ATLANTA — The plane sat on the tarmac, stuck in limbo, and the man who would have to save the World Series for the New York Yankees sat inside it, feeling the beads of sweat starting to form.

“How long?” he wanted to know.

Maybe a half-hour, he was told. Maybe hours. No way to tell. Computer problem.

“Computer problem?” he thought.

He envisioned every travel nightmare you can think of. Flight gets canceled. Back-up flight gets canceled. He spends the rest of night wandering around an airport . . .

“Wait a minute.”

He told the pilot who he was. He asked if he could get off the plane. They don’t usually do things like this for airline passengers, but then, most airline passengers are not scheduled to pitch Game 3 of the World Series the next day.

And this was, after all, New York.

So David Cone talked his way off the plane and got into a car and rode from La Guardia airport in Queens back to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and stayed until Game 2 was over Monday. Then he flew to Atlanta with his teammates, on the regular charter, arriving in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. The idea had been to get Cone down south early, give him a good night’s rest, have him fresh for the big game Tuesday night.

“Well,” Cone said afterward. “It won’t be the first time I’ve stayed up until 3 a.m.”

It is getting harder to find first times for anything for Cone. He is 33. This was not his first World Series. This was not even his first time facing the Braves in the Fall Classic.

But it was the first time he was asked to save a team from World Series disaster.

And it might have been the first time that he wasn’t sure he could do it.

His comeback was magical

Remember, this is the same guy who, just five months ago, underwent surgery to remove an aneurysm from his pitching shoulder. Serious? You can’t say the word “aneurysm” and not be serious. Doctors needed to graft a vein from his right thigh. Then Cone was on blood-thinning medication. There were all the normal whispers that come when a pitcher has a knife taken to his livelihood: Will he throw the same again? Will he even pitch again?

Cone pitched again. In perhaps the most dramatic night of the baseball year, Sept. 2 in Oakland, David Cone returned to the major leagues and pitched not one, not two, but seven hitless innings.

I remember that night. It was the Monday of Labor Day weekend, and all over America, people wandered in from their evening barbecues and asked, “Is he still in there? Has he still got a no-hitter? Can you believe this guy? . .
.”

It was one night of baseball that showed what David Cone was made of. Here, Tuesday night, was another. Cone hadn’t pitched much as of late. He’d started two games in the postseason and the Yankees lost both, one to Texas, one to Baltimore. Now, with New York in an 0-2 hole, he was being asked to hold off the fire-breathing Atlanta Braves, a team that had won its last five postseason games, outscoring opponents, 48-2.

Oh, goody. A challenge.

He slew the dragons

This is what David Cone did with all that weight on his scarred pitching shoulder. He got the clean-up hitter, the mighty Fred McGriff, to ground out harmlessly to end the first.

He struck out Andruw Jones — the 19 year-old sensation who hit two homers in his first World Series game — to end the second.

He struck out Ryan Klesko to end the fourth.

He stuck out Jeff Blauser to end the fifth.

David Cone took a shutout into the sixth inning — which is longer than any pitcher has shut out the Braves this postseason. He held off the dragons long enough for the Yankees to scratch out their first lead of this Series. And finally, finally, he began to tire. He walked the pitcher, Tom Glavine — a cardinal sin — and next thing you knew, the bases were loaded. And Joe Torre, the Yankees manager, came out to get him.

“I need you to be totally honest,” Torre said.

And Cone told him, “Not yet.”

Now. Understand. This was the whole Series, right here, because McGriff was at the plate, and if Cone gives up a big hit there, the Yankees might as well drive straight to the airport. Torre stared into his pitcher’s eyes.

“I can do it,” Cone said.

And Torre trusted him.

And Cone got McGriff to pop out.

Later Cone would say laugh and say, “I lied” to Torre — but later it didn’t matter. The game was won. Cone had earned the first World Series victory of his 10-year career by allowing just four hits and throwing 97 pitches, amazing if you consider that his arm was not even circulating blood correctly a few months ago.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Cone admitted in the news conference after the game.
“When I was lying on that hospital bed in May, and they said ‘aneurysm,’ I didn’t even know what it meant. To go from that to this . . .

He shook his head. “I wish I was eloquent enough to tell you how I feel.” Things change. The Yankees, supposedly dead- on-arrival in Atlanta, are alive this morning because, when they had to have a game, David Cone gave them a game, scar and all. He has not always been a model citizen, and he has said some funny things over the years, but make no mistake: The arm that throws Cone’s pitches is exceeded in size only by the heart that pumps behind it.

The Yankees should be glad they have both.

And they should be grateful he got off that plane.

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