Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Emotions soar With Lidle Air Salute

COVINA, Calif. - Major League Baseball players are conditioned to not blink or blanch.

Not when being shrilly serenaded by the famed Phillies boobirds, bombarded with Bronx cheers, or bruised by Ryan Howard's home-run blasts.

So it was that members of the game's extended family felt that they were handling their emotions yesterday.

Interspersed with the 1,100 mourners gathered at an outdoor memorial service for former Phillies pitcher Cory Lidle, their intent had been to come to Forest Lawn Memorial Park and bid adieu to their former teammate with the same professional dispassion they had displayed when Lidle died in an airplane crash in midtown Manhattan last Wednesday.

"Everybody was doing fine - until the planes flew over," said Phillies pitcher Randy Wolf, still struggling with raw emotions a full three hours after the service.

It wasn't a Blue Angels precision exercise. It wasn't organized, precise or even a part of the official program.

Yet the planes - private, different in size but of one mind and in onein formation - did two flyovers, catching the attention of the somber audience gathered below at the foot of Forest Lawn's Mausoleum of Christian Heritage.
They had come to pay their respects to a budding pilot, Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal said.

Yet in that moment, the symbols of Lidle's latest love and a family's resulting loss were, in the end, "eerie," Lieberthal said.

"And it was sad for Melanie," Lieberthal added, referring to Lidle's widow. "You could see?? how sad she was, especially when the planes went by."
As the planes flew over, they did so against a backdrop as roiled as the week had been for Lidle's relatives and friends from his hometown in West Covina as well as his baseball family.

One moment clouds would darken the hills surrounding the expansive memorial facility, where mourners had started gathering a good three hours before the morning service.

Then, in the next instant, the sun would burst through, bathing the surrounding hills with glorious brush strokes of light and painting the canopy above this Southern California suburb 20 miles east of Los Angeles a brilliant sky blue.

It was, without a doubt, a day a passionate flier like Lidle would have loved.
"I think he definitely would be [flying today]," Lieberthal said as he and Wolf stood outside the Faith Community Church in West Covina, where a reception was held for friends and family after a private interment.

"And I was probably one guy who would have gone up with him at some point in this off-season," Lieberthal said.

He had planned to fly with the 34-year-old Lidle last spring training, but they never got a chance. So the two California residents had planned to get together this off-season to fly, conditions permitting.

Conditions like yesterday's.

"I probably would have been with Cory at this moment, but I'm not because of a tragic accident," Lieberthal said. "It's just crazy to believe how something like that could happen."

Aside from Wolf and Lieberthal, the Phillies' organization, which employed Lidle until a July 30 trade to the New York Yankees, was represented by Chase Utley, Pat Burrell, Geoff Geary and Aaron Rowand. Also attending were assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., employee assistance program director Dickie Noles, and director of community relations Gene Dias.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, manager Joe Torre, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, and team captain Derek Jeter represented Lidle's last team.

All attended what had been a service open to the public but, at the request of the family, closed to members of the media. Most, like Lieberthal and Wolf, would later address reporters at the reception. So, too, did Lidle's widow.

Standing at a podium outside the church, Melanie Lidle, in a quiet, halting voice, thanked both her and Lidle's families, "our beautiful son, Christopher . . . the Yankees, who have been absolutely wonderful, and Major League Baseball. I couldn't do it without them."

Melanie Lidle then gave way to tears and departed, a touching moment that summed up a morning Wolf earlier called an emotional roller coaster.


When Cory Lidle's fraternal twin, Kevin, spoke during the service, more than one listener shivered because, as Amaro explained, "he's obviously the spitting image of Cory. And, if you close your eyes, you could actually hear Cory's voice."

How about Kevin Lidle being given his choice of clothing from his brother's closet by Melanie Lidle and choosing a leather jacket in which he found a little yellow ball with a happy face on it?

"He felt that was a message from Cory," Torre said.


One of the lasting memories of the day will be the dozens of mourners who, at the end of a trying series of events, lined up at a large food trailer provided by the fast-food chain, In-N-Out Burger, a Southern California staple and Cory Lidle favorite.

"You see the truck and it tells you one thing: It is about his spirit and what he is all about, just a fun-loving kind of guy," said Amaro, smiling. "It is obvious: He lived life to the fullest."

Now that life is over. And all those who gathered together yesterday will face tomorrow without a man who touched them more than perhaps they knew, then left too soon.

"The future that you sort of planned? Now, there is no future, other than his memory," Torre said.