Recalling a now eerie conversation

You read about these things, you watch some hair-netted nitwit peer into Geraldo's camera and declare, "By golly, I was gonna go in that car with him" ... and you roll your eyes, numb to the tale's banality. Someone was always gonna go in that car with him. Or eat that burger. Or take that plane flight.

And then it's you.

About three weeks ago, I was talking with Cory Lidle about his newest hobby, flying. My tape recorder was off. Cory and I chatted about a lot of things over the years. Playing poker. Shooting pool. His newest cell phone. We even occasionally talked about baseball. But not that often. Similar ages, similar hobbies; whenever we ran into each other in Oakland or Philly or now in New York, we'd jabber about anything but work. On this afternoon, in the Yankees clubhouse, we started talking about his new Cirrus SR20.

"You want to go up with me?" he asked.

I was a little flummoxed at the offer but intrigued enough to see if he was serious. He was.

"Where do you live?" he asked me, knowing I lived in Manhattan.

"Upper East Side," I said. "90th and Third."

"Dude" -- Cory was from Southern California -- "you should really come up with me. We can fly right past your apartment building. You've never seen Manhattan 'til you've flown right up the East River. It's beautiful. We can do it one day before a game."

He wasn't kidding. Sufficiently convinced -- and, frankly, flattered -- I mentioned how I've always longed for the guts to skydive. But I had a baby boy in May. I will barely roll craps dice, let alone those.

"My wife would kill me," I said with a wink. "Small planes, you know."

I'd said that a little too flippantly, I guess, because Cory got somewhat serious.

"Totally exaggerated," he said. "You only hear about the crashes."

Having made his point, he said more lightly, "The kind of plane I have will be safer than the cars on the FDR Drive below us."

We got a laugh out of that, because we agreed it was probably true. We talked about flying for maybe another three or four minutes. I distinctly recall being a little befuddled about this East River thing; I asked him why, maybe only 6 or 7 miles from La Guardia Airport, a recreational pilot like himself would be allowed to fly for, essentially, sightseeing. He explained that the Federal Aviation Administration had created zones and procedures to make room for everyone, to create zones where tailwinds from other planes would not be an issue. I'm pretty sure he said it was 4,000 feet.

But it was no big deal. I had work to do. He had work to do.

"How's this," I said. "We'll play poker sometime."

This was actually going to happen. Cory and I had talked about poker quite a bit over the past few years, given how he had run a few charity tournaments for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We talked strategy, silly my-nut-straight-got-rivered sort of stuff. (Much more fun than my-changeup-got-walloped-by-Pujols.) When Cory got traded back to New York, he said he could use a simple, low-stakes, regular-guy game for an off-night sometime. No ballplayers. Just buddies playing cards. I said my friends and I played every week, and he was more than welcome. He gave me his new cell phone number and joked, "You know my schedule."

In the meantime, he asked for a good place to shoot pool. I told him of a few joints close to his place near Times Square but said that Amsterdam Billiards on the Upper West Side was the place to go. Apparently, he took me up on that. A lot. Enough for people there to see what kind of fellow he truly was.

"He was just one of the guys," Greg Hunt, the owner of Amsterdam Billiards, told me Wednesday. "He wasn't a big guy -- he was like 5-10, 180 pounds, and he fit right in. We had a lot of matter-of-fact conversations about playing for the Yankees, and it was almost like talking to someone about his day office job. Just normal conversation among guys."

Cory came in maybe three or four times a week while the Yankees were in town and took lessons from house pro Tony Robles.

"We'd be in the middle of a lesson, and people would come up to him, and he didn't mind," Robles said. "Every time someone stopped and talked to him, he would stop what he was doing and have a conversation. He never said no. He never had a problem with it. That's what was so special about him."

(One aside that's important to interject right now -- for all of you surprised at this, who assume that players instinctually bark at every autograph request or public annoyance, shame on you, and shame on us in the press who have apparently painted that picture. Most players are incredibly patient and gracious about their celebrity. Here, too, you only hear about the crashes.)

Or, in Lidle's case, when it's horridly late.

When I learned this afternoon of a plane having been flown into an Upper East Side apartment building, my synapses exploded like popcorn. First, as with any New Yorker, came 9-11 and then the fact that, until a few years ago, I lived two blocks from that building and knew several businesses below it. (Mike Piazza, in fact, lived across the street.) As it became clear this was not terrorism but simply an accident involving a small plane, I thought, "Man, Cory'll be freaked out."

Maybe a half-hour later, a writer friend of mine instant-messaged me that the plane was Cory Lidle's. I figured this was some rumor, but then I remembered our conversation last month, about how he offered to fly me up the East River with him, to see Manhattan from his pilot's eyes.

I picked up the phone and called his cell, the same number he'd given me to get him in on our poker game someday. I heard his greeting -- "Hi, this is Cory ... " -- and after the beep left a clumsy message to the effect of, "Hey, I know I'm gonna be well down on your list of people to call, but if you could put me on there somewhere to tell me you're OK, I'd appreciate it. Talk with you soon."

I hung up with the increasingly ghastly feeling that I never would. And as the news was confirmed that Cory Lidle -- major-league pitcher, father, husband and, well down the list, my friend -- was dead and that building still was burning 20 blocks south of me, his final words to me about flying wafted by like the sickening smoke.

"Tell me if you change your mind," he said about that East River flight. "You can write about it. Would make a cool story."

Alan Schwarz is the host of ESPN.com's Baseball Today and the senior writer of Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on Alan's Web site.