R. I. P. Mel Didier

Long-time major league scout Mel Didier, who served as a senior advisor with the Toronto Blue Jays in recent years, passed away on Monday at age 90. Photo Credit: Aquila Productions

Long-time major league scout Mel Didier, who served as a senior advisor with the Toronto Blue Jays in recent years, passed away on Monday at age 90. Photo Credit: Aquila Productions

By Danny Gallagher

Canadian Baseball Network

Mel Didier helped construct many big league franchises but none as much as the Expos.

In the early, tough days of the Expos when they weren't that competitive on the field except for 1973, Didier was helping to build a solid scouting and farm development system from 1969 to 1975.

Didier scouted, recommended and helped sign prospects such as Larry Parrish, Andre Dawson, Ellis Valentine, Gary Carter, Jerry White and Warren Cromartie.

Didier, a Blue Jays' senior advisor in recent years, died Monday at age 90 in hospice care in Phoenix, Ariz., where he had lived for years with his Quebec-born wife Elena, who was an Expos' secretary when Didier met her.

"Look at what Mel did. He was very good at detecting talent,'' recalled Rodger Brulotte, one of Didier's first scouting assistants in Montreal.

"Mel built the Expos as far as I was concerned,'' said Parrish, a free agent who played for the Expos from 1974 to 1981. "Mel, Zack Taylor and Red Smith were all involved in signing me. Zack was the area scout and Red was the East Coast crosschecker but Mel came to the house and talked money. I was offered more money by the Orioles but my dad was sold on Mel and what he stood for.''

Didier was coaxed into joining the Expos' front office away from his job as the running backs/freshman coach at his alma mater, Louisiana State University, and helped stock the franchise with players who were still toiling for the Expos in the 1980s.

As White discovered, Didier was all business when he would show up at minor-league camps or major-league camps to check on some of his players. White had tried to call Didier last week but his wife said he was "heavily sedated'' and couldn't talk.

"Mel had a whip. He was tough but even if you were the first-round pick or the 50th, he treated everyone the same,'' White said.

"Mel was a straight shooter who worked hard and expected his people to work hard,'' Parrish said. "He was a baseball man through and through. I loved the man.''

When Didier saw Carter show up at spring training one year, Didier threw a catcher's mitt at Carter in the clubhouse. Dumbfounded, Carter wondered what the heck was going on.

"We're going to make a catcher out of you,'' said Didier, who helped introduce football blocking sleds as a get-in shape tool for Expos' catchers and other players.

Didier is known widely for his diligence as a Dodgers' scout in discovering that Oakland A's closer Dennis Eckersley loved to throw backdoor sliders to left-handed batters when the count ran to 3-2. Knee-limping Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers took the advice to heart and hit a game-winning, pinch-hit homer to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

In the first chapter of my book Baseball in the 20th Century released in 2000, Didier recounted to me his tale of the backdoor slider. In fact, Didier was headed to the exit to go home with his wife in the bottom of the ninth inning because they thought the Dodgers were going to lose with two out and Oakland leading 4-3. But first, the couple had to visit the loo.

While Didier was in the washroom, Mike Davis had walked and stolen second with a surprise pinch hitter at the plate -- Gibson. Lo and behold, he hit the home run with both of his knees ravaged by pain. He had spent the entire game in the trainer's room because the pain was so bad. But somehow, he mustered enough courage to walk to the plate, fighting off an early 0-2 hole to work the count to full in an at-bat that lasted seven minutes.

The home run giving the Dodgers a 5-4 win was voted the biggest moment in Los Angeles sports history.

"I saw it on the television screen in the hallway near the washroom,'' Didier told me. "When he hit the ball, my wife came running out of the washroom. The noise was deafening. I started running toward downstairs.''

Mrs. Didier asked him where he was going.

"I'll be back,'' he replied.

Didier fought his way through the departing crowd through a tunnel to the Dodgers' clubhouse to greet players as they entered from the field. He had a top-secret statement to make.

"I yelled at all of the players, 'Don't say a God-damn word to the writers about the backdoor slider. We still have a few games left in the series. Don't say anything. That's all secret.' ''

This anecdote about his warning, he said, had never been revealed to anyone until he told me.

"It's the biggest thrill in my lifetime,'' Didier said, not only about his research about Eckersley's backdoor slider but how it paid off for Gibson. "In a lot of cases, the hitters don't think the pitch is coming but in this case, Gibson didn't miss. He hit it on the button. With one hand.''

Several days before the series, Didier went into the Dodgers' clubhouse and specifically told left-handed batters Mike Scioscia, Davis and Gibson the story behind Eckersley's special slider.

"With my Louisiana accent, I said, 'Padunhas, remember this. When the count is 3-2, only to a left-handed batter, he'll throw the backdoor slider.'

"I probably saw Oakland play 20 times and I picked up something Eckersley had,'' Didier said. "When he throws that pitch, it starts out way outside and it usually ends up just on the outside corner. That year, Eckersley was wonderful. His control was unbelievable. He could knock a gnat's eye off.

"When Gibson got to 3-2, Oakland didn't walk him, even after Davis had stolen second to put first base open. Gibson had been taking feeble swings during the at-bat and Oakland figured there was no way he could put the ball in play. But he called time and started smiling. It meant he was relaxed. I remember the moment the ball came out of Eckerlsey's hand. Gibson got in a groove.''

For his part, Eckersley told me about the aftermath, "It was something awesome, man, walking across that field. They were going apeshit and they weren't clapping for me. Yeah, it's the total, ultimate walk-off. It's quite an experience to go through.

"He said he was looking for one that he got the tip from a scout. I don't know how they found out I just did it on 3-2. The way he swung at it, he looked like shit but he's so strong.''

The legacy of the great storyteller Mel Didier is that yarn about the backdoor slider but his work with the Expos or Blue Jays can't be forgotten either. I talked with Didier a few times over the years and the last time we chatted, it was this past April. He may have been very ill then but he never let on.

When I asked him about his secret to a long life, he said, "My wife has taken good care of me.''

In a statement released by the Blue Jays' former team president Paul Beeston said this about Didier:

“Mel had a tremendous career in sports whether coaching football, his personal friendship with the legendary Bear Bryant or his unbelievably successful career in baseball. For over 60 years in professional baseball, the last seven of which with the Toronto Blue Jays, Mel was a dear friend to everyone in baseball.  Few men in our great game have had universal admiration throughout baseball as Mel Didier did. On behalf of the Toronto Blue Jays, I would like to extend my sincere condolences and sympathies to his wife Elena and the entire Didier family.”