TORONTO – Paul Beeston phoned Mel Didier a few weeks back and among the topics they discussed was how the Montreal Expos managed to draft four Hall of Famers while the Toronto Blue Jays are still awaiting their first. Didier, the legendary scout and beloved baseball man who died Monday at age 91, was the scouting director when the Expos selected Gary Carter in 1972 and Andre Dawson in 1975, and the staff he hired picked Tim Raines a couple years after he left.
“I said, ‘Were you there when they got Randy Johnson?’” Beeston recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t take credit for that one, podnuh. I’d like to, but I can’t take credit for it.’ He’s the first scout not to take credit for anything.”
The moment is classic Didier, a fixture at ballparks across the continent for nearly seven decades, instantly recognizable in his straw hat and comforting southern drawl, without ego or pretence. A Baton Rouge native who played both baseball and football at Louisiana State University before signing with the Detroit Tigers, Didier finished out his career as a senior adviser to player development for the Blue Jays, a wise sage for the organization to draw upon.
His death left people all around the game mourning his loss.
“The epitome of a baseball man. He never had a bad day,” said Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who worked with Didier with the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks. “He loved the game. He loved everything about it. Everything that’s good about our game, Mel stood for. Tough as nails. Hard worker. If you wanted something done, you give it to Mel Didier and he’ll get it done.”
“He was a great man, all about the right things,” added Perry Minasian, who has known Didier for some 30 years and helped bring him to the Blue Jays in 2011. “Energy, passion – just an unbelievable human being. He would always try to help. He didn’t have a selfish bone in his body. He was big on developing human beings and making people around him better people. He did wonders for me.”
Didier’s entry point into baseball came after his junior year of college, when the right-handed pitcher was invited to work out with the Tigers. He signed a contract, made his minor-league debut in 1948 but blew out his shoulder in 1949, ending his playing career. John McHale Sr., Detroit’s assistant scouting director at the time, hired him to be a part-time scout and a year later, after McHale was promoted, he got a full-time gig covering Louisiana and Mississippi.
“That’s really how I got my start – John McHale was a big-time benefactor for me,” Didier said in a 2014 interview. “He really helped me along the way and I followed him from there to the Milwaukee Braves, the Atlanta Braves and then he called me when he became president of the Montreal Expos and said, ‘I want you to be my scouting director and player-development director.’ From there, my career really took off.”
Didier’s football background coloured his approach to baseball, as he sought players on the diamond with the toughness and commitment emphasized on the gridiron. When the Blue Jays remade their roster following a disappointing 2014 season, he argued for an infusion of toughness into the dugout that helped influence the off-season acquisitions of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin.
On the scouting side, he believed that was a key separator in the evaluation process.
“One of the things you have to have, and I really believe this, is you have to have the heart and the desire to go out and look for players. Once you see the player and see some things that you like, for instance toughness, intestinal fortitude, some of the things that are unseen, those are the things that make the difference,” Didier said in 2014. “Everybody can see a guy hit the ball 400 feet – oh, he’s really got power. But it’s all these other things because our game is a game of failure. …
“Gary Carter was a great example. He never let it get him down. He popped out, or struck out, he’s walking back but he’s not cussing or fussing. He’s saying, ‘I’ll get you next time,’ and that was the difference.”
Didier also worked with Seattle, Cleveland, Baltimore and the Dodgers, where he made his most celebrated contribution as a scout.
Doing advance work in the 1988 post-season, he picked up on Dennis Eckersley’s tendency to throw backdoor sliders to left-handed hitters with the count full, a tip Kirk Gibson remembered during his pinch-hit at-bat in the Game 1 of the World Series versus the Oakland Athletics. Gibson sat on the pitch and took it deep for one the post-season’s most memorable homers.
“Talking to Kirk later,” recalled Showalter, “he said if you see the tape, he stepped out. He said, ‘Right there, “I was going Mel, you better be right because I’m sitting on it.”’”
Didier’s knowledge helped Minasian in a different way when he was a seven-year-old kid hanging around the ballpark while his dad Zack worked as the clubhouse manager with the Rangers. Minasian admired the scouts and often would hang out with them during games.
“I would sit beside Mel and we’d talk baseball and talk about players,” he said. “He didn’t have to do that. Eventually I worked for my dad in the clubhouse as a bat boy and I’d always pick his brain before games. We ended up creating a great relationship. …
“This game can be a lonely game from an employee standpoint. Whether you’re in player development, whether you’re in scouting, there’s not always somebody calling, checking in every day. He had a way of making people feel unbelievably important to the success of the organization, whether you were the bat boy, or whether you were the general manager. That was his biggest strength in Toronto.”
Didier was a close friend of Bobby Mattick, the late Blue Jays super scout and player development guru, and Beeston first tried to hire him in the late 1980s. Mattick was the underlying heartbeat of the franchise until his death in 2004, while other irreplaceable voices of wisdom were lost in subsequent years when Al Lamacchia died in 2010 and Mel Queen died in 2011.
Didier’s death leaves another such void.
“To me it’s very important because all of them had the ability to project, but at the time they had the ability to teach,” said Beeston. “They all were scouts but their passion was development. They were able to help the scouts learn what type of players they want but more importantly than that, they would help the players do what they needed to do to become better. The one thing they all had in common was if you were ready to commit, they were prepared to commit.”
Few were as committed as Didier, who wasn’t well enough to attend spring training this year. In camp, he could often be found by the batting cage, arms crossed on his imposing frame, a huddle around him as he told stories and picked out every detail.
Often he’d end up in the coaches’ room afterwards, imparting little tidbits for dissemination at their discretion.
Among his many mantras, one he often pounded into Minasian was: “Loyalty is No. 1, trust is No. 2 and ability is No. 3. You can always help develop the ability, but one and two, a tiger doesn’t change its stripes.”
Said Showalter: “I feel bad for a lot of people, the way front offices are now they don’t have a Mel Didier around to show them parts of scouting that are as important as the number crunching. Mel could crunch the numbers as good as anyone. He was ahead of his time. He was a rock.”
Didier leaves behind wife Elena, sons Melvin Jr., and Robert, and daughters Cindee and Lori.