Lidle's crash, death defy comprehension
NEW YORK -- He left for work at 2 p.m. Just another day at the office.
Except it wasn't.
Who leaves for work, goes to a ballpark for a National League playoff game, only to get a phone call, one of the strangest phone calls of his life?
An airplane had flown into Manny Acta's apartment building? How could that be?
But that was the call the Mets' third base coach got at Shea Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, barely more than an hour after he'd closed his apartment door.
His realtor was on the phone, along with the owner of his building. Had he heard the awful news? Where was he? Was he in the building? Was he OK?
"I'm at work," Acta said.
But this would turn into a very eerie, very bizarre day at "work" -- for Manny Acta, for all these men who are members of what Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado called "the baseball family."
Just when they thought there was nothing more important than these defining playoff games they were about to play, they were reminded how wrong they were.
"I think it just goes to show how insignificant some of the things that we think are significant really are," said Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, a man who had once been Cory Lidle's pitching coach in Oakland. "We're about to play a baseball game, and how important is that, really?"
That was the question they all were having to cope with Wednesday, at a time they least expected to be coping with any question more basic than how to attack Tom Glavine's changeup or Jeff Weaver's sweeping breaking ball.
How important were these baseball games? Who could have expected that, on the day of what was supposed to be Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, anyone could possibly answer: Not very important at all?
After he assured his realtor and his building owner he was fine, after they made sure to tell him his apartment was fine, Acta wandered over to one of the clubhouse televisions. The scene was the skyline of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, smoke rising into the gray October sky.
But not on this day.
On this day, said Delgado, there was nothing else they could have watched, nothing else they wanted to watch.
"I mean, this doesn't happen every day," he said.
At first, these men, these baseball men, were like everyone else, asking themselves a question no one wanted to contemplate. Was this terrorism? Was it just a horrible accident? Was it just another random tragedy, out there in the world beyond their world? Or was it more?
It wouldn't be long before they would know the shocking answer.
As Acta watched the reports on TV, the news filtered in, in dribs and drabs, information mixed with misinformation. At first, they placed the crash a block from his building. Then on his street. Then at his very address.
His phone began ringing -- "ringing off the hook," he said. At first, his wife and daughter called from back home in Florida. Soon, it was one friend, and then another, and another. Anyone who knew this was where he'd lived since April.
"What I did, every call I got," he said, "the first thing I said was, 'I'm fine. I'm at work.' I didn't want anyone to worry."
What were the odds? A plane crashes into one of the thousands of tall buildings in New York, and it happened to be this building, where someone these Mets knew actually lived.
But with every minute that went by, this event grew less and less isolated, connecting the dots rapidly and powerfully, from the Manhattan skyline directly to their clubhouse, their world.
The Mets' team doctor, David Altcheck, had an office in this same building. What were the odds? The medical staff had an outpatient surgical facility right across the street. What were the odds?
Cardinals pitcher Mark Mulder had recently gone for a second opinion on his sore shoulder in this very building. What were the odds? Cardinals reliever Jason Isringhausen had once lived there, back when he was a Met. What were the odds?
And then came the news no one could digest -- news that the pilot of this plane was no anonymous face on their TV screen. No, he was one of them -- a man many of them knew, a man an incredible number of them had played with: Cory Lidle.
What were the odds of that?
On the day of a baseball playoff game in the city of New York, a pitcher for the Yankees had just flown an airplane into an apartment building where a Mets coach lived and a Mets doctor practiced medicine? How could that be?
"It's just sadder than sad," Peterson said. "There are no words to describe a loss of somebody that you spent some very special times with."
But it wasn't just Peterson who had spent time with Lidle. When a man has pitched for seven different organizations, he becomes a part of many players' lives -- a teammate, it sometimes seems, of just about everybody.
He'd once played with the Mets' Billy Wagner, Michael Tucker and Endy Chavez in Philadelphia. He'd played with Delgado and Chris Woodward in Toronto. With Mulder and Isringhausen and Mets reliever Chad Bradford in Oakland. With Steve Trachsel and Roberto Hernandez in Tampa Bay.
And now this riveting story, flickering across the TV screen, was no longer some subplot in their day, no longer just today's big headline. This was about a man who did what they did, who had once put on his uniform in the same room they occupied, who had turned their special baseball day into a day of shock and pain and mourning.
"It just kind of gave me the goose bumps," said Mulder, a onetime golfing buddy of Lidle's.
"Obviously, you pay more attention when it's someone you know," Delgado said. "It reminds you that sometimes we take things for granted. But life is precious."
"I knew Cory had just gotten his pilot's license not too long ago," Woodward said, "and he was pretty pumped about it when I talked to him. For something like that to happen, you just don't think something like that will happen to somebody you know."
But it had, in fact, happened. And they weren't the only people trying to digest this surreal news bulletin -- because there wasn't just one playoff game scheduled on this day. There was another, three time zones away in Oakland. And Oakland was another city where Lidle had once played baseball, nurtured friendships, left spike prints.
Even there, far from the smoking embers, the citizens of baseball were having a hard time pretending this was just a normal day at the park.
"Baseball lost a very special person today," said Lidle's old teammate, A's pitcher Barry Zito, feeling the pain across the miles.
"We're just having fun out here, playing ball. There's no reason to take anything to heart. Win, loss. Good day, bad day. Even a little injury here and there. It just kind of shows you that the true things in life are love and family and friends.''
They often don't have enough time for those true things in life. So their teammates become their closest friends, their substitute families. And when something like this happens, it leaves scars that never heal.
Lou Piniella knows that better than any of them. Twenty-seven years ago, he was a friend and teammate of a man named Thurman Munson. It is 27 years later now, 27 years since Munson's plane went down. But Piniella can still remember the events of that day as if they happened 27 minutes ago.
"This thing here, boy, it gives you a little bit of a flashback," Piniella said Wednesday. "It really does. Different circumstances, but the same sad ending.
"I was at home in New Jersey when I heard about Thurman," Piniella recalled. "I was in the swimming pool. We had an off day. It was my wife's birthday, so I'll never forget. We got the call from Mr. Steinbrenner that Thurman had passed away. I couldn't believe it.''
Of all the powerful feelings pulsating through all these men, disbelief might have been the most powerful of all. They saw this familiar face every time they glanced at those TVs. They heard this familiar name. But how could this be? How?
They had a baseball game to play. Or at least they thought they had a baseball game to play until the raindrops came to their rescue. But every time their brain told them it was time to get back to business, the voices and the images on the TV would pull them back to this other world -- a world they couldn't escape no matter how hard they tried.
"A bunch of us were watching on the TV, and it's hard to get refocused," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "It's been such an emotional roller coaster today. We were all pumped up and ready to play. And then to come to the ballpark and find out that you lost one of the guys of the baseball fraternity, you lost a brother in baseball, it's tough to think about baseball."
Eventually, they would all drift back into the night, into the raindrops, grateful for the meteorological gift of 24 more hours to digest the events of this staggering day. But only one of these men would have to return to a building that collided with an airplane.
"This is not only about me," said Acta, one of the brightest men in this sport.
This was about many lives, almost none of them baseball lives. So Acta didn't want all this attention that was being forced upon him, didn't care to believe he was any kind of special figure just because of some eerie geographical coincidence.
"I wouldn't say it's a 'coincidence' that I live there," Acta said, "because I just have a job, just like everybody else. Whoever works at a hospital or a post office, if he lives there, can say it's a coincidence to him, too. It just happens that I'm here in the spotlight with the Mets. I'm just like everybody else living in the building. I hope everybody else is OK."
On Thursday, Manny Acta will move out of this apartment, leave this building, turn in his keys. He was planning to do that, anyway, before the news flash, before the airplane, before Cory Lidle. That was the true coincidence.
He will head for Shea Stadium, just like always. He will put on his uniform, just like always. He will hit his fungoes, throw his BP round, go over game plans, just like always.
But something about him will never be the same. His "normal" day at the office had turned into a day no one in baseball would ever forget.
An airplane veers off course on a "normal" Wednesday afternoon -- and reminds these men how much in life is more meaningful than any playoff game they will ever play. How could that be? How?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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Cory Lidle: 1972-2006
Born: March 22, 1972
Major league seasons: 9
Career statistics: 82-72 won-lost record, 4.57 ERA
Major league teams: New York Mets, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees
Children: Son, Christopher Taylor, born Sept. 18, 2000
Biographical information: 1990 graduate of California's South Hills High School, where he was a teammate of Yankee Jason Giambi and was an all-state selection his senior year. Has a twin brother, Kevin, who played minor-league baseball. Is a relative of Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat.
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• Lidles to attend Opening Day
• Lidle's widow may throw out first pitch
• Dentist sues over plane crash
• Baseball tourney to raise money for foundation
• Survivor of crash that killed Lidle out of hospital
• NTSB: Wind, pilot error caused crash that killed Lidle
• Family, friends, teammates pay tribute at memorial
• Lidle's flight instructor memorialized
• Final maneuver is focus in investigation
• FAA restricts fixed-wing flights along East River
• If Lidle was pilot, beneficiaries could lose $1.5M benefit
• Helyar: Pilots and athletes: the 'adventure' factor
• Investigators search high-rise for clues in Lidle crash
• Lidle dies in Manhattan plane crash
• Stark: Lidle's death hits close to home
• Schwarz: A truly sickening feeling
• Darcy: Sadness at the scene
• Thompson: Lidle's father learned of crash on TV
• Plane equipped with emergency parachute
• N.Y. Giants team physician in building hit by plane
• Lidle's twin passions: pitching, flying
• Lidle, Munson share a connection
• Lidle crash photo gallery
• Quotes: Baseball reacts to Lidle's death
• Athletes who have died in plane crashes
• Expert: Lidle Crash Probably Due to Mechanical Failure or Other 'Distractions'
Audio from ESPN Radio
• Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly shares his thoughts on Lidle's death
• Peter Gammons on how Lidle overcame the "scab" label and how the pitcher's death could affect player contracts in the future
• Larry Bowa shocked by Lidle's death
• Phillies broadcaster Scott Graham talks about Lidle the pitcher
• Alan Schwarz was a friend of Lidle and had even been offered to ride with Cory in his plane
• Tim Kurkjian joins Erik Kuselias to discuss the tragedy
Video from ESPN.com
• Lidle plane crash timeline
• Rick Peterson reflects on Lidle's death
• MLB community mourns Lidle
• Ex-teammates react to Lidle's death
• Pedro Gomez Remembers Lidle
• Lidle lived his dreams
Video from ABCNews.com
• Lidle on why he loved flying (from Good Morning America)
• Video from the scene
• More video from the scene
Also on the Web
• PhillyBurbs.com: Flying with Cory Lidle (Feb. 2006)