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West Covina School Recalls Ex-Student Lidle

`He touched a lot of lives here,' South Hills High's principal says of the plane crash victim.

October 12, 2006|Lance Pugmire and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Hours after learning that New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle had been killed when his small plane crashed into a 42-story Manhattan tower, South Hills High Principal Judi North clutched a copy of Lidle's photo from the West Covina school's 1990 yearbook.

"Time goes by, but we think of them as still being in high school," North said Wednesday afternoon.

North had broken down in tears minutes earlier as she read aloud a letter she was to deliver to the school's staff this morning about the death of Lidle, 34, who is survived by his wife, Melanie, and 6-year-old son, Christopher.

"This is a big loss for our school," she said. "He touched a lot of lives here. He was a wonderful member of the community."

Lidle was killed when his four-seat Cirrus SR20 plane crashed into the 30th and 31st floors of the Belaire. The plane, owned by Lidle, took off from New Jersey's Teterboro Airport about 15 minutes before it crashed, authorities said.

At South Hills High, Lidle was one of a string of players who made the Huskies one of Southern California's baseball powers in the 1990s. South Hills players who went on to the major leagues include Jason and Jeremy Giambi, pitcher Aaron Small and catcher Shawn Wooten.

"He had a live arm and a passion," said Steve Bogan, who was the Huskies' third base coach when Lidle played and who is now South Hills' football coach. "He was going to bring it hard every time. You knew he wanted to be there."

Lidle was known at South Hills as a baseball junkie whose fastball earned him the starting pitching assignment in the CIF Southern Section 4-A division championship game against San Luis Obispo, a 4-0 loss. Lidle's twin brother, Kevin, played on the 1990 team, and was a catcher in the Angels' minor league system.

Lidle began his major league career with the New York Mets in 1997. In the eight seasons beginning in 1999, he pitched for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies before being traded to the Yankees with All-Star outfielder Bobby Abreu in late July.

In Oakland, where some of Lidle's former teammates played the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night, a moment of silence was held before the game to remember him. The Athletics hung a Lidle jersey, No. 21 with his name, in their bullpen.

"Cory's death is a terrible shock to all of us," A's General Manager Billy Beane said.

Oakland pitcher Barry Zito recalled Lidle for his "playful spirit."

"He was like a boy when he played the game.... We used to call him Snacks because he would eat Reese's Peanut Butter Cups between innings," Zito said. "Once he brought his twin brother in and had him dress in his uniform. They were trying to play a joke on Rick Peterson," the A's pitching coach at the time.

Lidle's death put the game in perspective, Zito said.

"A lot of people see us as superheroes; the reality is we're regular humans," he said. "Guys have to remember that. You can't start downhill skiing and jumping off cliffs with bungee cords. You have to really know what you're doing."

Lidle reported this year that he had earned his pilot's license during the off-season after taking flying lessons from a Pomona flight instructor at Brackett Field in La Verne.

The airport's general manager declined to comment Wednesday except to say, "We give our condolences to Mr. Lidle's family."

In February, Lidle told a reporter about circling the Hollywood sign in his plane. New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said Wednesday that Lidle's plane had circled the Statue of Liberty before the crash.

"What's risky about it?" Lidle said about flying, in a February interview with the Bucks County, Pa., Courier Times. "If you're 7,000 feet in the air and your engine stops, you can glide for 20 minutes....

"The only thing that would scare me is if I somehow got into a weather situation....

"Flying a plane isn't dangerous at all. It's not like there are a bunch of people up there not knowing what they're doing."

The Lidle tragedy brought back memories of the August 1979 plane crash that claimed the life of another Yankee, catcher Thurman Munson, who was learning to fly when his plane went down.

Lou Piniella, one of Munson's teammates, said Wednesday was a "flashback."

"You play sports and sometimes you feel infallible because you take care of yourself so well," Piniella said. "Flying is obviously a dangerous passion and, basically, you can have some bad endings."

Bogan, the South Hills coach, said Lidle "wasn't an excessively risky kid. You have to have a little risk in you to have success. People who are overly cautious probably don't find out who they are, or what they can do. He had that in him, but it wasn't excessive."

Lidle didn't mind expressing opinions.

In July, when the Phillies traded him and Abreu to New York, he said of the teammates he was leaving: "On the days I'm pitching, it's almost a coin flip as to know if the guys behind me are going to be there to play 100%."

Phillies pitcher Arthur Rhodes fired back.

"When he pitched, we busted our tails for him," Rhodes said. "He shouldn't say that.... The only thing Cory Lidle wants to do is fly around in his airplane and gamble."

In recent days, Lidle had stirred controversy by saying that the Yankees were unprepared entering their playoff series against the Detroit Tigers, which they lost.

*

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

Times staff writers Bill Shaikin in Los Angeles, Mike DiGiovanna in Oakland and Tim Brown in New York contributed to this report.

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