Thursday, October 12, 2006

Mike Lupica: Not only famous Yanks die young

The New York Daily News
October 12, 2006

Lidle's death brings back memories of Thurman

This is the way Cory Lidle walked into the Yankee clubhouse every day, the way most of them walk in, down the blue line painted on the cement floor, past the back door to Joe Torre's office, around a corner and past photographs of all the Yankees who have had their numbers retired. Those pictures are on the right-hand wall and you can't miss them before you walk through the clubhouse door and put on the most famous uniform in sports.

Halfway down the wall is the picture of Thurman Munson.

Munson was No. 15 and captain of the Yankees and loved flying planes almost as much as Yankee fans loved him. He was flying his own Cessna Citation on Aug. 2, 1979, practicing takeoffs and landings, touch-and-go's as they are called, at the Akron-Canton Airport near his home in Ohio, when he didn't get his flaps down in time and the Cessna clipped a tree and crashed and burned and Munson died.

He was 32. Now it had happened to another Yankee, to a journeyman pitcher named Cory Lidle, one not nearly as much a Yankee as Munson. It had happened to Lidle out of the sky above Manhattan on the fourth afternoon after the Yankee season ended, Lidle's single-engine plane crashing into the Belaire, 524 E. 72nd St.

Lidle was 34. It is not only the famous Yankees who die young.

They began to find out about it at Yankee Stadium in the late afternoon the way everyone did yesterday. Debbie Tymon, the Yankees' senior vice president for marketing, had driven to Manhattan at lunchtime, gotten off the FDR Drive at 71st St., a block from where Lidle's Cirrus SR20 would hit the Belaire in an hour.

Tymon picked up some bread for her mother at Orwasher's Bakery, on E. 78th St., and drove back to the Stadium with a friend. It wasn't so long after that that somebody came into her office and told her to turn on a television set. Debbie Tymon did that and said, "Oh my God, I was just there."

Now, much later at the Stadium, everybody knowing by then about the Yankee pitcher who loved to fly the way Thurman Munson loved to fly, Debbie Tymon said, "It wasn't too long before we started to hear it might have been one of ours."

"Obviously I think everyone saw it earlier in the day," Yankee general manager Brian Cashman would say at the Stadium. "No one knows if it touched your life, your family or friends."

It was the Yankee family this time. It was a journeyman Yankee who had come over from the Phillies and started nine games for the Yankees in the regular season and won four of them.

He was Cory Lidle, and in all he won 82 games in the big leagues for a lot of teams, including the Mets, and Cashman always said he wouldn't have made his big trade for Bobby Abreu this summer if Lidle hadn't been included. Stories were written in the newspapers about his flying, how he had gotten his pilot's license during the last off-season when he was still with the Phillies, how he loved to go up in a plane and fly over the ballparks in which he pitched.

He told reporters the other day that he was planning to fly himself home to California in his Cirrus, taking his time, making some stops along the way. It is not clear whether he was doing that yesterday, or just taking a ride with an instructor over the Statue of Liberty and up along the East River, when something went tragically wrong and this became the day in New York City when it was a Yankee pitcher in a small plane that went into a high-rise near the river.

Lidle died there and his instructor died with him. By the grace of God, nobody died at the Belaire and nobody on the street died for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a plane, a small one this time, came out of the sky and hit one of our buildings.

Now it was 6 p.m. at Yankee Stadium. Jason Zillo, from the Yankees public relations staff, was standing at the door to the Yankee clubhouse, at the end of that row of famous Yankees, all of them with their numbers retired in the outfield. The picture of Lou Gehrig, No. 4, was the last one before the door that read "The Pete Sheehy Clubhouse," named after the old clubhouse man who went all the way back to Gehrig and Babe Ruth.

Inside the room is the empty locker they still keep for Munson.

Such famous names have been in that room. Munson and Mantle and Ruth and Gehrig and Berra and all the rest. The most famous baseball names in this world. The most famous Yankees. Cory Lidle, about to become more famous in death than he was as a baseball pitcher, had only been a Yankee for a couple of months. But he had been a Yankee.

When the season was ending for them on Saturday in Detroit, the kind of loss that is always treated as a tragedy, he came out of the bullpen, the second pitcher in the game after starter Jaret Wright. Lidle did no better than Wright had done, pitched an inning and a third, gave up four hits and three runs and struck out just one.

When the season was over, he talked in the quiet of the Yankee clubhouse about flying his plane home to California.

It was quiet at Yankee Stadium in the early evening yesterday. The only real sound was the rain, at the other end of the runway from the clubhouse door, the runway that takes you to the field. There were boxes out here, filled with the last remnants of the season, marked "Fragile." Because everything was at Yankee Stadium yesterday.

The door to the clubhouse was locked.

"[Lidle's] locker was on the right side of the room, in there between A-Rod and Randy Johnson," Zillo said.

"Across the room from Thurman's."

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