* Mel Didier and Buck Showalter helped built the Arizona Diamondbacks the only expansion team to make post-season play the second year of operation. Didier, a senior advisor with the Blue Jays, says Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles will be ready for the speedy Kansas City Royals when the best-of-seven American League Championship Series begins Friday night in Baltimore at Camden Yards.
By Bob Elliott
BALTIMORE _ William Nathaniel Showalter has always been about details.
Whether painting fences at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport as a summer job while playing outfield on Cape Cod in 1976, managing the New York Yankees in the 1990s as a dynasty grew roots, building the Arizona Diamondbacks from the ground up or managing the Baltimore Orioles … he has always been about the details.
“He doesn’t miss a thing, you have to be sharp when you play a Buck Showalter-managed team, before the first game he will have had meetings with his coaches, his hitters, his pitchers,” said his good friend Mel Didier from Baton Rouge, La. where Didier was honoured at a reunion of the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajun teams (1980-1985).
There is no truth to talk that UL’s nickname is a tribute to Didier, with his honey-dripping Cajun accent. Now, a senior advisor to Blue Jays president Paul Beeston and a pro scout, Didier began his baseball career pitching for the 1948 class-D Stroudsburg Poconos in the North Atlantic League.
“When you are playing Buck’s team let me tell you Podnuh, you had better be ready, because he already knows your pluses and minuses.”
Showalter’s O’s host upstart wild-card, winning Kansas City Royals Friday night at Camden Yards in Game 1 of the best-of-seven, American League Championship Series.
Didier helped stock the expansion Montreal Expos with talent from 1970-75 and was director of player development for the first-year Seattle Mariners from 1977-78. Then, Showalter was hired to manage the Diamondbacks and given unilateral powers from picking the shades of the uniform colors to designing the spring training complex.
Leading into the expansion draft, Showalter asked Didier to leave the Dodgers for the birth of another big-league team. Didier refused again and again. Didier would never leave the Los Angeles Dodgers as long as Peter O’Malley owned the team.
“I’ll never forget the day — Jan 5. 1997 — (Dodgers GM) Fred Claire called and said ‘I have bad news Peter just walked in my office, he said he was going to sell the club,’” Didier recalled Monday. “I said I was gone. I didn’t even know if Buck had filled the position. I called Buck. It was open.”
Didier was in Arlington, Tex. when he called Showalter in Phoenix, arrived the next day and hasn’t left yet except to scout or to make trips to Montreal so his wife, Elena, can visit her family.
Leading into the expansion draft with the Tampa Bay Rays, Diamondbacks scouts, coaches and Showalter would meet each day seven days a week until 10 or 11 for six weeks to discuss players. Each of the other 28 teams could protect 15 players, while the rest were up for grabs. But no one knew who would be protected so there were 100s of reports.
Showalter was afraid someone would break into our room and steal the information.
Next day there was a guard on the door.
The two form a mutual admiration society. Asked where Didier ranked among his lifetime friends Showalter replied: “top 10 … No. 1 in terms of loyalty.”l
Showalter and Didier were scouting double-A El Paso where Milwaukee Brewers farmhand Danny Klassen, then 22, was on his way to a 50-error season. The Arizona brass liked the bat of the Leamington Ont. infielder, but the errors? Didier asked an El Paso pitcher what the problem was? The pitcher blamed the infield.
After the game Showalter walked around the El Paso infield kicking rocks and loose pieces of dirt. The Diamondbacks took Klassen and he played 85 games in the majors.
“Buck’s memory was uncanny,” Didier said “he’d ask one of our scouts about a player and say ‘didn’t he hurt his ankle three years ago? Is he OK?’ Our scouts knew they had to be prepared.”
Didier had confidence his good friend’s O’s would “handle,” the Detroit Tigers, but “I was surprised it was a sweep.”
“Other than the big outfielder (Nelson Cruz) the Orioles are a club without an Albert Pujols or Mike Trout,” Didier said, “what people forget he doesn’t have his catcher or his third baseman.
“Baltimore did a good job filling those holes and continued to win. I didn’t know he could offset that. It’s like they’ve played better without their all-stars.”
Having Manny Machado for only 82 games, Matt Wieters for only 26 and losing Chris Davis for a 25-game suspension, Baltimore won 96 games with veteran leadership from centre fielder Adam Jones and reliever Darren O’Day.
Didier has worked closely with some impressive managers over the years: Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda and Walter Alston (Dodgers), Gene Mauch (Expos) and Bobby Valentine (Rangers).
He says Showalter the manager belongs at the top of that group.
“Buck’s more serious, Tommy was a free wheeler, but he was uncanny about firing people up for a short series,” Didier said. “Alston didn’t say a lot, but impressed me. Gene was as good as anyone. He had a brilliant, brilliant mind and was really prepared.
“Bobby Valentine would take a chance. He wasn’t always by the book, he wasn’t a Steady Eddie.”
Didier wonders if the four-day, layoff will hurt the Orioles and the Royals. Both teams clinched the division series on Sunday.
“Buck’s team will be ready,” Didier said of his pal.