chapter that all athletes must face. Unless an athlete is fortunate enough to find himself in a “renascence” phase as David Cone did, life as a veteran athlete and journeyman is usually spent on the bench.
The summer of 1999, a simpler time before the emergence of stringent airport scanners and extreme security measures; before the mighty Twin Towers were toppled, the country was fired up for Y2K. The nation was eager to view George Lucas’ first installment of the Star Wars prequel series, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Ricky Martin’s “Livin La Vida Loca” was rocking the airwaves. Around this time, President Bill Clinton had been acquitted of impeachment charges brought against him on the floor of the United States Senate for lying under oath. And here in the Bronx, Yankee Stadium was electric as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera were nearly invincible as they won four championships in five years (1996 and 1998-2000).
Before Major League Baseball’s steroid scandal rocked the sports world, it was common for superstars to hit over fifty home runs per year and pitch twenty winning game seasons. But, there are some feats that are nearly unattainable in baseball, including a perfect game.
We arrived at our seats in the right field stands for the game and the stadium wasn’t full to capacity, but it wasn’t empty either, instead it was comfortable enough to take in the game and not feel cramped. It was Yogi Berra Day at Yankee Stadium, and ironically, Berra caught the opening pitch thrown by Don Larsen. Forty years earlier the same duo was on the mound and behind the plate when Larsen threw a perfect game on October 8th, 1956.
At the time the Montreal Expos were a young team maintaining an average age of twenty seven years old and a budget of merely $16 million. In the other dugout, the Yankees maintained a goliath payroll of $88 million. The Expos weren’t even sure where they would play the 2000-2001 season as the team explored options to leave Canada and move the organization to Washington D.C. The young Montreal Expos team didn’t stand a chance against the experience and savvy that Cone brought to the mound. Behind home plate, Yogi Berra’s player number 8 adorned the field above the New York Yankees logo.
The very first inning saw Cone strikeout Wilton Guerrerro on three quick pitches that set the tone for the rest of the game. Sixty eight of Cone’s eighty eight pitches would be called strikes over nine innings. Next at bat, Terry Jones connected with a solid drive to right field that was the biggest threat to Cone’s perfect game. However, Paul O’ Neill leapt into action and magically dove for the ball, resulting in an out. Had O’Neill worn his glove on the other hand he might not have been able to reach the ball. Finally, Rondell White, a fearsome hitter with tremendous power, connected on a pitch that sent the ball soaring towards left-center field, only to be caught by Ricky Ledee. Cone’s perfect game was just getting started.
The bottom of the second inning led to the bulk of the Yankees’ offense as the Bronx Bombers took advantage of the Expos’ young pitcher, Javier Vazquez. First, Chili Davis was walked leading to a monstrous homerun crushed into the right field upper deck by Ricky Ledee. Later in the inning Joe Girardi’s line drive to left center field brought in Scott Brosius’ run making the score 3-0. Finally, Yankees captain Derek Jeter homered to left field, giving the Yankees a 5-0 lead.
Cone had found his rhythm striking out multiple batters when a few trickles of rain led to the sky opening up and a downpour falling upon Yankee Stadium. At only a little over a half hour and in the bottom of the 3rd inning the umpire decided to bring out the tarp and cover the field. Up in the stands the three of us observed fans heading for the exits, luckily we were covered by just enough of the right field upper deck to remain in our seats. The rain delay lasted thirty three minutes before the water subsided, a length of time that must have felt like an eternity for a surging Cone, but for our trio in right field it was part of our day’s adventure.
From the fourth inning into the 6th inning Cone maintained his consistent pitching, striking out batters and forcing gently hit pop-ups. Paul O’ Neill saw much of the fielding action as the Expos managed to send a multitude of hits towards right field. In the upper deck, Cone’s strong pitching and the 0 marking the Expos hit column began to feel more palpable and the impossible perfect game started to feel like a reality. During other games when the Yankees maintained the lead, we would normally head for the exit in the sixth inning to beat the traffic heading back home. But this time was different, Cone was on a roll.
By the top of the ninth inning the entire stadium stood and waited for the final three outs. First, catcher Chris Widger was swiftly dispatched after a strikeout. Next, Ryan McGuire took the count to two balls and two strikes before solidly hitting a pitch to Ricky Ledee in left field, who bobbled the ball before securing it for an out. Finally, Orlando Cabrera came to bat as the last Expos batter of the game. Cone pitched a ball and a strike to the young hitter before he popped out to Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius who leapt up in celebratory exaltation. Cone had done it, he pitched a perfect game! In the upper right field deck the Yankee faithful flew into a frenzy as beer and popcorn were thrown over the railings showering us like the rains of earlier in the day had. Cone and Joe Girardi embraced as the pitcher fell over onto the catcher and the rest of the New York Yankees stormed the field to celebrate. The triumphant pitcher was lifted up onto his teammates’ shoulders as he raised his glove overhead in victory. What bliss! To see history in the flesh and witness it amongst family and through a child’s eyes. It was a moment that can never be replicated or forgotten by anyone in that stadium, certainly not by me.
On that magical day in July it only took David Cone a little over an hour to dispatch twenty seven Expos hitters and achieve perfection.