* Scouting legend Mel Didier, 87, is still looking for talent and not only at the pro level. With help from his son Bob Didier, former Jays minor-league manager, Mel signed John Stephens, 21, (Surrey, BC) to a free-agent contract. Stephens was a teammate of Rowan Wick with Dave Empey’s Vancouver Cannors and also played for the White Rock Tritons.
By Alexis Brudnicki
John Stephens is a diamond in the rough.
That was the description longtime scouting legend and Toronto Blue Jays senior advisor and pro scout Mel Didiergot from his son Bob Didier about the 21-year-old outfielder. Stephens didn’t come with much baseball experience, but he had a quick bat with some pop and Bob felt he was worth taking a look at.
After taking in a few of his workouts, and bringing Toronto scout Bob Fontaine in for a second opinion, the elder Didier and the Blue Jays signed the native of Surrey, BC to a minor-league contract, making it official on Sunday.
“He can swing the bat,” Didier said. “He’s got great bat speed and the ball jumps off his bat real good; better than most kids. Having not played a lot, we took one of our ex-professional pitchers and we threw him against [Stephens] and he held his own.”
Stephens played during his high school days at Earl Marriott High School in Surrey, but he left early to help take care of his mother who had fallen ill. When he did complete his secondary schooling, he moved on to a community college before once again leaving to assist his mother, who has since recovered.
Between then and now, his baseball resume appears to draw a blank, searches only resulting in his British Columbia Premier Baseball League player page with statistics from 11 games with the Vancouver Cannons almost four years ago.
But Stephens is playing now, and he first met Bob Didier when the former big-league catcher made a trip up north last summer to work with a group of local players in Vancouver. Bob is currently running baseball schools and passing on his knowledge of the game to the next generation, and his trip up north was to do just that.
A group of those same players ventured out to Phoenix, Az., for continued instruction in the fall, just before American Thanksgiving in November. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound righty was one of them, and he made enough of an impression on the former backstop that Bob made his first call to his father.
“He worked out with Bob and about the third day he had worked outside Bob calls me and he said, ‘You ought to come by and see this guy,’” Didier said. “’He can really swing the bat.’ He said, ‘He hasn’t played much baseball. He’s sort of a diamond in the rough.’ That’s what he called him…
“He had not played baseball because his mother was very ill and he left high school before his senior year, when he was about 17 years of age. He took care of her, quit school and all of that…He hasn’t played a lot of baseball. He’s very inexperienced but he does have an outstanding bat.”
In Mel Didier’s initial look, he was impressed. It wasn’t enough to keep him from walking away that afternoon in the fall, but it was enough to make him think twice about Stephens.
“I went out and I looked at him playing and I watched him, and then the Canadian kids went home,” Didier said. “And I got to thinking about it. I’ve signed a thousand [plus] guys…and I was walking away from a guy who can really swing the bat. The most difficult thing to do in the game is to find good hitters. I thought this guy has a chance.”
Bob informed his father that Stephens was going to be back in the Grand Canyon State after Christmas for five or six days, so if he wanted to take another look, he could. Mel did just that, and brought local scout Fontaine with him this time.
“Lo and behold, he was exactly what I thought of him,” Didier said. “He can really swing the bat. Now, this was batting practice…[but] he has a really quick bat. He’s like a young boy coming out of high school because of his lack of playing experience; playing time. So I looked at him again and I got one of our other scouts, Bob Fontaine, who lives here, to come over and watch him.
“He said, ‘We ought to sign him.’ We have nothing to lose – he’s a Canadian kid, he looks like he’s got a good attitude, he’s got good size, he swings the bat really well – so we’ll bring him to spring training, let him stay with the young kids and just play games every day…and then we’ll decide where he goes and what he’ll do. But we’re going to try to let him get game experience and that’s the biggest thing.”
Stephens will get an early start at spring training, reporting to Toronto’s mini-camp beginning on Feb. 26. Usually reserved for more high-level prospects, the outfielder’s appearance at the camp is just to get him more time on the diamond heading into spring training and then extended spring training.
“He’s going to the mini-camp as a favour to me because I want to try to give him as much experience [as possible],” Didier said. “I want to give him the experience of being there with the guys we have, learning something about the game, what it’s all about, the meetings you hold, the talk about the game itself, the actual coaching and techniques; all of that.”
The veteran scout is looking forward to seeing what his latest sign will be able to do, and how much progression he can make over a full season of baseball. And then, who knows?
“I like his attitude; I like his hitting ability,” Didier said. “But of course, a lot will depend on how much he can absorb from spring training through next August, and that’s why we signed him…
“We hope that John makes it. It’d be a storybook kind of thing.”