Six decades into his career, Mel Didier is a walking, talking baseball history book
On an early autumn night at Wrigley Field, Mel Didier's job is easy: Eyeball an already-known quantity, an up-and-coming major league pitcher who might one day be a good fit for his current employer, the Toronto Blue Jays. It's easy because Didier has done it before -- countless times over the course of a baseball life.
The scene has been repeated by Didier and others for almost as long as the game has been played, the gnarled hands of the master scout emerging from under the sleeves of his dark blue collared sweatshirt to open a scorebook-style notepad. No iPad for Didier, who is 86 years old with a spring in his step of a man half that age. No Bluetooth headset attached to his ear. The notes are handwritten.
On this night, in this place, the throwback image seems particularly resonant. Wrigley Field will celebrate its centennial in 2014, and it hasn't changed all that much over its first 100 years.
Didier's age and warm Louisiana demeanor give him a modest, grandfatherly appearance. As he talks, it is clear he is speaking to his guest, not through him, even as his eyes focus on the prize on the mound. And as the conversation progresses, much of the history of baseball comes pouring out, a version of history shaped by Didier's rare combination of baseball acumen and daring dedication.
A history shaped, too, by Didier's role in one of the most famous at-bats the game has ever given us. Kirk Gibson's World Series home run … well, we'll get to that. But to understand and appreciate Didier's presentation to Gibson and the Dodgers the day before they played Game 1 against the A's 26 years ago, you need to know how he has lived his professional life, how he arrived in the L.A. clubhouse back in October 1988, how he has arrived in Wrigley Field on this September evening in 2013.
"You go to a game," Didier says. "There's only 50 people there, mostly mothers and daughters and girlfriends, in Sandy Flatts, Miss. You have to visualize if this player's gonna be good enough that he will go to the big leagues -- say, New York or Chicago or L.A., in front of 50,000 fans. Here's a little country boy that you feel, hey, he's got the ability. He's got the stuff. He's gonna be able to do it. And that's what it's all about."
Like other scouts, Didier has spent a lifetime in the Sandy Flatts of the world, beating the bushes in the search for prime baseball talent, finding it and then projecting how that precocious youngster, who has not yet filled out physically, mentally or emotionally, will perform if given the chance to live out his dreams on the biggest baseball stages there are.
Once upon a time in 1971, one of those precocious kids was a raw teenager in southern California. Didier, working at the time for the newly formed Montreal Expos, went to watch the ruggedly built youngster who had been making a name for himself as a shortstop, third baseman and pitcher. Occasionally, six games or so in high school, he played catcher, too, but the position was an afterthought for him.
Didier's scouting report predicted he could become an All-Star catcher in the majors if he accepted the assignment. You can consult the Baseball Hall of Fame's website to learn the rest of the story about Gary Carter.
Four years later, Didier went to tiny Florida A&M University, an historically black college or university (HBCU), to scout a player. HBCUs weren't often on a scout's radar back in the 1970s, as the embers of the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s continued to burn.
While watching the player he had come to see, Didier noticed someone else, the team's center fielder, a scrawny kid with a balky knee left over from a high school football injury. His offensive numbers put him among the national small-college leaders, but he hadn't attracted much attention from major league scouts. The kid's name was Andre Dawson.
Didier recounts in his 2007 book, "Podnuh, Let Me Tell You a Story," that Dawson's batting practice swings practically left him speechless. Here is how Dider's scouting report read: "This young man has as quick of a bat as Hank Aaron, who I had known with the Milwaukee Braves when he came up. Aaron had the quickest bat I've ever seen. Andre Dawson has a bat like that, and he can run and he can throw. He's going to be an outstanding player."
Because Dawson was so unknown, Didier told no one outside the Expos about him leading into the 1975 draft. Further, Dawson was listed as a sophomore, and MLB teams weren't allowed to draft sophomores. But Didier, who counted the late Bear Bryant among his legions of close friends, had played football in college and then coached it in high school. He understood what few in baseball, at the time, did: redshirting. Academically, Dawson was a junior.
On draft day, Didier kept advising the Expos' brass to pass on the outfielder for round after round, figuring Dawson would be available later. Finally, a colleague said that if just one scout had learned what Didier knew, the strategy would fail. Didier relented, and the Expos selected the future Hall of Famer in the 11th round.
Dawson, inducted into Cooperstown in 2010, is perfect substantiation for one of Didier's primary principles: that great players are not born, they are made. For Didier, it's a truism that has served him well for six decades.
"He's full of wisdom, knowledge, energy, and he's always got a little kick-you-in-the-ass in him. And who doesn't want to see some of that?" says Gibson, now the manager of the Diamondbacks.
Didier's eye for talent has kept him in high demand among major league clubs. Along the way, he has worked for Cleveland, Detroit, Texas, the Dodgers (twice), Arizona, Seattle, Montreal and Toronto (twice, again) -- his current benefactor, for whom he will start spring training next month as a senior (isn't that the truth?) advisor.
He might be the only person to help start three different Major League Baseball expansion teams from scratch -- the Expos (who became the Washington Nationals), the Mariners, and the Diamondbacks.
On this night at Wrigley Field, he encounters a coach for the visiting team during batting practice. Their conversation illustrates the considerable power Didier still wields now in his sixth decade in organized baseball.
Didier: "I want to ask you something, real confidential. Are you fully vested as a big league manage ... er, coach?"
Coach: "No, I'm not fully vested. Need a couple more years."
Didier: "Well … you really have to keep this to yourself, even after it's done. We may be looking for a guy to run our minor league system. And we would pay well. I mean, pay well. And … you may say, you've done all those things and all that. 'I've been in the big leagues; I'm staying here.' I don't know that. Just think about it. I'm gonna give you my card. Think about it."
Coach: "At the end of the year, I'll give you an e-mail."
Didier: "You know, you'd have complete control. You could be as tough as you want. So that's what we need. We need it and we need it bad. I don't know yet what the deal is, but just sort of keep that in the back of your mind. OK? All right!"
Didier's role in Gibson's legendary 1988 home run may owe less to pure scouting acumen than to a virtue all too rare in professional sports -- loyalty. When Didier left the Dodgers in 1977 to join the start-up Mariners, L.A.'s then-owner Walter O'Malley promised the scout a job whenever he felt like coming back. O'Malley died in 1979; but three years later, in 1982, Didier took his son, Peter, up on the old man's promise.
Thus in 1988, the Dodgers assigned him to advance-scout the eventual American League champions, the Oakland A's, and he left no stone unturned. The day before the A's and Dodgers met in the first game of the World Series, Didier and two other Dodgers scouts presented their report to the players and coaches.
Didier had studied Oakland's pitchers. And he recognized the one piece of data that proved most fateful that Oct. 15, 1988, night in Dodger Stadium.
"We went through all the pitchers," Didier recalls, "and when we got to [Dennis] Eckersley, that's when I turned to the left-handed hitters and we said, 'Just remember ... probably will not happen in the game, but if it does, this is something that you have to remember: 3-2 [count] and the winning or tying run at second and third and you're a left-handed hitter, Eckersley will throw you a backdoor slider.' And I turned and pointed specifically at [catcher Mike] Scioscia and [Kirk] Gibson, even though Gibson was hobbled so bad, he didn't hardly work out that day. And I said, 'The secret is to remember it under the pressure you're gonna be under.'"
Eckersley, the A's All-Star closer with pinpoint control, had gone to a 3-2 count only 21 times in the 162-game season. Didier claims to have seen five of those at-bats against lefties, and Eckersley had thrown the backdoor slider for a strikeout in four of them.
You know how this story unfolds, how Gibson comes off the bench, barely able to walk, in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Dodgers trailing 4-3, two men out and the potential tying run on first base. How Gibson works the count from 1-2 to 3-2, and then calls for time and steps out of the batters' box.
"As I get deeper into the count, I'm thinking, '3-2. Get 3-2. Get 3-2,'" Gibson recalls. "Then the words … the words come into my head. 'The way he does it, podnuh, as sure as I'm standing here breathing, you gonna get a 3-2 backdoor slider.' Eckersley starts to go into his stretch and I step out and said those exact words in my mind."
Now, on a cool night in Wrigley Field 25 years later, Didier refuses to take all the credit.
"Great athletes remember in pressure situations," he says. "Great ones. Not all of them."
Gibson's correct guess, on legs too hobbled to adjust otherwise, results in one of the most famous home runs in baseball history -- the two-run game-winning shot to right field that was soon compared with the climactic final scene of the movie, "The Natural."
That home run, like that of the fictitious Roy Hobbs in the movie, has often been called a miracle. Miracle? Perhaps, but a miracle born from the meticulous preparation of one of baseball's greatest behind-the-scenes guys.
As Didier himself says, the great ones remember in pressure situations.
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