Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local Sports

June 18, 2014

Chamber talks

Didier, McGriff meet Bluefield business leaders

BLUEFIELD — Baseball was the theme of the 108th Annual Dinner Meeting for The Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce.

More specifically, Blue Jays baseball.

Several members of the Toronto Blue Jays organization were guests of the GBCC on Wednesday night at the Bluefield Elks Club.

Among those in attendance was former Major League hitting star Fred McGriff, who hit 493 home during a brilliant 18-year career, and 87-year-old Mel Didier, a senior advisor with Toronto, who is currently in his 63rd year in professional baseball.

Didier, who served as the keynote speaker for the event, was planning to present “The 10 things that make success” to the large audience of local business and civic leaders on hand.

“I have got 10 items that I cover and hopefully it will catch on with the folks,” Didier said. “I hope that they like it, it is meant to instructive as well as something you can grasp hold of and say ‘You know what, I haven’t thought of that in a long time.’

“Maybe that is the old school in me. That is what I do, I go back and cover the old school and I am going to talk about that.”

While Didier, who had been to Bluefield in each of the last two years, did the talking, McGriff was making his first appearance in the region, currently serving as a consultant to the Blue Jays.

“One week out of every month I travel to one of the minor league affiliates and this is my second year doing it,” said McGriff, who was encouraged to attend the event by Charlie Wilson, Toronto’s minor league director of operations, who was also at the function. “Last year I didn’t get a chance to come to Bluefield, I went to Vancouver, but not Bluefield so I was looking forward to coming here tonight.

“Charlie asked me if I would attend tonight’s dinner and I am going to tomorrow’s home opener. This is my first time here in Bluefield and so far it is good.”

The GBCC dinner meeting came on the eve of the Appalachian League season opener tonight, with the Blue Jays hosting the Johnson City Cardinals. The first pitch is slated for 7:05 p.m.

Also in attendance was Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg, along with staff members Antonio Caceres, Cesar Martin and Brad Matthews.  Toronto’s Minor League Field Coordinator Doug Davis was also in attendance. His son, Austin, will be an outfielder for the local Blue Jays.

“Timing is everything, I don’t think they had it last year, but I think Toronto has made a significant effort to bring in Mel Didier, Fred McGriff, Doug Davis, Charlie Wilson and, of course, the invitation to the coaching staff here locally,” Holmberg said. “It is just a great meeting of people and gathering of hopefully like minds and we certainly encourage them to come out and support the Blue Jays...

“With player development, the time it takes, the effort it takes, and this is just the second leg in the journey of a lot of these kids’ lives so it is terrific venue. I am so impressed with everything.”

Didier, who played football and baseball at LSU before spending two years in the Detroit Tigers’ system, had an opportunity to play linebacker for the Chicago Bears, but chose the Tigers due to longevity issues. Arm troubles limited him to two minor league seasons, but he has remained involved in scouting and player development for more than six decades.

“It is always been a challenge for me, a challenge in a lot of different ways,” said Didier, whose son, Bob, played six seasons in the major leagues with the Braves, Tigers and Red Sox from 1969-74. “The challenge is taking young men and making good athletes out of them, but not just athletes, but good men.

“I really believe in that. I am a staunch believer that when you have a person that is a solid citizen you have got a plus because if he is a good player and a solid citizen, you have really got a plus.”

He is the only person to ever be part of starting three expansion teams — Montreal, Seattle, Arizona — and was part of World Series champions with the Dodgers in 1981 and 1988, and the Diamondbacks in 2001.

Didier definitely understands the importance the Appalachian League — president Lee Landers was also in attendance — plays in the development of future major leaguers.

“It is real, real important, people don’t realize,” said Didier, who has written a book entitled “Podnuh—Let me tell you a story”. “If you have a system here like we have and you get your young kids to start under Dennis Holmberg and the coaches they have, it really sets the stage for the rest of their career, it is real important.”

That book, according to Holmberg, is a must read.

“You sit down and talk to him for about two hours, he will have you in tears, he will have you in stitches, he will have you dropping your jaw saying ‘Oh my God’,’ Holmberg said. “It is experience, it is a life journey for him and he has been in some very powerful places and been in some powerful moments in baseball and he can just tell you. He has got a book.”

McGriff had a fantastic 18 years with six teams in the major leagues, including the Blue Jays, Padres and Braves, collecting 493 home runs, 2,490 hits, five All-Star game appearances, won a World Series with Atlanta, and still has hopes of induction in the Hall of Fame.

He is using his role as a consultant with the Blue Jays to help other young athletes reach their major league dreams, and do it the right way like McGriff was able to do.

“I was all clean, no steroids,” said McGriff, who went from being cut from his high school baseball team as a sophomore to being a ninth round pick by the Yankees two years later. “I was blessed, now hopefully I can help some of these young kids in the Blue Jays minor league system.

“If I can help one kid get up to the big leagues and have a chance to experience what I experienced for 18 years, it is all worth it.”

The 50-year-old McGriff was traded to Toronto in 1982, where his first manager in the Blue Jays system was Holmberg, who wasn’t surprised by the career that would follow by the slugger nicknamed ‘Crime Dog.’

“Some guys you can just see it right away, it is just a matter of time...,” Holmberg said. “You could see right away he had tremendous upside, a great kid, good makeup, good character, no problems and a great tool set.

“He has not changed at all, he is a very talkative guy, he is a big leaguer, he has been an All-Star...”

His playing days are over, but McGriff’s baseball days ... they’ll go on for a while, much like Didier.

“Hopefully I can move up in an organization, be a special assistant like Mel Didier,” McGriff said. “I have got brains, I have been around the game a long time. I have got some brains and hopefully I can use my brains to help a team win a world championship.”

—Contact Brian Woodson at bwoodson / Twitter @bdtwoodson.

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