Mel Didier, who grew up in Baton Rouge and had a storied career as a baseball scout and executive, football coach and athletic administrator, died Sunday in Arizona. He was 90.
“He really worked at everything he did,” said Lynn Amedee, 76, who was hired by Didier when Didier was head football coach at Glen Oaks High School in 1964, and worked with him twice more. “He was a tremendous baseball scout. … He was a tremendous person. He was a pretty dynamic person in a lot of fields.”
Named after Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Mel Ott, Didier worked for eight major league teams and was still senior adviser for player development for the Toronto Blue Jays when he died. He was in Major League Baseball in some capacity for 70 years. A 1949 shoulder injury ended his playing days with the Detroit Tigers organization but not his association with the game.
"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," said former Blue Jays President Paul Beeston in a statement released by the team.
"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."
Among the players Didier discovered as a scout were Hall of Famers Gary Carter and Andre Dawson. When the Montreal Expos selected Carter in the third round of the 1972 MLB draft, there was debate where the versatile athlete should play. Didier settled that issue at spring training the next year.
"As he walked through the door, I was standing in the training room, and I had a catcher's mitt," Didier said in 2016. "I threw it at him, and he caught it. He said, ‘What's this?' I said, ‘That's a catcher's mitt, and I'm going to work your tail off, and you're going to be an All-Star.' Little did I know that he was going to be a Hall of Famer."
Dawson, a center fielder at Florida A&M University, was not on many scouts’ radar when Didier spotted him in 1975. Montreal got a bargain when it drafted him in the 12th round; Dawson was an eight-time All-Star and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
Didier also had a hand in one of the most dramatic plays in baseball history. In the 1988 World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers sent an injured Kirk Gibson to pinch hit against Oakland Athletics closer Dennis Eckersley trailing 4-3 with a runner on base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Before the game, Didier told the Dodgers' left-handed hitters that if they faced him with a 3-2 count, Eckersley would throw a backdoor slider. Working the count to 3-2, Gibson remembered Didier’s words. Eckersley threw a backdoor slider. Gibson hit a home run to give Los Angeles a 5-4 victory, and L.A. went on to win the World Series.
"The greatest thrill I ever had was calling that shot," Didier said.
Born in Marksville, he starred as a multisport athlete at Catholic High and LSU, which included the 1946 Southeastern Conference baseball championship. He coached at Catholic, Opelousas and Glen Oaks high schools. In the summers, he scouted baseball talent, first for Detroit, then Atlanta. He had football coaching success at three high schools and as an assistant at LSU — his Tiger freshman teams went undefeated in 1967 and 1968.
He became director of scouting and player development for the expansion Expos in 1969. Except for two years as baseball coach and athletic director at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) in the early 1980s, Didier was full time in the major leagues. Didier also worked for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.
Didier is survived by his wife, Elena, and children Melvin "Skip" Didier Jr., Robert "Hiya" Didier, Cindee Didier and Lori Didier Stevens.