Grave Story: Cory Lidle (1972-2006)

Here lies Cory Lidle, a starting pitcher for seven teams over a 9-year career in the 1990s and 2000s. His final career appearance came in the playoffs, shortly before his tragic death in a plane crash. Lidle played for the New York Mets (1997), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (1999-2000), Oakland Athletics (2001-2002), Toronto Blue Jays (2003), Cincinnati Reds (2004), Philadelphia Phillies (2004-06) and New York Yankees (2006).

Cory Fulton Lidle was born in Hollywood, Calif., on March 22, 1972. The “Fulton” middle name came from a distant ancestor, famed steamboat inventor Robert Fulton. While he was growing up, Lidle pitched for the West Covina Wildcats of the area Babe Ruth League. He was a pitcher and shortstop for South Hills High School and was named to the All-CIF Southern Section 4A baseball team in 1990, along with future big-leaguers Dmitri Young and Andrew Lorraine. He had an 11-2 record and a 1.02 ERA that season while striking out well over a batter an inning. He was also a part of the basketball and wrestling teams. One of his baseball teammates was his twin brother Kevin, a catcher, who was a .400 hitter with a rocket arm. He was on the third-team All-CIF team. Lidle was also high school teammates with another pair of brothers, Jason and Jeremy Giambi.

Lidle was not taken in the amateur draft, but he was signed by the Minnesota Twins as an amateur free agent in the winter and reported to the Gulf Coast Twins in 1991. He threw just 4-2/3 innings and then 43-2/3 for another Rookie-Level team, Elizabethton of the Appalachian League, in 1992. He finally began starting games regularly in 1993 with Pocatello, Lidle’s third season of Rookie ball. Meanwhile, Kevin Lidle had been drafted in the 24th Round of the June Amateur Draft in 1992 by the Detroit Tigers.

Cory Lidle’s grave in Corest Lawn Memorial Park, Covina, Calif. The epitaph reads, “More than a loving husband and father, Cory was a friend to everyone he met. He went out of his way to help those he knew needed help. We, his family, were the most fortunate of all for having the opportunity of sharing his love on a daily basis for so many wonderful years.”

During his time in Rookie ball, Cory Lidle was let go by the Twins and acquired by the Milwaukee Brewers, who gave him some experience as both a starter and closer in its low minor leagues in 1994. He saved 2 games in his first 5 appearances with Stockton of the California League. But the starting rotation was his preferred destination.

“I like knowing that I’m going to pitch instead of coming to the park and wondering if I’m going to pitch or not,” he said in 1995. “It’s a lot easier to prepare mentally.”

At the time of that quote, Lidle had moved into the rotation of the Double-A El Paso Diablos. He ended up making 9 starts and 36 relief appearances in 1995, with a 5-4 record, 2 saves and a 3.36 ERA. In the spring of that season, he worked out with the Brewers during the 1994-95 player’s strike as a replacement player. Just how much choice Lidle actually had in the matter is questionable. A veteran free agent could have refused to cross a picket line, but a rookie who is already on his second organization? A refusal may very well have ended his career right there. The owners’ idea of using replacement players never came to fruition, and some of those players, including Lidle, reached the majors later in their career. But their decisions were remembered by the rest of the league. Lidle was pretty outspoken in his career and wasn’t shy about criticizing former teams. When players responded to him, they usually worked in the word “scab” when talking about Lidle.

Source: Tampa Bay Times, March 1, 2000.

Lidle remained unrepentant about his choice, even when it cost him a chance to become a member of the MLB Players Association. “I never regretted it,” he said in August of 2006. “I just wanted to play.”

In January of 1996, Lidle was traded from Milwaukee to the New York Mets for catcher Kelly Stinnett. He started 27 games for the Double-A Binghamton Mets of the Eastern League and finished the season with a 14-10 record and 3.31 ERA. He struck out 141 batters and was named the team’s Most Valuable Pitcher.

Lidle started 7 games for Triple-A Norfolk in 1997 before the Mets brought him to the majors. The team’s bullpen had a disastrous start to the season, and the team’s front office rebuilt it almost from scratch, thanks to trades and some Triple-A promotions. Lidle was one of the relievers who got the call, and he excelled in the role. He won 7 of 9 decisions with 2 saves and a 3.64 ERA. What he may have lacked with a blazing fastball he made up for with good control and a competitive attitude.

“The one thing I didn’t know was his composure and just how confident he is,” said Mets manager Bobby Valentine. He started to figure it out after Lidle got into trouble in a relief outing against the Cardinals on August 13. There was one out in the ninth inning of a tie game and runners on second and third base when Valentine visited the mound. “We’re going to get out of this,” Valentine told his rookie pitcher. “Damn right,” Lidle responded, and he did. Lidle struck out John Mabry and got Ray Lankford to ground out to end the threat. The Mets proceeded to take the lead in the top of the tenth and gave Lidle his sixth win of the season.

“Randy Niemann [Mets bullpen coach] says he’s the coolest guy out there. I didn’t know about that,” Valentine added. “I knew about his curve and his splitter.”

Though Lidle never pitched for the Diamondbacks, he still has a baseball card with them.

Other teams were becoming aware of Lidle’s abilities as well. The Arizona Diamondbacks claimed him in the November 1997 expansion draft, with the idea that he could start or relieve in the majors. Instead, Lidle underwent offseason shoulder surgery and then had Tommy John surgery on his elbow on August 2, 1998. The Diamondbacks placed him on waivers, and he was claimed by the other expansion team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

After continuing his rehab work at various levels of the Rays’ organization, Lidle returned to the major leagues in September of 1999. By his own admission, he was not 100 percent recovered. However, the Rays needed to evaluate his progress, so they did it at the major-league level. He won one game in 5 appearances, allowing 4 runs in 5 innings.

“From what I’ve heard, with other guys who’ve had the surgery, it’s anywhere from a year to 18 months before they get 100 percent back. Thirteen months out, I feel like my location is pretty close to where it was,” Lidle explained. “My velocity is not where it was, but out on the mound I feel like I’m in control.”

Lidle’s elbow was back to normal (or close enough) in 2000, and he started the season as a long reliever for Tampa. He came out of the bullpen 20 times for the Rays to go with 11 starts. After a good start to the season as a reliever, Lidle was added to the rotation in June. Not only did he struggle as a starter, but he was also demoted back to the minors after one particularly disastrous start against Detroit, where he allowed 7 earned runs in 2-1/3 innings. He returned in August and won 3 of his last 4 starts, including 7 shutout innings against Oakland on September 8. His late success improved his record to 4-6 and lowered his ERA to 5.03 on the year. Lidle would pitch almost exclusively as a starter for the remainder of his career, but it would require another change in teams.

In January of 2001, Lidle was sent to Oakland as part of the three-team trade between the Rays, A’s and Kansas City Royals. As a starter for Oakland, he tended to be overlooked among the A’s trio of aces in Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. It didn’t help that he was winless through the end of May, even though he had left eight games with the lead and didn’t get the win in any of them. He also produced some controversy the first time the Tampa Bay Devil Rays came to town. Lidle bashed his former team, from his ex-teammates to management to his former pitching coach, Bill Fischer.

“It took me saying, ‘I’m sick and tired of doing exactly what the pitching coach wants,’ for me to turn things around and have some halfway decent starts to show other teams what I can do,” Lidle said, before turning on the team’s upper management. “I don’t have a problem with [owner] Vince Naimoli, but I don’t think he knows baseball. I thought he hired a bad general manager [Chuck LaMar] who doesn’t know how to put a team together or hire a staff to help a team win, and he went and got some veteran guys who aren’t really leaders. You can write that.”

The Tampa Bay Times theorized that Lidle’s status as a former replacement player had left him with few friends on Tampa during his time on the team. “Pretty good for a scab,” said pitcher Rays Albie Lopez. “I guess he won’t have a Triple-A job with us next season.”

The Rays beat Lidle 5-1 in the May 29 game, with Greg Vaughn’s 3-run homer off the A’s pitcher being the biggest blow. The loss left Lidle with an 0-4 record, but he had two 4-game winning streaks and a 5-game winning streak over the rest of the season to finish the year 13-6. His 3.59 ERA would be his best mark as a starter in the majors and was tenth-best in the AL. Lidle’s success earned him a postseason start against the Yankees in the AL Division Series. He was knocked out of the game in the fourth inning, after giving up 6 runs (4 earned) on 5 hits and 3 walks. The Yankees won the game 9-2 and eliminated the A’s in the next game.

In 2002, there were two Lidles working as pitchers in pro ball. Kevin, after a decade in the minors, decided to convert from a catcher to a pitcher to see if he could advance his career at all. He credited his twin for supporting him. “Cory told me, ‘It’s not too late if you want to give it a shot.’ I figured I’d give it a shot and work on it,” Kevin said. He struggled in the low minors with Detroit and left baseball after 2002, aside from a brief comeback with the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League in 2005.

Cory Lidle, meanwhile, had a second solid season with the A’s, though he had a below-.500 winning percentage with an 8-10 record. He had a 3.89 ERA and walked only 39 batters in 192 innings, against 111 strikeouts. He was at his best during the A’s 20-game winning streak in August. He won three of those games and had a 0.20 ERA in the month of August, including a pair of 1-hit shutouts. He put together a 32-inning scoreless streak before allowing an unearned run against Kansas City on August 26. Lidle had struggled over the first half of the season, and he was almost taken out of the rotation entirely when the A’s traded for starter Ted Lilly, but he got hot at the tight time and finished the season as good as any pitcher in the AL.

Source: Philadelphia Daily News, June 7, 2005.

“It’s like he’s a different player,” Mulder said. “You can see his whole game turning around. It’s great for a pitcher to watch what he’s done for himself in the last couple of months.”

Lidle made just one appearance in the A’s 2002 AL Division Series loss to Minnesota. He allowed an RBI triple to catcher A.J. Pierzynski in an inning of work in a Game One 7-5 loss. It ended up being his last appearance with the A’s. After the postseason was over, the A’s traded Lidle to Toronto for infielder Mike Rouse and a minor-leaguer. His sole season with the Blue Jays was an odd one. He started off hot in 2003, with a 7-game winning streak over April and May. After he beat the Yankees 8-2 on May 24, he was the first pitcher in the majors to win 8 games. He reached double digits on June 20, but he won just two more games after that. After a history of starting slow and finishing well, the 31-year-old Lidle fell apart in the second half, ending the year with a 12-15 record and a 5.75 ERA. He led the AL with 123 earned runs allowed, and while a groin injury in the second half slowed him down, his confidence was said to be hurt as well.

Lidle’s performance torpedoed any hope of the Blue Jays trading him at the July 31 trade deadline. Instead, he became a free agent after his 2-year, $7 million+ contract expired. Just before the end of the year, Lidle signed a 1-year contract with the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds for $2.75 million. By the time the 2004 season got under way, he had claimed the honor of Opening Day starter in Cincinnati, beating out Paul Wilson for the role. After dealing with injuries that set his career back for several years, Lidle had become the consistent innings-eater that most teams need.

“I had opportunities to go elsewhere. This was just such a perfect fit, a perfect opportunity that it just made sense for me to come here,” Lidle said.

Lidle won 7 and dropped 10 games for the Reds, with a 5.32 ERA. He threw one of the team’s 2 shutouts and also was a part of baseball’s first experimentation with robot umpires. Several ballparks during 2004 were part of an experiment with Questec, a computer program that graded umpires on their calls at home plate. In the June 13 game between Cleveland and Cincinnati, there were 18 bases on balls. Lidle said that at one point, home plate umpire Matt Hollowell twice said that he had to abide by Questec’s definition of the strike zone and not his own.

“An umpire should be confident in his own ability to call strikes,” the pitcher said after the game. “When he looks you in the eyes and tells you some of our pitches are strikes and he can’t call them because of a machine, it’s ridiculous… It was not a home plate, it was a dinner plate. It had no corners. This game should be under review as to what Questec is doing to the game.”

Source: Cincinnati Enquirer, April 5, 2004.

As the Reds flailed away in the middle of the Central Division, it was able to trade Lidle to the contending Philadelphia Phillies a few days after the trade deadline in a waiver deal. He was dealt for two minor-leaguers and a player to be named later. Only one of the players, Elizardo Ramirez, ever reached the major leagues. The Phillies finished in second place in the NL East, but Lidle put together one of the best stretches of his career. He won 5 games for the Phillies in 10 starts, including two shutouts. That gave him 3 shutouts on the year, which led baseball. He ended the year with an even 12-12 record and 4.90 ERA, and he topped 200 innings for the only time in his career. He also hit the only home run of his career on August 29. Not only did Lidle throw a 4-hit, 9-strikeout shutout against the Brewers that day, but he hit a solo shot off starter Wes Obermueller as a part of the 10-0 win. After the season, He decided to stay with Philadelphia and signed a 2-year, $6.3 million contract. It would represent his longest tenure with any one team after a career as a baseball nomad.

Lidle tied his career best with 13 wins in 2005, against 11 losses. His 4.53 ERA was the lowest it had been since his days with Oakland. Former Phillies pitching coach Joe Kerrigan had convinced Lidle to reduce his repertoire, so he dropped his cutter and slider in favor of his most effective pitch, a sinker. Though he gave up 210 hits in 184-2/3 innings, he maintained his excellent control and allowed just 18 home runs.

Lidle also discovered a new passion: poker. He began playing competitively in 2004 and hosted a celebrity poker tournament at the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas. The $1,000 buy-in event raised money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Tsunami Relief Fund. He found a common thread in both games. “The way I put them together is you have to be patient. If you have a bad game in baseball, you can’t get down. You have to figure out what went wrong and try to correct it. It’s like cards. You don’t always get the good ones. You have to be patient. You can’t force the issue.”

The Phillies finished in second place in 2004 and 2005. They were still competitive in 2006, but as the trade deadline neared, they made a trade. The Phillies sent outfielder Bobby Abreu and Lidle to the New York Yankees for four minor-leaguers. Two of them (Matt Smith and Carlos Monasterios) reached the majors, and only Smith ever played for the Phillies. The trade was heavily criticized within baseball as a sign of the economic disparity in the game. The Phillies dumped salary even though they were in second place, and the Yankees took on millions of dollars without batting an eye, making an already-dominant team even better.

The front page of the New York Daily News on October 12, 2006.

Prior to the trade, Lidle had performed as usual for the Phillies; he’d gone 8-7 with a 4.74 ERA in 21 starts. He struck out 98 batters and would add 32 more with the Yankees to finish with a career-high 130 K’s. His dependability was the key part of the trade. The Yankees, as good as they were, hadn’t been able to find a reliable fourth or fifth starter. “I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t get a pitcher back,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. “That was the one thing I needed. I had to have Cory Lidle or this doesn’t get done.”

Lidle won 4 games for the 2006 Yankees, who finished in first place in the AL East. His first Yankee win came against the Blue Jays on August 3. He worked a strong 6 innings, allowing a run on 4 hits and 5 strikeouts. That 8-1 victory gave the Yankees sole possession of first place, and they never relinquished the lead. Unfortunately, New York fell to Detroit in the ALDS. Lidle pitched in Game Four on October 7, which Detroit won 8-3 to advance to the Championship Series. Starter Jaret Wright was knocked out of the game in the third inning, and Lidle struck out Craig Monroe with runners on the corners to end that threat. He retired the side in order in the bottom of the fourth inning but gave up four straight hits to open the fifth inning. Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen each drove in a run, and Ivan Rodriguez added a sacrifice fly off Yankee reliever Brian Bruney to add another run to Lidle’s tally. He was charged with 3 earned runs in 1-1/3 innings. Despite being on some of the best teams of the 2000s, Lidle’s teams never made it out of the ALDS in three chances.

After the ALDS, Lidle planned to travel back to California for the offseason. He was to indulge his other passion – piloting. He had studied for his pilot’s license and had purchased a single-engine Cirrus SR20 plane for $187,000. He and his flight instructor, Tyler Stanger, were to fly cross-country to Southern California, making several overnight stops along the way. Lidle would meet his family – wife Melanie and 6-year-old son Christopher – back in California.

By all accounts, Lidle approached flying with care. “I’m safe up there,” he told Jim Salisbury of The Philadelphia Inquirer in June of 2006. “I feel very comfortable with my abilities flying an airplane.”

On October 11, 2006, a private airplane crashed into a 40-story apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was an eerie reminder of the devastation of the horrific September 11 attacks from five years earlier. This crash, people realized, was not an attack but rather a tragic accident. Then came the discovery that the airplane was registered to Cory Lidle of the New York Yankees. Both Lidle, 34, and Stanger, 26, were killed instantly.

Lidle’s death shocked the baseball world, as he had just played in the postseason days earlier. Lidle had pitched for many teams and had many teammates.

“I have known Cory and his wife, Melanie, for over 18 years, and watched his son grow up,” said Jason Giambi, who was a teammate of Lidle with both South Hills High and the Yankees. “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 the news.”

A poker chip from one of Lidle’s charity poker events had been left at his grave as a memento on the day I visited.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its findings on the crash in May of 2007. The plane took off from New Jersey, flew down the Hudson River, circled the Statue of Liberty and flew up the East River. There (as explained by the NTSB report and an analysis of resulting lawsuits by The Atlantic), the plane would have breached La Guardia Airport airspace unless it made a tricky turn in a cramped part of the East River, with buildings lining both sides of it. The pilot – the NTSB could not determine who had the controls at the time of the accident – turned to the left, which put the plane in the face of a stiff gust of wind that slowed its ability to turn. Had the plane started its turn on the west side of the River and turned with the wind, “a minimum bank angle of 35° would have been needed, rather than the minimum 50° required by turning in the direction of the wind,” the report stated. Drug tests on the two men came back negative, and there was no indication that they had been sloppy or lackadaisical with their flying. It was a matter of a tragic error made at precisely the wrong place in the wrong weather.

Lidle pitched for a total of 9 years in the majors for seven teams. He had an 82-72 record and a 4.57 ERA in 277 games, including 199 starts. He threw 11 complete games and 5 shutouts, and he saved two games as well. Lidle struck out 838 batters and walked 356. Baseball Reference credits him with 10.7 Wins Above Replacement. Lidle is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Covina, Calif.

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