Mariano Rivera saved Enrique Wilson’s life. He blew Game Seven of the 2001 World Series but made his best save ever. Wilson was scheduled to fly home to the Dominican Republic on American Airlines Flight 587. But Arizona defeated the Yankees, so there was no victory parade. Instead, the utility infielder changed his travel plans and took an earlier flight home. Flight 587 crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens on November 12th, 2001. Rivera told Wilson “I am glad we lost the World Series because it means that I still have a friend.”
Chris Dial saved Alex Rodriguez’s life. Dial is a big baseball fan; has been a Mets fan since 1973. He developed a way of converting a fielder’s zone rating, or how often he fields balls in certain areas of the ball field, into runs saved for his team. Dial is also a chemist and inventor. He invented the Soft Ground Arrestor System. This is bubbly concrete placed at the end of a runway to slow down a plane that is going to fast. Think of it as a runaway truck ramp for airplanes. On Friday the 13th, October, 2006, Rodriguez and several others were on a private jet that made a hard landing at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California. The arrestor system stopped the plane.
Other sports stars haven’t had this luck with plane crashes; including some in pinstripes, as we shall soon see. Roberto Clemente might be the most famous one; flying a mission of mercy from Puerto Rico that never made it to Managua, Nicaragua. There was also Knute Rockne and Rocky Marciano. Team planes have crashed. There was Manchester United in 1958, the University of Evansville basketball team in 1977. There was a Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes and the survivors ate the dead. The movie Alive was about this incident.
But a more macabre story is that of Len Koenecke. Koenecke was a fairly decent outfielder in the Thirties. He didn’t really get a chance to play regularly until he was 27. He was a big drinker and that may have had something to do with his late start. His drinking problem was so bad that he got kicked off of the Dodgers and sent home. Keep in mind that this was when drinking in baseball was rampant. A few years earlier, Hack Wilson set the record for runs blottoed in while he was half in the bag. Koenecke had a few before his flight home and he stormed the cockpit. The pilot and copilot beat him off, but he kept coming. Finally, one of them grabbed a fire extinguisher and gave Koenecke on fierce blow and killed him.
In 1999, Payne Stewart’s crash was followed in real time. . Peter Finch must have been happy. Stewart was supposed to fly from Florida to Texas, but the plane he was a passenger in lost cabin pressure and it kept flying until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a Dakota field. Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison survived the 200 MPH ballet of the speedway, but both perished in aviation accidents. Allison was piloting a helicopter. Billy Southworth Jr. may have made the majors if it weren’t for World War II. He was International League player of the year once. Southworth became a bomber pilot and flew the requisite number of missions before rotating stateside. Alas, he crashed taking off on a routine mission from LaGuardia.
Southworth and Allison were second generation sports figures. Allison’s father was a NASCAR legend and Southworth’s dad was a Hall of Fame manager. But there are also plenty of brother combos from Hank and Tommie Aaron to Peyton and Eli Manning. There are even a few twins. Tiki and Ronde Barber were both in the NFL. (And Tiki wants back in.) Bob and Mike Bryan rule doubles tennis. There’s Ozzie and Jose Canseco. The New Britain Rock Cats once had a manager/pitching coach duo of Stan and Stu Cliburn. (This makes sense. They are a Minnesota Twins affiliated farm team.) Jim Thorpe had a twin brother who died young. Ryan Howard has a twin brother Cory. At one point Cory Lidle was his teammate with the Phillies. Lidle had a twin brother named Kevin.
Lidle crashed a plane into a New York City high-rise two days before Alex Rodriguez’s near crash. His brother Kevin was a ballplayer too. He played in the twilight world of indy league ball. One year he was on the Somerset Patriots. A teammate of his was a Florida kid named Jeff Anderson. Anderson’s father Jerry was a pilot himself. Back in 1979, the Anderson family lived in Canton, Ohio and Jerry was a passenger in a Cessna Citation when it crashed and burned while practicing take offs and landings. The pilot was another baseball player. His name was Thurman Munson.