The death of pitcher Cory Lidle in a plane crash Wednesday was one of those cold-water-slap reminders that these guys we watch for entertainment, cheer and boo and blame for our Monday morning grumpiness when the home team blows one on Sunday, they're real people. If you cut them, they bleed. And sometimes they up and die, just like that.
It seems like an obvious point. Of course they're real people. Some of us went to middle school with one of them or college with a bunch of 'em. It wasn't that long ago when you could be a person of relatively modest means and live down the street from a big-leaguer, or buy insurance or a car from one in the offseason.
But I wonder how many of us who follow these games really think of them, or care about them, as real people in any real sense.
For most of us, I think, they're names on a scorecard, a set of numbers, a certain way of swinging a bat or shooting a jumper. A very few stars emerge as knowable personalities, and even then only in the public-figure sense. But we know even less about those guys than we know about entertainers, whose private lives are much more available.
"I love you, Bruce!" a woman's voice shouts on this Bruce Springsteen bootleg I have somewhere. Springsteen waits for the cheering to die down, then quietly says, "But you don't really know me."
We know Mariano Rivera as classy, Barry Bonds as belligerent, Shaquille O'Neal as fun-loving, but that's about the extent of what most of us know about any athlete. And it's all most of us care to know, really.
When you heard that Lidle and Bobby Abreu had been traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the New York Yankees in late July, did you think about where they'd stay in New York, what they'd do with their places in Philly, or South Jersey, or wherever? Or with their kids' schooling? Did you think about how the four players going to the Phillies, three of them minor-leaguers, would handle the move?
Or did you think about how Abreu would fit into the Yankees lineup, whether Lidle would offer any relief for New York's pitching woes, whether any of those guys the Phillies got back made the trade anything other than a salary dump, what all of this meant for your fantasy team?
That's all I did. For what it's worth, I wrote that Lidle would provide an upgrade over "a four-headed beast by the name of Shawn Chacon Aaron Small Sidney Ponson Kris Wilson."
The only other thing I ever wrote about him in this column was in the 2005 baseball season preview. As part of my argument that the Phillies' pitching was no great shakes, I wrote, "Cory Lidle is, not to put too fine a point on it, Cory Lidle."
Either way, I didn't care about his kids. I didn't even know, or care to know, that he had kids. Or, as I learned Wednesday, one kid, a 6-year-old son. I feel terrible for that boy, and for Lidle's wife, as I would for the family of whoever it turned out was the pilot of the plane that slammed into a Manhattan skyscraper.
But I'd be dishonest if I said I was any more interested in Bobby Abreu's kids -- his bio on MLB.com says he has one daughter -- than I was last week.
Lidle's last known interview was Monday, when he called in to Mike Francesa and Chris Russo's sports-talk show on WFAN radio in New York. Francesa and Russo, who had been critical of the Yankees trading for Lidle, were hammering him for a comment he'd made the day after Saturday's season-ending playoff to the Tigers that the Yankees "got matched up with a team that was more ready to play than we were."
The remark was seen as a criticism of manager Joe Torre. Lidle called to say he'd been misquoted. The conversation got fairly contentious, and, Newsday's Neil Best reports, Lidle said, "I'd like to meet you sometime and we can sit down and you guys can really get to know me instead of just what you think about me."
Francesa responded, "I haven't thought much about you at all, to be honest with you."
Francesa told Best Wednesday that those words haunt him now, but I think he spoke for almost everybody.
Judging from the jerseys and signs in evidence at Wednesday night's Tigers-A's playoff game in Oakland, there are some A's fans with fond memories of Lidle, who pitched for Oakland in 2001 and 2002, the only years he can really be said to have been a good major league pitcher.
Then again, I'm an A's fan, and I hadn't thought any more about him than Francesa says he had. I don't think I was unusual in that regard. Lidle, who had been a replacement player, a scab, during the 1994-95 strike, was not universally loved by teammates, though some spoke fondly of him Wednesday. He never played anywhere long enough or well enough to truly become a fan favorite.
Still, his death hurts. Of course it does. It's shocking when one of these guys dies. It hurts because we know them.
Sort of. In an odd way.
I know there are people who don't follow sports this way, who want to feel like they know the players they watch, who collect personal details about them, try to meet them, care about them as individual human beings.
I suppose it's natural. These guys can be in your living room every day, as the saying goes. There are a lot of these fans, but I think they're in the vast minority.
Their approach never interested me, partly because of the profession I chose. I met enough professional athletes at a young enough age and was sufficiently unimpressed by enough of them as people that I have no interest in knowing anything more about them than what they do between the lines.
It also strikes me as too one-sided a relationship. Why should I care about Bobby Abreu's daughter? He doesn't care about my kids. I think this works out fine for both of us.
But mostly I just want to watch the games. I didn't sign up for any personal relationships when I became a sports fan at some minuscule age and I haven't changed my mind about that. I want my relationship to the players to be to them as players. My favorites are my favorites because of a combination of what they do on the field and what uniform they wear.
As a fan I don't need them to be nice guys, though I suppose I appreciate it if they're not obvious jackasses. For most fans, I think, the real personal relationships in sports are with fellow fans.
And yet, I could never be a fan of auto racing, because those guys die way too often. And I once had a strange relationship with Mike Sharperson without, I'm pretty sure, ever having met him.
Remember Mike Sharperson? A pretty unmemorable utility infielder in the late '80s and early '90s, mostly for the Los Angeles Dodgers. One unseasonably hot summer's day I was sitting in the Candlestick Park bleachers and Sharperson came to bat. For no reason, I turned to my friend and said, "If I were Mike Sharperson, I would legally change my name to The Great and Amazing Mike Sharperson."
For the rest of his relatively brief, uneventful career, I was aware of Mike Sharperson, who I thought of as The Great and Amazing Mike Sharperson, who was of course neither, though for all I know he was a nice enough guy.
In 1996, Sharperson, now a minor leaguer, was killed in a car crash. It shook me up pretty bad. Mike Sharperson. I know him.
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