Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.
Melanie Lidle-Heyward had been traveling regularly for more than a decade, but she had never been on a flight like this. It was October 11th, 2006, and she was flying from New York to Los Angeles with her five-year-old son, Christopher. Her husband, 34-year-old Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle, was soon to follow on a separate plane.
Many baseball wives stay home during the season. Not Melanie. Ever since she and Cory were engaged in 1991, she had joined him on the road. She proudly claims to have stepped foot in every state that fields a Major League Baseball team. Until recently, she had visited every major league park, too. Because wives don't travel with teams, the majority of her travel was solo. Melanie learned to depend on herself, even more so after Christopher was born.
All of that made her October 11 flight especially strange. Throughout the trip, members of the crew fluttered in and out of their seating area in the middle of the plane. Flight attendants wouldn't stop chatting with her. One sat down next to Christopher to play with him. When the plane disembarked, the attendants flocked to help unload her luggage. Melanie hadn't experienced this level of attention before.
Originally, Cory had floated the idea of the family traveling together on his small Cirrus SR-20 private plane. But the journey would take three days, and Melanie thought it best not to expose Christopher to a long trip in such confined quarters. Instead, they recruited Tyler Stanger, Cory's 26-year-old flight instructor, to join Cory on the flight. They made a weekend of it, with Tyler, his pregnant wife Stephanie, and their infant daughter joining the Lidles for sightseeing in New York ahead of the trip back west. The day before the flight, they had all visited Rockefeller Center together.
On October 11, Melanie, Stephanie, and their children boarded a commercial flight bound for LAX. At roughly the same time, Cory and Tyler took off from Teterboro Airport in Teterboro, New Jersey. What happened next became one of great baseball tragedies of this century: 45 minutes into the flight, the Cirrus veered into a Manhattan building. Lidle and Stanger were killed on impact. 21 more were injured.
Melanie had no idea. It was the flight crew's job to ensure it remained that way until she was off the plane. A high school friend of Melanie and Cory's had seen the news and contacted a family member at the airline, who then relayed a message to the pilots. Hence the disclaimer that came at the end of the flight, that there had been "technical difficulties" and no one should turn on their phones until they were off the plane.
Like everything else up to that point, Melanie didn't think much of it. It was odd, yes, but innocuous. It didn't even hit her when, after she and Christopher disembarked, she recognized her sister, brother-in-law, and a close family friend standing at the entrance of the gate, among the ticketed passengers.
"What are you guys doing here?" she asked them, more than a little bewildered.
There's been an accident, they told her, and then Melanie's legs buckled.
Corey, Melanie, and Christopher Lidle. Photo courtesy of Melanie Lidle-Heyward.
Last week, four days before the tenth anniversary of the plane crash, Lidle-Heyward sat in the dining room of South Hills Country Club in West Covina, Calif. and relived the last decade of her life.
She is well-versed in pain. She survived thyroid cancer and, later, breast cancer. She helped her second husband, Brandyn Heyward, weather the loss of his 14-year-old stepson, R.J., from a prior marriage. R.J. died on March 22, 2009, on what would have been Cory's 37th birthday.
And, of course, there's Cory himself.
The pain isn't raw, not anymore, but it certainly isn't buried, either. Melanie readily admits that "Cory's a huge part of our life in our household." More often than not, she speaks about him in the present tense. She still references Lidle's father, Doug, as her father-in-law.
Even if Melanie wanted to, there is no escaping Cory Lidle in West Covina. They both grew up there. They planned to grow old there. After Cory passed away, the town rallied around his memory. The little league field he played on was rechristened Cory Lidle Memorial Field, and a nine-foot bronze statue of him was erected outside the local Big League Dreams. Every Thanksgiving, more than 130 baseball teams compete in The Cory Lidle Thanksgiving Tournament. His gravesite is just a couple of miles away from the country club, where he sometimes golfed twice a day during the offseason.
Melanie and Cory were together for most of their lives. They dated in eighth grade, as much as anyone ever does in eighth grade. They spent their high school years as best friends. They formally became a couple after graduation. A six-year engagement led to marriage in 1997, the same year Cory made his first 40-man roster.
"He was obviously my first boyfriend – really, my first love," she says, and later she corrects herself: "Cory was my first everything."
They just fit. Cory was his own man, who sometimes floated in his own world, but Melanie was always mindful of everyone around them. Melanie says she's "not a good person under pressure," but Cory was always cool and unflappable. They didn't just travel together, they essentially worked together: They shared in the preparation before Cory's starts, with Melanie studying video and tracking which batters swung on the first pitch. Later, they took up poker, and one of their offseason routines became dropping Christopher off at daycare, heading straight to the casino in nearby Commerce, and playing cards until it was time to pick him up.
For years, she did not speak publicly about any of this. Her greatest fear was an interviewer wondering why she let Cory fly, a question she has been asked several times privately, with no small amount of judgment coming from those asking. The truth is, once Cory had his mind set on something, he pursued it full-bore.
"The running joke was that he was only allowed one hobby at a time, because I would never see him," she says.
Lidle got hooked while on a vacation to see his old teammate with the Toronto Blue Jays, Tom Wilson, at Lake Havasu, when Wilson took Lidle up in his private plane. It usually takes pilots well over a year to earn their license; Cory got his in four months. He was heading into free agency in 2006, and after 10 seasons with seven MLB teams, both Cory and Melanie understood that his career was winding down. Christopher had just started school and Cory wanted to be closer to home, so his first choice was signing with San Diego.
"We can live in our house, and I can fly back and forth to the games," he'd tell her. After all, he thought, how many people get to say they fly to work every day?
A Cirrus SR-20. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Melanie remembers everything about the day Cory died.
Being wheeled into a small room after she collapsed. Wondering how Stephanie, Tyler's wife, who was seated at the back of the plane, would find out – and then, not long after, hearing what she calls a "blood-curdling scream." Paramedics then tending to Stephanie, who was panicked and vomiting. The two-hour drive back to Glendora, the town next to West Covina where they made their home at the time, and Melanie being told that she couldn't go home because the street was overrun by media. Falling asleep at her sister's, and later sneaking back into her own house in the middle of the night. Then, not leaving for the next two weeks, besieged by reporters and cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of her and Christopher.
Whatever small comfort came in the form of family. Her sister handled the funeral arrangements, while her parents – who were divorced – both stayed with her in the house. "They, probably because of Cory's death, have become friends," Melanie says now. They were the ones who broke the news of Cory's death to Christopher, after Melanie had asked. They also helped insulate him from his mother's pain.
"Some days I would be so upset, so sad, and I didn't want Christopher to see that," she says. "It probably wasn't the best thing, but I've never showed him any grief where I melted down or was depressed or anything like that. I tried to show him just a happy [face]."
She says it took about a year for life to truly begin again, but allows that it wasn't simple. It took months for her to even accept that he was gone. Nobody else in West Covina had forgotten Cory Lidle, either, and so she would periodically be jolted out of whatever new life she was trying to build by the town's latest gesture to honor Cory. It was touching, and also trying. "It would be normal, normal, normal and something would come up and would grab everybody's attention again," she says.
She enrolled Christopher in the same little league that Cory played in as a child, on a team coached by Cory's father, brother, and a close family friend. It was Cory's father who introduced her to Brandyn, another coach in the league. He wasn't intimidated or deterred by Cory remaining a presence in Melanie and Christopher's lives, and he had the full blessing of Cory's family to date Melanie.
Still, she had a recurring nightmare in the early stages of her relationship: Cory finally came home, only to find her involved with another man.
"'What am I going to do? How am I going to choose?'' she recalls. "I had that terror forever."
She and Brandyn married in 2010, a year after R.J. passed away. His death rattled Christopher, perhaps even more than Cory's. The two boys had grown close as their parents began to date, with Christopher regarding R.J. as the older sibling he never had. After he died, Christopher couldn't sleep through the night. Not until Melanie let him tuck a cell phone programmed with his grandmother's number underneath his pillow. "He wanted to be able to call my mom if he woke up in the middle of the night to make sure she was still there," Melanie explains.
She's still struck by something Christopher, then eight years old, said to Brandyn just after R.J. died. Maybe it was some of Cory's old calmness breaking through, or maybe it was the significance of March 22. But even then, he grasped the situation.
"My dad's taking care of your son," Christopher told him, "And you're taking care of his son."
Melanie and Christopher. Photo courtesy of Melanie Lidle-Heyward.
Eight more years have passed. Christopher Lidle is 16 now, a sophomore in high school, and just last week passed his driver's test.
He's left-handed, not right-handed like Cory, and he kicks a football instead of throwing a baseball. The latter is by design. Although Christopher dabbled in baseball, he never took to it. Every now and then, he toys with picking it up again, only for Melanie to gently nudge him back to football, the sport he chose, instead of the game his father played.
"I just didn't want him to be out there because of his name," she says. "Cory Lidle is everywhere ... I wanted him to earn everything he has."
But the older he gets, the more Melanie recognizes Cory in him. Cory adored In-N-Out – the family even commissioned a truck to cater his funeral - and Christopher's favorite post-practice meal is a three-by-three cheeseburger from the same chain. He insists on smelling his food before he eats it, just like Cory used to do. He has Cory's eyes, brown and full-lashed. His gait, too.
"He'll turn a certain way and it's just Cory," she says.
Perhaps best of all, Christopher has Cory's self-assurance. Melanie remembers a game from years ago when Cory let in back-to-back-to-back home runs. She slinked back to the hotel early and braced herself for her husband's arrival, certain he would be angry or frustrated or ashamed. Instead, he laughed it off.
"What am I going to do?" he shrugged.
Now, Christopher, a teenage boy who, according to Melanie, still can't grow any facial hair, is totally at ease with himself. "Trying to embarrass that kid is almost impossible and I think that's how Cory was," she says. "They like to laugh at themselves." She knows Cory would be proud of him, but it only blunts the pain so much. "I always wish he could see him now ... literally sit here and Chris sit here, and see how what a great kid he's become," she says.
Melanie lives across the street from Shaun Cody, a defensive tackle who spent eight seasons in the NFL and now covers USC games for ESPN Radio. Occasionally she wonders what Cory would have done for his own post-playing career.. She can never quite decide what it would be, mostly because, "truthfully, I don't know what he possibly could have done still."
"He lived life to the fullest," she adds. "Maybe that's why he was taken away, because he fulfilled what he wanted to do."
Mother and son have their own ritual on October 11. Cory's grave sits at the very top of Forest Lawn Cemetery. Each year, the two of them walk up there with flowers. Then, they sit. Neither say much of anything. "We just sit there and just miss him," she says. They'll go back a few more times with other family members, but they always begin alone.
It has become easier to stay away the rest of the year. Melanie has a good life, and time has made the loss more bearable. "Everyone's kind of made peace with it," she says, but even if she hadn't, she knows Cory wouldn't want her lingering too much. "Probably every year is too much for him," she says of their gravesite visits.
Melanie knows exactly what he would say. You don't dwell on the past. Just live.
"That's what he would want," she says. She's doing her best to give it to him.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.