Posted Under: Scouts Honor
“If you love the game, it will love you back,” Andre Dawson said several times last summer during his moving Hall of Fame induction speech in Cooperstown. Among the people he thanked was Mel Didier, the Montreal Expos scout “who didn’t let a knee brace scare him off and got me invited to a tryout camp.” Because of the scout’s belief in him Dawson became the most accomplished eleventh-round draft pick in baseball history. Didier also played a crucial role in the development of Dawson’s teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Gary Carter whose catching skills were honed under the watchful eye of the scout.
To baseball fans the name Mel Didier probably doesn’t ring a bell except perhaps for those who remember his son Bob Didier who caught for the 1969 NL West champion Atlanta Braves. But to baseball insiders Didier, pronounced “DID-ee-ay,” is synonymous with devotion and dedication to the game.
He has crammed a remarkable series of experiences into a lifetime in sports, many of which he tells in his excellent though hard-to-find book, Podnuh, Let Me Tell You A Story - A Baseball Life (Gulf South Books, 2007) written with Dallas sportswriter T. R. Sullivan. He was a key scout and player developer in at the formation of three major league baseball expansion franchises, the Expos, the Seattle Mariners and the Arizona Diamondbacks. He founded the first national baseball academy in Mexico and has worked closely with similar complexes in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. As a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers brain trust for over 20 years before Peter O’Malley sold the team in 1998, he advocated the trades for sluggers Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith and successfully forestalled the trade of pitcher Orel Hershiser.
Didier also wrote the advance scouting report for the Dodgers in 1988 that tipped off Kirk Gibson before his historic World Series homer that Dennis Eckersley always threw a back-door slider on a 3-2 count. It was a fitting reward for Didier who years earlier desperately wanted to sign the Michigan State baseball and football sensation for the Mariners but the Seattle ownership would not meet Gibson’s asking price.
Affinity for two-sport stars came easily to Didier because he also starred in both football and baseball at Louisiana State University in his hometown of Baton Rouge. In 1945 the UPI named him a third team All-American center and he snapped the ball to future football hall of famer Y. A. Tittle for a team that won the 1947 SEC championship.
Named after Mel Ott, the great New York Giants slugger from Gretna, Louisiana, Didier was a promising baseball pitcher who signed with the Detroit Tigers after his junior year in college but an arm injury curtailed his career after only two years in the minors. A life outside sports was unthinkable for Didier who for the next two decades worked as a part-time baseball scout and high school and college football coach.
When Paul Bryant coached at Texas A. & M. before he rose to fame at Alabama, the onetime LSU Tiger and the legendary Bear grew close. Didier would apply to baseball many of Bryant’s gridiron quickness and agility drills. He rolled out tackling dummies to teach infielders how to turn the double play when facing take-out slides and to instruct catchers on tagging runners barreling into the plate. Like Bryant, Didier made it a practice to start staff meetings early. “If you’re five minutes early that means you’re late,” Didier wrote about the Bear’s emphasis on punctuality.
At the end of the 1960s Didier had to give up football coaching because his doctor warned him that his intensity and the stress of the job might have dire consequences. Thus began his full-time work as a baseball scout and developer. He helped the Expos with the drafting and nurturing of Dawson, Carter and mound ace Steve Rogers. He even made a secret trip to Cuba giving clinics to the island nation’s baseball people while trying to convince Fidel Castro to allow Montreal and Havana to arrange a baseball working agreement. It was a vain effort that drew a harsh rebuke from baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn but is symptomatic of the kind of passion for competition and development that is at the core of Mel Didier.
He turns 85 next year but he is far from retired. He is now employed by the Toronto Blue Jays as a “senior adviser or whatever fancy name they are giving me,” Didier told me in a recent phone chat, his Louisiana drawl cooing through the telephone wires and making another raw day in New York’s uncommonly cold spring seem warmer. He now makes his home in Phoenix but he spent 10 days in spring training at the Blue Jays complex in Dunedin, Florida and was on his way to observe fledgling Blue Jays playing out west.
He talked enthusiastically about the major league debut a day earlier of a former Blue Jays’ former number one draft choice, first baseman-dh David Cooper. “He really has upgraded his talents,” Didier told me. “We worked him hard during fall instruction.”
Without playing in any games, Cooper improved his agility and quickness and showed such desire, Didier says, that he was the first one to report to spring training.
It is hard not to feel enthusiastic about baseball when you come into Podnuh’s orbit. His son Bob, a longtime minor league manager, will be coaching this summer for the Brockton Roxx in the independent Canadian-American League under none other than Bill Buckner, who like Didier has solid LA Dodger roots. Though Didier has described as “almost like a knife pointed at my heart” the current business woes of the McCourt-run team, he is bullish on baseball. He applauds the energy and astuteness of Alex Anthopoulos, the 33-year-old general manager of the Blue Jays who has doubled the number of scouts in the Toronto employ. “He likes and learns from all the scouts, the professional ones and the amateur ones,” Didier says approvingly. And like all knowledgeable baseball people when Mel Didier speaks, you would be a fool not to listen.
Author’s Bio: Two of Lee Lowenfish’s four books about baseball are now in paperback from the University of Nebraska Press: Branch Rickey: Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman won the coveted 2008 Seymour medal from the Society for American Baseball Research and The Imperfect Diamond: A History of Baseball’s Labor Wars
was reissued in a third updated edition in 2010.