Lidle's tragic death hurts deeply
Game takes backseat for writer after his friend is killed
OAKLAND -- Objective? Detached? Professional?
Can't do it.
I lost a friend on Wednesday when former A's pitcher Cory Lidle died in a plane crash in Manhattan. Not an acquaintance. Not a baseball player whose exploits I covered on a daily basis for two years.
Moments before I typed this sentence from the press box at Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Milton Bradley of the A's smoked a first-pitch fastball from Tigers rookie phenom Justin Verlander into the seats at McAfee Coliseum, sending a sellout crowd into a frenzy. Were this just about any other night, the sportswriter in me would be trying to hide from my colleagues the fan-in-me goosebumps covering my arms.
No goosebumps. Nothing. Numb.
I just lost a friend.
You know, journalists aren't supposed to become friends with their subjects. It's taboo in our business. Potential conflict of interest, potential for compromised objectivity, blah, blah, blah.
But if befriending an athlete who would have become a friend had we crossed paths elsewhere in life makes me a bad journalist, fine. I'll wear it. I'm a human being first, and when I meet someone with a similar sense of humor, similar values and a similar personality, I'm not going to deny myself the pleasure of their company to simply conform to some cold code of my profession.
Professional athletes aren't supposed to befriend journalists, either. Another unwritten rule. But for the very reasons outlined above, some of them break it.
Not many, mind you. Of the hundreds of baseball players I've dealt with while covering the A's over seven seasons for MLB.com, I consider no more than five of them friends: Erik Hiljus, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder ... and Cory Lidle.
You might have noticed that all of them are pitchers. There's a reason for that. I was a pitcher, too. Not a very good one, of course. I can't tell you my exact ERA at the University of San Francisco, but it read like something you'd see next to the daily special at a cheap diner: 6.95. A's general manager Billy Beane once told me I was probably the only 6-foot-7 left-hander in Division I history to go undrafted, and he's probably right.
But that I played the game at that level gave me something in common with the aforementioned five, all of whom have played for the A's at some point, and most friendships are born out of commonality.
My friendship with Cory certainly was, but the more we got to know each other, the less we talked about pitching. Baseball, in different forms, was our profession. And who wants to talk about work unless you have to?
Cory wasn't a typical pro by any stretch, as evidenced by the classic nickname bestowed upon him in reference to his love of ice cream, candy, cookies and fast food. "Snacks" was forever snacking, like Brad Pitt in "Ocean's Eleven," only Cory was about as Hollywood as your next-door neighbor, and he had a body to match.
But he had a live right arm, a dirty sinker and a nasty disposition on the mound, so he was a pro. He was the American League Pitcher of the Month for the A's in August 2002, helping them put together a historic 20-game winning streak, and his two seasons in Oakland were the best of his nine-year career. Complementing the Big Three of Hudson, Mulder and Zito, he went a combined 21-16 with ERAs of 3.59 and 3.89.
And he was the least pretentious pro I've ever met. Probably the most honest, too -- even when he knew his honesty might get him in trouble. Perhaps that's why he bounced around so much, having played for seven big-league teams.
In Oakland, for instance, he continually clashed with then-pitching coach Rick Peterson, just as he'd done with coaches in Tampa Bay before the Devil Rays shipped him out. This year alone, he verbally sparred with Phillies reliever Arthur Rhodes after being traded from the Phillies to the Yankees, and before that he became one of the few active players to be openly critical of Barry Bonds.
More recently, he was hammered by the New York press for saying the Tigers were more prepared to play in the ALDS.
"Someone asks you a question, you answer it, right?" Cory once told me. "And if you don't answer it honestly, you're a phony."
He could be bitingly sarcastic, as many ballplayers are, and he was far from perfect, but he knew that about himself and often made light of the fact.
It was almost impossible to not like Cory, and look no further than to Peterson for confirmation of that.
I wrote a book about the Big Three two years ago, and in it, Cory took quite a few shots at Peterson. Yet there was Peterson, now the pitching coach of the Mets, struggling to contain his emotions Wednesday after getting the horrible news.
"There's no words to describe the loss of somebody that you spent some very special times with," Peterson said from the NLCS, where he nonetheless came up with some poignant words to describe Cory's journey from replacement player to Devil Rays castoff to valuable veteran.
"It shows the kind of fortitude and the kind of competitive spirit that you look for from people that you can count on when you need them most."
I never needed anything from Cory other than a postgame quote or two every fifth day when he was in Oakland, but we used to talk daily. We hung out quite a bit at night during Spring Training in Arizona, too. And after he was traded, we kept in touch.
I spoke to him by phone only a couple of weeks ago, in fact. Called him when the Yankees clinched a spot in the playoffs. Congratulated him. He thanked me and, as usual, quickly moved the subject off baseball. He asked about my family, and I asked about his son, Christopher, and his wife, Melanie.
So shortly after I arrived at McAfee Coliseum, when the news broke that his plane slammed into an apartment building earlier in the afternoon, I couldn't think of anything but Christopher and Melanie.
A good woman lost a good man. A 6-year-old boy lost a good father.
And I lost a friend. That's why my bosses pulled me off the game story here.
Baseball? Now? Please.
I have to get on a plane later tonight, heading for Detroit and Game 3 of the ALCS. It's my job, and I'm leaving my wife and two daughters, ages 3 and 2, behind to do it.
I'll be boarding a much bigger bird than the one Cory flew, and I know this might sound a little strange, but damn, I wish he could be the pilot.
At the very least, they'd better have snacks.
Rest in peace, Cory. It was a pleasure to know you.
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.