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Lidle's death is sad for New York and baseball

October 15, 2006|Thomas Boswell | Washington Post

NEW YORK — When Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson and Payne Stewart died in plane crashes, I don't remember where I was. But Cory Lidle will be different. Within a few minutes of his crash into a 50-story apartment building on Wednesday, I was watching TV news in my New York hotel room and realized that the site of the accident was perhaps 15 blocks from my hotel. So I looked out and watched the billowing smoke rise over a slice of the Upper East Side.

Like almost everyone else in that first hour, when sirens and flashing red lights dominated the scene, when streets were cordoned off and TV helicopters circled above the fire gushing out of the upper floors of the building, I wondered whether I was watching the smoke from a terrorist attack or the tragedy of a small-plane pilot who'd had a heart attack or something else.

President Bush was notified. Within minutes, fighter jets were scrambled over several cities, including New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle, according to Pentagon officials. However, it was almost two hours after Lidle died that word arrived on the 7 train, the subway heading to Shea Stadium, that the plane belonged to a New York Yankees pitcher, a person whom millions in this city know by name or performance, although almost none know as a man.

Everywhere the reaction was the same: sadness mixed with an equally large dose of disbelief that anything so bizarre could actually happen. Just hours before the New York Mets were to play in the first game of the National League Championship Series, a well-known Yankee died by accident in a crash which, on TV screens, was almost an exact miniaturization of the most powerful image of the 21st century: 9/11.

For the rest of the afternoon and evening, the sadness of a pointless tragedy competed with what seemed like an endless stream of tasteless jokes about the Yankees upstaging the Mets again. The entire front page of one paper here showed the Mets under a headline that read, "It's Our Town." But Lidle's catastrophe surely filled that space on Thursday. You can't record this event without noting its instant "tabloidization" in countless minds. Perhaps, in retrospect, we'll remember Lidle's death as, among other things, a landmark in our progressive desensitization or our inability to distinguish between celebrity news and real life.

Those who actually knew Lidle, of course, did not share this difficulty. To them, it was purely human and personal. "It's horrific. It's almost unbelievable. It's like a surreal moment. There's no way this could happen," said Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, who worked with Lidle for two years in Oakland. "I have no words. I just have strong emotions. It's just sadder than sad.

"When you look at all the things that transpire over on the other side of town with the Yankees, it's very easy for fans and press to [lose] perspective of what the reality is," Peterson added. "These are real people doing the best they possibly can. This is not about life and death. It's about entertainment."

Lidle was known in the sport as a bit of a loner, a result of being the most visibly successful of all the replacement players, long a resented group, who agreed to play in 1995 when major leaguers were on strike. Although he had modest talent and lacked much of a fastball, he battled until he established himself in a big league rotation at the fairly advanced age of 29, then proceeded to win a dozen or more games five times, leading to contracts like his most recent $6.3-million deal for two years.

Ironically, in death, more than one player echoed the phrase of the Mets' Carlos Beltran, who said, "He was a part of our [baseball] family." Often outspoken and candid, Lidle might appreciate it if we added: perhaps belatedly.

As recently as last week, Lidle was given the tar-and-feathers treatment on talk radio here for daring to question the perfection of Yankees Manager Joe Torre.

"We played golf all the time on the road," said the Cardinals' Mark Mulder. "I know he loved flying. He did it all the time. He just started getting all the hours and stuff recently.

"I feel terrible. I can't imagine what his wife and son feel like. My brother flies a plane just like that. It just goes to show you how quick things can go."

In tragedy, the links to Lidle seemed to span out through the game.

One of the Mets' coaches, Manny Acta, lived in the same building, the red-brick Belaire overlooking the East River, into which Lidle's plane crashed between the 30th and 31st floor. The Mets' team doctor had his office on the second floor. Mulder had been in the building for medical treatment, and at least one other member of the Cardinals had stayed there at times when in New York.

Acta received so many calls that he simply answered his phone with the words, "I'm fine." "I knew no one was calling about baseball," said Acta, who left the building about 45 minutes before the accident. "You've got to feel sorry for everybody."

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