Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Last Replacement, RIP

There are numerous legacies of the 1994 baseball strike, all of them bad in some way. First, there was the lost World Series as baseball gained a permanent black mark for being the first major sport to lose a postseason to a strike. Second, the economic disparity worsened. Players later obtained excellent leverage because they could seek free agency if traded during the middle of a multiyear contract (this provision was later rescinded). Third, the popularity of the sport hit bottom from 1995-97 as both the NFL and NBA surpassed baseball in popularity (the NBA's later strike helped bump baseball back to #2). Fourth, the owners became collectively stupider and greedier -- first to break the $10M/year barrier was the fiercely anti-union Jerry Reinsdorf who wanted to use the '94 strike to bust the MLBPA; instead, he became the owner to break the ceiling on salaries by signing the always pleasant and light-hearted Albert Belle to $55M/5 in the '95 off-season. Later, the Dodgers would cough up $105M/7 to Kevin Brown, the Rockies would give $120M/8 to Mike Hampton and $51M/5 to Denny Neagle in the same offseason, and Tom Hicks would pony up $252M/10 to ARod. While that happened, rich owners of revenue-sharing recipients would pocket the cash and ignore the team (Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Florida for all but two years).

And a fifth notable legacy is the replacement players. These are the men who suited up, never in an actual game that counted, as non-union replacements for striking players during the 1995 Spring Training season. None are Hall-of-Famers: Rick Reed, Shane Spencer, Damien Miller, Benny Agbayani. All of those played in the World Series, but could not be members of the MLBPA.

But few were ever treated well -- the taciturn Reed was a pariah in the fiercely pro-union Mets clubhouse, Miller was left off the roster T-shirts of the '99 and '01 D'Backs teams that won the NL West and World Series, respectively. None receive licensing money, and they usually weren't included in the ubiquitous sports video games that are licensed by the MLBPA.

The last significant contributor of that group was Cory Lidle, the 34-year old pitcher who bopped around with the D-Rays, A's, Phillies, and others before landing in pinstripes in July. A Californian, Lidle played on the same high school team as future teammate Jason Giambi. Lidle grew up with his own personal catcher -- his wombmate and ever-so-slightly younger brother, Kevin, the fraternal twin who gravitated toward the mitt and padding as a small kid as Cory gravitated toward the mound.

Lidle's story is in one way, an American dream. A low-end prospect, he worked during the strike to get a chance to play in the major leagues. And he did. He married in 1997, had a son three years later, and achieved the young boy's fantasy of being the starting pitcher. He never achieved stardom -- that possibility was essentially foreclosed in his 2001 playoff meltdown against the Yanks -- but became a serviceable pitcher (82-72, 4.57 career). But like any decent veteran, he made a lot of money. Unlike some, he wanted to win -- he criticized his Phillies teammates for their lack of consistent effort after he was traded to the Yankees in the Abreu deal. The scab label was almost a thing of the past . . . until Arthur Rhodes offered Lidle a few verbal reminders of how Lidle never really became "one of us" after the pitcher left the city of brotherly detesting.

He also wanted to become a pilot.

Last October, Lidle began working toward obtaining his pilot's license. This year, he purchased a plane. Like Thurman Munson 27 years ago, Lidle died in it. Flying east from Teeterboro Airport, Lidle's plane plowed into an apartment building on the Upper East Side, killing him and (reports have varied) at least one person in the building.

Cory Lidle: 1972-2006, RIP

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