On Monday night, June 30, 1997, after having finagled a business trip so I wouldn’t have to pay for too much of the privilege, Stephanie and I were in Detroit. Tiger Stadium. For someone whose long-term goal was to see every ballpark, this was a medium-sized dream come true. Tiger Stadium was beautiful. Maybe because I had seen relatively so little of it on television, I was far more taken with it than I was Fenway or Wrigley, its only surviving demographic brethren. It was almost an afterthought that on the night I’d finally get to see one of the two oldest ballparks in the Major Leagues that the opponent would be the Mets.
We made sure to get there early to take lots of pictures. I’m not the photographer in the family, but Stephanie handed me the camera and told me to go have fun. The Tigers weren’t any good and the Mets weren’t any draw, so I had the run of the place. Walked all over the field level, snapping away. Snapped retired Tiger numbers and the legendary overhang and every angle I could find.
Down on the field while I was moseying about in the seats in right, was a little nearby commotion. Bobby Jones, newly minted All-Star pitcher Bobby Jones, was making his way to the Met dugout and was recognizable enough to draw a crowd. He was signing autographs for visiting Mets fans and curious Tigers fans. I closed in to get a picture. It wasn’t a very good one.
I looked beyond the small Jones knot and there was another Met. No commotion surrounding him. Nobody recognized him. I imagine I wouldn’t have recognized him without the blue warmup jersey that said NEW YORK and the No. 11 on its front and back. Although I always liked to think I was too cool for this sort of thing, on this night — Tiger Stadium, Mets’ first game here, my first game here — I wasn’t.
I closed in again.
“Cory! Cory! Can I get a picture?”
Cory Lidle shrugged. Looked like he could have done without it, but he stopped and stood in place. I wouldn’t say he posed. I snapped.
“Thanks! Thanks! Great pitching, man! Great pitching!”
“Thanks.” He seemed slightly but sincerely appreciative.
And with that, Cory Lidle kept walking.
I wasn’t buttering him up. In May and June of 1997, Cory Lidle was what we baseball fans like to call a pleasant surprise. I had never heard of him before he was recalled in May in Houston. He had come in a trade in an earlier offseason for a spare part, Kelly Stinnett (weirdly a 2006 Met). His first inning in the Astrodome, an afternoon I wouldn’t have ordinarily been watching except I had been covering a conference that day and was able to come directly home, was all right. For a bulllpen that was rebuilding from moment to moment — Toby Borland, Ricardo Jordan, Barry Manuel, Yorkis Perez, Rick Trlicek, Takashi Kashiwada, Joe Crawford, Greg McMichael — Lidle wasn’t too bad. Wasn’t too bad at all. The weekend before we arrived in Detroit, Chuck and I went to a Met-Pirate slugfest when the Mets were short a starter. So Bobby Valentine started Cory Lidle. He wasn’t particularly effective and didn’t last terribly long, but the Mets won on a Carl Everett home run. All told, in my estimation, he had given us great pitching.
Though Lidle stayed all year, I don’t have any sharp recollection of him from later in the season, a wondrous season if you lived through it. The Mets remained a pleasant surprise even if Lidle proved to be like the bullpen as a whole, a shaky proposition. He was chosen by Arizona in the next expansion draft. His one season as a Met, like that Mets season to a lot of minds that don’t retain everything that ever happened, has been forgotten by many. Obviously when the news came down about him crashing his plane into a building on the Upper East Side, him and another losing their lives, I found myself remembering him instantly, remembering my moment with him in Detroit as if it happened yesterday. Oddly, I relived the story with Stephanie this past Saturday, the day he pitched against the Tigers, the day the team he last played with was eliminated. Didn’t expect I’d feel compelled to tell the story again any time soon.
Somewhere along the way, Cory Lidle ceased being a Met or an ex-Met when his name was mentioned. He was either an opponent of ours or a pitcher for somebody else. But on a day like this, you think about the guy wearing your colors, the guy whom you exhorted by first name from your couch across a summer, the guy in whose hands your fleeting happiness was entrusted for pitches at a time. The guy you asked to stop for a picture and he agreed and you don’t even need to open the photo album to see that picture.