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Flight of fancy turns tragic

Cory Lidle enjoyed flying his own plane as a pleasant escape.
Thursday, October 12, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:08 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

NEW YORK — CAssociated Pressory Lidle hoped to use his passion for flying to get away from a difficult season.

Criticized by former teammates in Philadelphia and attacked in the New York media, Lidle looked forward to piloting himself back home to California once the Yankees lost in the playoffs.

Instead, Lidle, a 34-year-old Yankees pitcher was presumed killed along with a second person Wednesday when his small plane crashed into a 50-story skyscraper in Manhattan.

“This is a terrible and shocking tragedy that has stunned the entire Yankees organization,” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement.

Said MLB commissioner Bud Selig: “All of baseball is shocked and terribly saddened by the sudden and tragic passing of Cory Lidle.”

Lidle got his pilot’s license last offseason, bought his own plane and tried to spend every spare moment in the air.

“Yeah, it’s risky, but no more risky than driving a car,” he said in August.

A friend of Lidle’s said the pitcher had called him earlier Wednesday to say he would stop in Nashville, Tenn., on his way to California.

“He called me about 11:30 this morning ... and said that he was still planning on coming in, that there were some weather cells around Nashville and that he had a flight instructor with him and that they’d be in about 5,” Dave Whitis told radio station WGFX.

“He was actually going to take me up in his plane when he got here,” Whitis said.

Lidle agreed to a $6.3 million, two-year deal with the Phillies in November 2004. The contract contained a provision saying the team could get out of paying the remainder of the contract if he was injured or killed while piloting a plane.

Because the regular season was over, Lidle had received the full amount in the contract.

For nearly a decade, Lidle put together a successful career as a major league pitcher by living on the edge. Not the hardest thrower, he worked to the corners.

“Cory was a gambler. He always tried to take chances,” Oakland coach Ron Washington said Wednesday before the Athletics faced Detroit in the AL playoffs.

Lidle went 82-72 with a 4.57 ERA in a career that started in 1997. He played for the New York Mets, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Toronto, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and the Yankees.

Still in the minors, Lidle played one game for the Milwaukee Brewers in a 1995 spring training game while major leaguers were on strike. That one-inning stint as a replacement player haunted him later in his career, and Lidle was taunted as a “scab” by Phillies pitcher Arthur Rhodes after being traded to the Yankees on July 30.

Then Lidle was dropped from the Yankees’ postseason rotation, reduced to a relief role instead of starting in the surprising four-game loss to Detroit. After the defeat, Lidle was quoted as saying the Yankees weren’t as prepared as the Tigers.

On Tuesday, aware that he was getting criticized on WFAN radio, he called the station to defend himself. What ensued was a testy interview, with Lidle insisting his comments were not directed at manager Joe Torre.

“All I ever said was that they came more ready to play than us. They won that series. They outpitched us, they outhit us, they outfielded us. They were more ready to play than we were,” Lidle said on WFAN.

“I want to win as much as anybody. But what am I supposed to do? Go cry in my apartment for the next two weeks?”

Lidle said he was sure the Yankees weren’t happy about his plane, but added that no one in the organization had said anything to him about it.

Players flying airplanes is a troubling topic for the Yankees. Team captain Thurman Munson was killed flying his own plane during the 1979 season in Ohio, and his catcher’s gear still hangs in a special spot in the Yankees’ clubhouse.

“This is a terrible shock,” Torre said. “I was with (coaches) Ron Guidry and Lee Mazzilli when I heard the news and we were just stunned. Cory’s time with the Yankees was short, but he was a good teammate and a great competitor. My heart goes out to his family.”

Lidle played baseball in high school with Jason Giambi, and they became teammates on the Yankees this season.

“Right now, I am really in a state of shock, as I am sure the entire MLB family is,” Giambi said in a statement.

“My thoughts are with Cory’s relatives and the loved ones of the others who were injured or killed in this plane crash. I have known Cory and his wife, Melanie, for over 18 years and watched his son grow up. We played high school ball together and have remained close throughout our careers. We were excited to be reunited in New York this year and I am just devastated to hear this news,” he said.

Lidle had a 6-year-old son, Christopher.

Lidle said he liked to fly around in the offseason to see family and friends, especially his brother, a former minor league player, in Florida.

In the clubhouse, Lidle liked to have fun, former Oakland teammate Barry Zito remembered.

“We would call him ‘Snacks’ because he would eat Reese’s between innings when he was pitching,” the A’s pitcher said. “He’d have Whoppers, ice cream all while throwing eight scoreless innings.”


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