Longtime Talent Evaluator Mel Didier Dies
Mel Didier (left), Jim Sundberg and Steve Buechele of the Rangers look on during the 2007 MLBN Draft at The Milk House in Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. on June 7, 2007. (Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Mel Didier was definitely old school.
When he scouted for high school or college kids for an upcoming draft, his bottom line was simple.
"Padnah, you look for what a young man can do,” he said. "Anybody can find things he can’t do. When you are talking about a sport where hitting .300 is success, you know there’s a lot of failure along the way.”
No man would argue with Didier, who passed away on Sunday night at his home in Phoenix. In more than 60 years in professional baseball, from his days as a part-time scout while he was coaching high school and college football, to his emergence as one of the most astute evaluators in baseball, Didier earned the respect of his peers.
And to think, growing up in Louisiana, he not only played baseball at LSU, but also football, and after initially coaching both sports at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, his alma mater, he became an assistant coach for Charlie McClendon at LSU with speculation being that he would eventually replace McClendon.
Doctors warned him the stress of football was not good for his health, so it was days after LSU beat Wyoming 20-14 on Jan. 1, 1968 that Didier went from part-time baseball scout to full-time baseball executive, becoming the scouting director for the expansion Montreal Expos, the first of three expansion teams he helped create. He also was the original scouting director of the Mariners and original director of development for the D-Backs.
Didier lived by that attitude of positive scouting and he uncovered plenty of raw athletes who wound up having big-time impact. Some of them got away, but it wasn’t always his fault.
Didier will be linked forever with Kirk Gibson because of the dramatic pinch-hit home run Gibson delivered off Oakland reliever Dennis Eckersley for the walk-off win for the Dodgers in Game 1 of what became the Dodgers sweep of the A’s in the 1988 World Series. Didier stressed in his advance scouting report that Eckersley always threw a slider in a 3-2 count. Gibson worked the count to 3-2 and sat on the slider that he drilled over the right field fence at Dodger Stadium.
And that was during Didier’s second tour of duty with the Dodgers. He left the Expos and joined the Dodgers as a scout in 1976. After that year the late Walter O’Malley, wanting to help his friend, the actor Danny Kaye, who was heading a group that was awarded the expansion Seattle Mariners, asked Didier to become the franchise scouting director with the promise he would have a job with the Dodgers anytime he wanted.
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The nearly five-hour game featured the benches clearing, fans running onto the field, position players pitching and pitchers playing the outfield.
Here’s the irony. It was with the Mariners that Didier initially came across Gibson. Jerry Krause, a scout for the Mariners who later became general manager of the NBA's Chicago Bulls, convinced Didier to take a look at a wide receiver at Michigan State.
After watching Gibson play and then checking with some of his NFL associates, including Gil Brandt of the Cowboys, he became convinced to take Gibson in the first round of the 1978 MLB draft. He even had a deal in place to sign Gibson for $200,000, half of which would be paid at the time of signing and the other half a year later.
The Mariners, however, were in a financial pinch and ownership nixed the deal. The Tigers, who were six selections behind the Mariners in the draft, selected and signed Gibson, the 12th pick overall.
"Danny Kaye was all for it, but the other four (owners) outvoted him,” Didier said. "I had tears in my eyes when I called Kirk and told him we couldn’t afford the money.”
Ten years later, having taken up the O’Malley family on the promise he could always come back to the Dodgers, Didier was a big league scout for the team and pushed general manager Fred Claire to sign Gibson as a free agent.
"I told Fred we had a (struggling) club,” Didier said later, "and 'If we get this guy, that’ll change. This guy wants to play and he wants to win.”
Gibson, the NL MVP in that 1988 season, was the Didier prototype. He wasn’t necessarily refined in baseball, but was a pure athlete and big-time competitor.
"Whenever you were at an (amateur) game you had to visualize if the player was going to be good enough to make it,” Didier said. "You’re looking at kids playing in from of friends and families, their mothers and girlfriends, and you have to envision how they will play in front of 50,000 people in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.”
Didier had the vision, and over the years he used it with the Expos, Mariners, Dodgers, Indians, D-Backs, Orioles, Rangers, and, at the time of his death, the Blue Jays. And that doesn’t include his part-time efforts for the Braves and Tigers, the team he signed with as a pitcher out of LSU only to have his dreams of a playing end after two years, and an 11-15 record with a 6.33 ERA in the low levels of the minor leagues.
Even if he didn’t make it as a player he knew what it took to find big leaguers.
In the spring of 1971 he became infatuated with a high school shortstop/third baseman/pitcher who caught a hand full of games for Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton, Calif.
"He is an All-Star catcher in the making,” Didier wrote in the report he turned in for Gary Carter, who he selected in the third round of the 1971 draft. Carter’s 19-year career, which included 11 All-Star selections, ended with his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Four years later it was another future Hall of Fame that got Didier’s attention at Florida A&M, where he went to see a player who was getting a lot of attention among scouts but wasn’t even drafted. In watching the game, however, Didier became fixated on the team’s center fielder, who had a bad left knee because of a high school football injury that scared most scouts away.
So in the 11th round of that 1975 draft Didier took a chance on Andre Dawson, who by the following season was in the big leagues for the start of a 21-year career that saw him win the Rookie of the Year award in 1977, an NL MVP in 1987, and eventual enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
It’s a part of the legacy Didier left behind—the legacy of an ability to see raw talent and project greatness.