Friday, January 4, 2013

#482 - Bob Didier

In one of the ironies of baseball and card collecting we go from a player’s first card to a player’s last card and the latter guy – this post’s Bob Didier – is over two years younger than the former one. These guys are also connected in that they both made a Topps rookie team: Bob was the catcher on the ’69 one. Here he poses at Yankee Stadium but he was on his way out in ’73. Never a great hitter, he was adept behind the plate, and was so good at catching knuckleballs that he was Phil Niekro’s favorite catcher in Atlanta. By ’73, though, he’d been pushed back in the depth chart and he spent most of the season in Triple A where he had a nice year, hitting .290 and posting his normally excellent defensive numbers with just one error in over 100 games. In May he was traded to Detroit for Gene Lamont, another catcher. It would have seemed that the Tigers would be a better place to land since Bill Freehan was in decline mode and Duke Sims wasn’t the best defensive guy around and Bob sure did perform with his .455 in 22 at bats but it was just not to be. After the season he was sold to Boston which was never going to work with Carlton Fisk and Bob Montgomery already established. It would be his final season up top before Bob moved seamlessly into his new career.

Bob Didier was born in Mississippi and by the time high school rolled around had relocated to Baton Rouge. There he was an all-league quarterback where he was state champ his senior year as well as an all-state catcher for his dad’s team, which won regional championships in ’66 and ’67. He was drafted by the Braves that latter summer and then made a couple stops in A ball, at neither of which he hit terribly well. In ’68 he remained at that level, turned his average up a bunch to .243, and led league catchers in fielding. The next year he startled everyone by hitting .357 in spring training which was a good thing because the two incumbent Braves catchers of ’68 were not available: Joe Torre had gone to St. Louis for Orlando Cepeda; and Bob Tillman was injured. So Bob filled the void, taking over the position until Tillman got healthy, and doing the lion’s share of the work thereafter. He was ordered by manager Lum Harris to “sleep with Niekro” and it must have worked since the pitcher had one of his best seasons with Didier being his main guy behind the plate. Bob also caught Hoyt Wilhelm a bunch and between the two of them put in over 300 innings of catching knucklers. It wasn’t too surprising, then, that he led the NL in passed balls but outside of that his defense was pretty great as he only had three errors and was a big reason the team won the division. Bob himself came in fourth in NL ROY voting and was the starting catcher in the playoffs where he didn’t hit too well as Atlanta lost to the Mets. In ’70 a terrible offensive start pushed him behind Tillman and new guy Hal King in the depth chart and eventually back to Triple A where he hit .309 and had a .384 OBA. In ’71 the Braves had a new rookie catcher in Earl Williams and though Bob’s average improved a bunch the year very much resembled ‘70’s, though this time he hit .283 at the lower level. Then ’72 was nearly all Triple A - .259 with a .997 fielding average – and he probably didn’t help things by demanding a trade. That he eventually got but outside his brief time up in ’73 and ’74 it was all minors. In ’74 his average fell to .225 and after the season he went to Houston where in ’75 he hit .251. In ’76 he returned to the Atlanta system as a player/coach and finished with a .237 in the former role. For his career he hit .229 up top and .254 in the minors. He got no hits in his three post-season games but fielded well over .990 at all levels.

From his coaching gig in ’76 Didier moved into managing in various systems: Atlanta’s (’77), Seattle’s (’78-’79), Milwaukee’s (’80), and Oakland’s (’81-’83). He then moved to Oakland as a coach from ’84 to ’86. Then it was back to managing in the Houston chain (’87-’88) before returning to Seattle’s to coach for the Mariners (’89-’90). From ’91 to ’92 he was the Toronto roving catching instructor before resuming managing for them (’93-’95). He then worked as a minor league coach (’96) and scout (’97-’99) for the Yankees before going back to Toronto as a coach (2000) and then the Cubs (’01 and ’03-‘05) as a scout. In ’02 he managed in the Twins chain, from ’06 to ’07 coached in the Arizona chain, and then managed at their Yakima franchise from ’08 –’10. In 2011 he was named hitting instructor for the Brockton Rox, managed by Bill Buckner. He has a couple catching videos on YouTube.

I’m not too sure I get that second star bullet since the only groups that named rookie teams back then – Topps themselves, Baseball Digest, and The Sporting News – didn’t differentiate by leagues.

In 1968 Detroit won its first World Series in 23 years and it was that championship that the team contributed to the ’76 baseball centennial. ’68 was the Year of the Pitcher and it was thus fitting that the Series opponents were led by their aces, both MVP winners. Bob Gibson of St. Louis had his 22 wins and that microscopic 1.12 ERA and a very foreboding Series history and Denny McLain cranked out 31 wins, the first time that number had been reached in over a generation. The Cards were the sitting Series winners and again they took their opponent to seven games. But this time Detroit prevailed, led not by McLain – who went 1-2 despite pitching pretty well – but by Mickey Lolich who went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA including a Game Seven win over Gibson himself, who was mighty tough with his own 1.67 ERA and 35 K’s in his three complete games. Al Kaline, Jim Northrup, and Norm Cash were the hitting leaders for Detroit and Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda for the Cards.

So these guys were pretty much just ships passing in the night:

1. Didier and Hank Aaron ’69 to ’72 Braves;
2. Aaron and Darrell Porter ’75 to ’76 Brewers;
3. Porter and Jerry Terrell ’78 to ’80 Royals.

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