On this date 20 years ago, the Royals were looking to add a top of the line starting pitcher. In 1989, they’d finished second in the AL West behind Oakland and went after two big fish in Mark Davis and Storm Davis. Neither worked out. In 1991, George Brett spent part of the year on the disabled list and and, upon his return, wearing a knee brace. He was barely replacement level.
The clock was ticking.
Local Boy Returns
David Cone had gone from Rockhurst High School to the Royals organization. The third round pick in 1981, he lost 1983 to injury but by 1986, he’d battled back and made his major league debut, making a few appearances before going back to the minors and making it back in September.
The Royals traded him before the 1987 season started (for Ed Hearn – one of the most terrible trades in baseball history) and he went on to have seven strong seasons, accumulating a 3.13 ERA as a Met and finishing third in Cy Young voting in 1988 with a 20-3 record. Before he became a free agent after the 1992 season, the Mets shipped him off to Toronto for Jeff Kent. With a 3.10 ERA, Cone was the prize of the free agent class.
And Ewing Kauffman got him. It took three years and $18 million (half of that as a signing bonus). But with Brett winding down and Kauffman in his final years, the Royals were going for it.
For Cone, it was a chance to return home and exorcise some New York demons. For the Royals it gave them a strong 1-2 punch of Cone and Appier to open the 1993 season, a season that would turn out to be the last for both Brett and Kauffman (who passed away on August 1).
Cone had a notoriously odd year. He pitched great, but hardly got any run support, so despite a 3.33 ERA in 254 innings, he finished 11-14. The Royals, though, improved to 84-78 and had young players in place with Brian McRae in center field, and Bob Hamelin making his debut and they also had great veteran defense on the infield with Greg Gagne, Jose Lind and Wally Joyner. Jeff Montgomery was still among the best relievers in the game and the Royals hoped to keep the momentum going.
Streaks and Strikes
Cone opened his 1994 season with a much better batch of luck. In his first six starts, he had a 5-1 record. And it turns out that was just getting started.
On May 11, 17 and 22, Cone threw three consecutive shutouts, piling up 20 strikeouts and only eight hits in the 27 innings, including a one-hitter on the 22nd. He threw at least five innings in every start in 1994, including 17 where he’d reached at least seven innings.
On July 22, the Royals were 49-47 after a loss. On July 23, Cone took the mound against Detroit and gave up a leadoff single to Tony Phillips and followed that up with a walk to Lou Whitaker. The next hit the Tigers got off of Cone came in the bottom of the sixth with one out. In between, Cone retired 16 batters in a row until another walk to Phillips who went to third on a Whitaker single and scored on a ground out. Cone retired another seven of the next eight batters and finished with eight innings and 12 strikeouts. Jeff Montgomery worked the ninth to seal the win.
The Royals didn’t lose another game until August 6, a stretch of 14 games won by the Royals. At the end of the streak, the Royals stood at 63-47 and were a game behind both Cleveland and Chicago in the new AL Central. During the streak, Cone won three games, throwing 23.1 innings and striking out 21.
Less than a week later, the 1994 season was over following the MLBPA going on strike. The Royals finished 64-51.
Cone’s final line in 1994 was a 16-5 record and a 2.94 ERA in 171.2 innings. He won the Cy Young Award, only the second Kansas City Royal to do so to that point.
And Just Like That
With no owner in place, the Royals were starting to feel the pressure of baseball’s economics. Kauffman had gone after many high-priced players in the past and wasn’t afraid to put some money out to improve the team’s chances of winning, but before the 1995 season, things were starting to change.
On April 5, 1995, the Royals traded Brian McRae to the Cubs.
The next day, the Royals traded Cone to the Blue Jays. After a Cy Young season, and with a salary increasing to $8 million, the Royals couldn’t keep Cone. Despite two good seasons, all they got for him was a pair of minor leaguers and Chris Stynes, who spent two awful years in Kansas City before being traded to the Reds.
Cone went on to be traded once again, this time to the Yankees at the trade deadline. He was a part of three World Series winning teams and on July 18, 1999, he threw a perfect game against the Montreal Expos. He stayed with the Yankees until 2001 when he signed with the Red Sox and, after a year away, made five appearances for the Mets in 2003 before hanging it up at the age of 40.
There are a lot of questions about what might have been if the Royals had kept Cone. Maybe he’d have been enough to get them over the hump in 1989 or maybe they wouldn’t have made the same moves they did in 1990.
Instead, Cone is representative of the tumultuous period when the Royals lost their franchise player, lost their owner, and settled into the small-market, low-payroll ways that still haunt the club today. In 1995, the Royals trade of Cone was the first shot of the first youth movement in Kansas City, and one which is still going on today, even 17 years later. That June, they would draft Carlos Beltran. In August of that year, Johnny Damon made his major league debut.
The Royals have had one winning season since.