By Jon Lane
Thurman Munson’s death resonates amongst Yankees players, alumni and fans just as strong as it did that tragic afternoon 30 years ago on August 2, 1979. I was only six when Munson perished, yet in years since, and especially researching and writing my tribute to No. 15, I felt like I too lost someone I knew. I found myself asking the same questions: Why did he have to fly that airplane? Why did a stupid tree stump — graphically explained in Marty Appel’s book — block his means of escape? Why did he have to die so young? Why?
Cory Lidle wasn’t Thurman Munson. He wasn’t a Yankee staple, nor was he a borderline Hall of Famer. But Lidle was a Yankee who had his moments during his brief tenure in the Bronx once he and Bobby Abreu arrived in a 2006 trade-deadline deal with the Phillies. And he was someone who I got to know, one player I associated with even when the tape recorder was turned off. Unlike Munson, Lidle was eager to speak with the media, yet like Munson he was an everyman, one who made the absolute best of his limited talent.
So friendly was Lidle, I’ll never forget the day of his Yankees debut. It was at Yankee Stadium and I was in the clubhouse before the game. The golden rule in covering baseball is never — EVER — utter one word to that day’s starting pitcher. These guys’ rituals varied, from David Wells blasting heavy metal over the clubhouse sound system, to Orlando Hernandez dancing to whatever was playing over his iPod, to Randy Johnson staring into his locker, Pantera playing softly on his radio, and trying to burn a hole through the wall.
The rule was simple: Don’t go within 25 feet of that game’s starter, or risk complete embarrassment and humiliation for doing something so stupid. Yet here was Lidle walking towards his locker. I was in the middle of his path and in near panic looked to get out of his way – quickly. He looked towards me, lifted his head, smiled and asked, “How you doing?”
Lidle pitched six innings to defeat the Blue Jays, 6-1, and afterwards the noted sweet tooth — then Phillies reliever Arthur Rhodes ripped Lidle in the press, explaining that he ate ice cream during games, in response to Lidle’s description of a nonchalant clubhouse — found his locker littered with ice-cream sandwiches. After the media dispersed I asked about the beginning of the next phase of a well-traveled. He proceeded to pull me aside and say, “Let me tell you about my debut at the Astrodome in May of 1997 ….” The bulk of the media reported delicious irony. Lidle remembered the details of the first three batters he faced as a New York Met.
Cory Lidle and passenger Tyler Stanger were killed on October 11, 2006 when a plane registered in his name crashed into a building on New York’s Upper East Side, mere days after Lidle – he had cleaned out his locker after the Yankees were eliminated in the ALDS and took some heat in light of comments suggesting the team was unprepared – told me and several writers off the record about a planned cross country flight to California. After taking off, the first leg was to be an aerial tour of Manhattan.
I found out while home one day and fielding a phone call from my mother-in-law. She told me to turn on the TV because a Yankee was in a plane crash. It took about a minute to put it together before I told myself, “Oh no. Not Cory. Don’t tell me it was Cory.”
I ended up asking similar questions I would about Munson. Three days ago he told us he was taking that trip. Why did he have to fly? Why?
Lidle wasn’t Munson, but he was a Yankee, a husband and a father in the prime of his life. My old colleague and mentor Phil Pepe was haunted by the eerie similarities between the two tragedies. In a column penned one week after Lidle’s death, Pepe retold the popular story of the late-night meal during which Munson extended him an invite to take a trip in his beloved jet.
I chatted with Lidle before he left the clubhouse for what was likely the final time as Yankee. He was a pending free agent and unlikely to return, so I told him it was great to know him, wished him luck and hoped that we’d reconnect down the road. His response was something that three days later hit me – and hit me hard:
“It’s all good, man. I have my wife and my family, so everything is great. I have my whole life ahead of me.”
Once I saw the image of a burning building on the news with the confirmation that Lidle was on that airplane, I was shattered. Yankees fans honor Munson to this day, deservedly so. I honor Munson, a person I never met, in my own way, and I thank God for the brief time Lidle was in my life.