Thursday, October 12, 2006

Lidle Death Stirs Memories of Munson

OAKLAND, Calif. - Lou Piniella remembers the body blow as if it hit him yesterday.

It was Aug. 2, 1979. Piniella, then a leftfielder with the New York Yankees, was enjoying a day off at his home in North Jersey, helping his wife, Anita, celebrate her birthday.

"I was in the swimming pool and got a call," Piniella said.

It was George Steinbrenner, owner of the team.

"Mr. Steinbrenner said, 'Thurman passed away,' " Piniella recalled. "I couldn't believe it."

Thurman Munson, the grizzled Yankees catcher and team captain, had used his off day to fly home to Ohio. Piloting his private jet, Munson died when he crashed short of a runway at Akron-Canton Regional Airport while practicing touch-and-go landings.

"You play sports, and sometimes you feel infallible because you take care of yourself so well," Piniella said quietly. "It's obviously a dangerous passion that can have bad endings."

Never was that more true than yesterday. The shock and sadness in Piniella's voice illustrated his point as the analyst with Fox Sports addressed the latest air-related tragedy to touch baseball.

Earlier in the afternoon, Cory Lidle, a much-traveled pitcher who split time between the Phillies and Yankees this season, perished when the plane he was in crashed into a high-rise in Manhattan.

"It's eerie . . . tragic," said Piniella, who was in Oakland to cover Game 2 of the American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and the A's.
And, for Piniella, it was déjà vu. "We lived it firsthand, in New York . . . 1979 . . . Aug. 2. It was so difficult, but this thing here, oooh," he said, moaning.

Just feet away in the press box of McAfee Coliseum, television screens showed a live feed of the news coverage from New York. Overhead, the voice of Tigers manager Jim Leyland was being piped in from a news conference. Leyland was extending condolences. "It gives you a little bit of a flashback," Piniella said. "Different circumstances but the same sad ending."

The death of the pitcher, who also played for the A's, cast a pall here. Piniella was certain that would hold true throughout what he termed the greater baseball family.

"He had a lot of teammates in a lot of places, both in the American and National Leagues," said Piniella. "And I am sure that everybody is in mourning."

No one likes to be taken back to one of the worst days of his or her life. Piniella was, and all he could think of was Munson, "a really, really good friend."
He was a friend, who, like Lidle, had a passion for flying, which he proudly shared with teammates.

"I flew with Thurman a lot," he said, quietly. "Never in the jet, but in his King Air."

The 1979 Yankees, unlike the now-idle 2006 team, had to mourn their teammate, then play.

Also, many members of the '79 squad had come of age with Munson and had long teamed with the larger-than-life heart of the team.

It is often said that the '79 Yankees, trying to repeat World Series titles won by the organization in '77 and '78, never recovered from the Munson tragedy.

Already numbed by the death, the team was forced on its own harrowing journey on Aug. 6, to Canton for the Munson funeral, then back to the Bronx for a game that night against the Baltimore Orioles.

Piniella, along with Munson's best friend, Bobby Murcer, had delivered a eulogy.

Many a Yankee, including Munson foil Reggie Jackson, wept during the somber pregame salutes.

Then the game was played in a Yankee Stadium rife with emotion.

The Yankees won, 5-4, that night. A distraught Piniella did not play, but Murcer did, driving in five runs and ending the draining night with a game-winning two-run single in the ninth inning.

That Aug. 6 night had inspired many. But the shock that set in four days before never did go away.

"It lasted the rest of the summer," Piniella said,

Now the player-and-manager-turned-commentator imagines that those feelings will course through the playoff games on both coasts this week because of Lidle, even for those players and uniformed personnel who did not know the 34-year-old pitcher.

"It's going to take a lot of luster off these games," he said.

As for Lidle's friends, the level of grief is guaranteed to reach a whole different level - just as it did 27 years ago for the Yankees.

1 comment:

phillyflash said...

It's a sad state of affairs when you go out to blog on a game and it turns into a life and death situation. It's really something else when it effects the two cities where the games are to be played and a team that should be participating as well. That you were in the city where Lou Piniella and Cory Lidle's former A's teammates were at the same time is very eerie at this time of the year. You did a wonderful job with your blogs and the sensitivity you displayed as well as the interesting remembrance of another tragic moment in baseball history. I'm sure I'm speaking for all baseball fans today, when I offer our sympathy for Cory's family.