NEW YORK – At the controls of the instrument that took his life, Cory Lidle seemed at peace. He would step into his single-engine Cirrus SR-20, crank the propeller and toss all his worries to the wind as he piloted his airplane through it.
"No matter what's going on on the ground in your life," Lidle said recently, while chauffeuring a Comcast SportsNet crew on a trip above Philadelphia, "you can go up in the air and everything's gone."
Just like that, everything was gone Wednesday. Lidle, the 34-year-old New York Yankees right-hander, lost his life and left his wife widowed and his son without a father after his plane crashed into a 50-story Manhattan apartment building, burrowing a fiery hole in its side and, initially, spurring thoughts from onlookers that it might be a terrorist attack. Nothing of the sort. Simply an accident with another athlete whose thrill-seeking went horribly awry.
Still, the shock resonates every time, the memories of other ballplayers lost in air crashes – Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson most famously and all the way back to Marv Goodwin in 1925 – reminding us that this does happen, perhaps more often than most realize. In the last year, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's accident database, there have been 262 fatal airplane crashes in the United States, including Lidle's. Over the last 10 years, that number jumps to 3,159.
If this concerned Lidle, he did a masterful job of masking it. When he walked into the clubhouse each afternoon, he would tote around books on flying. Running into old teammates – and there were plenty, as Lidle spent time with seven different teams – he talked about his pilot's license and his plane and how he would love to take anyone willing for a whirl.
"And I told him definitely I'd love to, if it ever came up where he could," said New York Mets utilityman Chris Woodward, a teammate of Lidle's in Toronto. "I would do it. I would love to go up there."
Woodward grew up piloting model airplanes with his father and dreamed of enrolling in the Air Force. He said he plans on learning to fly once his career ends, something Lidle's accident would not change.
"It wouldn't have any bearing," Woodward said. "It's not what you think about. If that was the case, I'd never buy another car."
Those were words Lidle might have spoken. He never was lost for them and always seemed to find himself in the middle of minor tiffs. Mets closer Billy Wagner, his former teammate in Philadelphia, called Lidle a "chicken" for talking ill of the Phillies after he'd been traded to the Yankees this year. Reliever Arthur Rhodes, aggrieved by Lidle's comments, called him a "scab" – Lidle was a replacement player during the 1994-95 strike – and said: "The only thing Cory Lidle wants to do is fly around in his airplane and gamble."
Hey, we all have our vices.
Another of Lidle's was his stubbornness, the kind that bore itself out on the field. Oakland manager Ken Macha, who was the bench coach when Lidle found his first big-league success with the A's, remembered the July 14, 2002 game against Baltimore when Lidle faced Jay Gibbons. Before the game, pitching coach Rick Peterson told him not to throw Gibbons changeups. In Gibbons' second at-bat, Lidle did, and Gibbons hit a two-run homer.
"[Lidle] was pretty much a …"
Macha stopped himself.
"He was going to do things his way."
Peterson chewed out Lidle on the bench. Gibbons stepped up again two innings later.
"I was keeping my chart over there where these balls were hit, so I had the spot marked right there," Macha said. "I could see the seat where it went in Baltimore.
"Next at-bat, Gibbons comes up and there's two men on. … He threw him another changeup, and he hit another homer. I swear to God it went in the same seat."
Baseball spent all of Wednesday telling Lidle stories. Detroit closer Todd Jones, his teammate with Cincinnati and Philadelphia, reminisced how Lidle planned on holding a poker game after the Yankees beat the Tigers. St. Louis pitcher Mark Mulder, a teammate in Oakland, remembered golfing with Lidle and how Mulder's shoulder surgery last month took place across the street from the Belaire, the building into which Lidle's plane crashed. Mets third-base coach Manny Acta spent the whole day picking up his phone and answering, "I'm fine." Of all the skyscrapers in New York, he lives in the Belaire and had planned on moving out Thursday.
Televisions around Shea Stadium and McAfee Coliseum flicked to non-stop Lidle coverage. He had spent his first big-league season (1997) with the Mets and the best years of his career (2001, 2002) with the A's. He was one of them, everyone would recall, flaws and all, and no longer was he there.
"You feel like your soul is just totally bruised right now," Peterson said.
Early reports indicate a fuel problem that started almost immediately after Lidle's plane took off from Teterboro airport in New Jersey. Lidle and his flight instructor had sent a mayday call. The Cirrus carved a route around the Hudson River and up the East River before the crash. His peace had been interrupted, and the words he spoke after he landed the plane with the Comcast crew hung that much heavier.
"Stick the landing, walk away," Lidle said, "and it's a good day."