HOF Hawk Helped Inspire Derek Aucoin to Majors
As Derek Aucoin was driving to Cooperstown to witness the induction of Andre Dawson into the Baseball Hall of Fame in July, he found himself reflecting on his career and what the sport has given him.
It was just his second trek to the historic baseball town, but he felt compelled to attend The Hawk?s ceremony. After all, 30 years earlier, a simple gesture by Dawson changed his life.
“I got to meet Andre Dawson in a park north of Montreal that’s now actually called Derek Aucoin Park,” recalled the ex-big leaguer. “I got to shake his hand and that set in motion the next 30 years of my life.”
In those 30 years, the friendly 6-foot-7 right-hander persevered to become the only Montreal-born player to be developed by the Expos to appear in a big league game with the club. That handshake with Dawson also inspired his successful second career that now sees him share his love of baseball with thousands of kids at The Baseball Center in New York City.
“When my dad took me to Olympic Stadium when I was six or seven years old, there was just something that happened when I walked into The Big O,” explained Aucoin (Lachine, Que.). “It was like walking into heaven. I was profoundly touched by the experience. From there, I just had a love of the Montreal Expos and a love of baseball.”
A standout hitter and pitcher as a youngster, Aucoin was soon throwing the ball much faster than kids his age, and by the time he was 16, scouts starting showing up at his games. The Blue Jays, the Dodgers, the Pirates and Expos were among the teams evaluating him.
The young right-hander dreamed of pitching in the big leagues but he also wanted a college degree. So, in 1988, he moved to Vancouver where he would play at the National Baseball Institute and attend Douglas College. That year, he also pitched for Canada at the World Junior Baseball Championships in Australia, where the team finished fifth. By that time, Aucoin was a bona fide prospect and the Expos signed him in 1989.
“The Expos were my team and that was my dream to play for them,” he said.
His tenure in the Expos organization would start in the rookie-class Gulf Coast League in 1989. Over the next six seasons, he would pitch in class-A Jamestown, Sumter, Rockford and West Palm Beach, double-A Harrisburg, before being promoted to Triple-A Ottawa at the end of the 1995 season. In Canada’s capital, he would help the underdog Lynx win an International League title.
“Winning the championship in Ottawa was one of the highlights of my career. I got the ‘W’ in the winning game,” said Aucoin, who hurled seven scoreless innings in the Lynx playoff run.
On the strength of his post-season performance, Aucoin was sent to the Arizona Fall League with the Expos other top prospects, where he would lead the circuit in saves. He went to Spring Training in 1996 with an excellent shot at making the big club, but was the last player cut by the Expos.
After a hot start in Ottawa, however, he was called up by the Expos and made his big league debut on May 21 in San Francisco. Entering the contest in the sixth inning of a 5-5 tie the first hitter he faced, Shawon Dunston, hit a liner to shallow left for a single. After Steve Decker bunted Dunston to second, Aucoin retired pinch hitter Mel Hall on a ground ball.
With two out, Aucoin walked lead-off man Stan Javier and allowed a run-scoring single to Robbie Thompson. Manager Felipe Alou hooked Aucoin after his 2/3 of an inning outing.
Four days later, however, he would pitch at home at Olympic Stadium, and toss two scoreless innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers, with his Expos down 5-2 in the seventh, Aucoin struck out Ramon Martinez looking, retired Chad Fonville on a grounder and Roger Cedeno on a fly ball.
After the Expos narrowed the gap to two runs, Aucoin allowed a lead-off single to Mike Piazza, then retired Eric Karros on a fly ball, Raul Mondesi on a grounder and popped up Todd Hollandsworth to shallow left. Shortly after the game, Aucoin was optioned back to Ottawa.
“The problem was I had absolutely no preparation on being sent back down,” reflected Aucoin, now 12 years removed from his playing career. “It was really bittersweet because my whole life I had worked so hard to get to that place. There I was and that was it . . . They sent me down and I had nothing to hold onto and I just sucked.”
He would struggle in 1997, before he signed with the New York Mets in 1998. He would regain his form in the Mets system, ending the season with four scoreless innings in Triple-A. Aucoin signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1999, but decided to retire prior to spring training. Overall, Aucoin worked 10 seasons in the minors with a 22-30 record, 15 saves and a 4.39 ERA. He appeared in 305 games, walking 334 and striking out 477 in 555 2/3 innings.
Fortunately, Aucoin was planning for life about baseball throughout his playing career, and in July 2000, he opened The Baseball Center in New York City, an indoor baseball facility that hosts programs for thousands of kids each year. Now, a world-renowned co-ordinator of grass roots clinics, Aucoin has worked with the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and Cubs. He has also teamed up with Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation and has served as a consultant on several TV and movie projects, including Spike Lee’s mini-series ‘Miracle Boys.’ The kind-hearted Canuck has also worked with several charities, including the YMCA and Big Brothers and Sisters.
Just before Aucoin headed to Cooperstown in July, he organized a clinic for 250 at risk and underprivileged youngsters in Central Park for the Major League Baseball Players Association.
“The baseball world is great. It has given me so much and it has taught me a lot, but for many different reasons Derek Aucoin didn’t get more than five days in the big leagues, but he’s got 30 years of amazing experiences,” said Aucoin.
The charismatic Canadian certainly has no regrets about his playing career.
“I gave it everything I had and at the end of the day, the seven-year-old that walked into the Big O for the first time, got to pitch there in a major league game against the Los Angeles Dodgers,” he said.
Aucoin has also been fortunate enough to meet Dawson a few times over the past 30 years. One day, however, he hopes to tell The Hawk just how much of an influence the former Expos outfielder has had on his life.
“I want him to understand that that handshake has now paid it forward and had an impact on over 25,000 kids in New York City that I have worked with in some way or another in the last 10 years here,” he said.