Retired Major League Baseball catcher Bob Didier made his MLB debut at the age of 20 as the 4th-round pick of the Atlanta Braves. He played 6.5 seasons in the majors and, in total, has accumulated over 44 years of experience as a player, coach, manager, scout, and catching coordinator.
Didier’s first MLB game was April 7, 1969 as a catcher with the Braves, where he soon became the preferred catcher of famed knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro. A switch-hitter who threw right-handed, Didier had a.229 batting average with 32 RBIs. As a catcher, he achieved 1276 outs, 119 assists, and committed just nine errors in 1404 chances, for an impressive .994 fielding percentage.
Since leaving his role as a player in 1974, Didier has enjoyed years of success as a coach and scout with various baseball organizations, including five years as a scout and catching coordinator with the New York Yankees. Bob is known as one of the top catching specialists in the MLB and has five World Series rings to prove it.
Q. Lots of kids dream of growing up to be a professional baseball player. Was that your dream as a kid?
A. Well, it’s kind of funny. In the second grade, I wrote a paper – and my mom actually still has the paper – that my ambition in life was to be a Major League Baseball player. I think I got like an A- on it. But it’s funny how it turned out that I did become a Major League Baseball player.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I grew up in Louisiana – Baton Rouge, in the deep south. I signed out of high school in 1967 and, two years later, I was the starting catcher for the Atlanta Braves.
Q. Did you have a team that you followed as a kid?
A. I think, like a lot of people my age, the New York Yankees were really special because it was like they were in the World Series every year. They had Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, all these great players, and every year when the World Series came around, it seemed like the Yankees were playing. So that was my favorite team.
Q. Was there a particular player that you idolized as a kid?
A. You know, I was a catcher and the Yankees had a great Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra. He wore number 8 and I wore number 8 growing up in Little League and so forth. He was the guy that I looked up to.
Q. Speaking of New York Yankees’ catchers, I bet it will surprise you that I know the name Elston Howard.
A. Yeah, there you go. Elston Howard was a great player with the Yankees and had a great career in the Major Leagues.
Q. Your career started off on a strong note, but I understand that you had some injuries along the way.
A. You know, catching is a demanding position. You get physical contact – guys running into you, sliding into you real hard. It can happen in any sport – maybe not as much as football – but people don’t realize that baseball can get physical, breaking up the double play and so on. As a catcher, you get hit with foul balls – I’ve had two or three broken fingers, I had my nose broken a couple of times, guys trying to run over me when I’m holding the ball at home plate – so, it can be physical.
Q. When you look at the game today, are you happy with the way baseball is right now or do you think there have been too many changes? Have the players changed from when you were playing?
A. The game itself is still the same game, it’s just that the players are a little different. I think maybe the biggest thing is the money difference. I played in an era with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and these great older players. Hank Aaron took 17 years to get his salary to $100,000 a year. The starting salary now for major league players is $500,000 and the average salary of 750 players, averaged out, is like $2.5 million. So, there’s a little bit of money involved in the game and I think that has a tendency to disrupt some young people’s lives.
Q. Talk a little bit about your five World Series rings. That’s a great accomplishment. Were those all as player?
A. I have three with the Yankees – I have one on right now. The three with the Yankees – two I was a Major League advanced scout and, the one I’m wearing presently, I was the catching coach, in uniform, for the Yankees when they had Jorge Pasada. The two other World Series Championship rings I have were with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993, and that was coaching as well.
Q. I understand that you were the preferred catcher for knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro when you were with the Braves.
A. That’s correct. I caught two knuckleball Hall of Famers, one of them briefly, Hoyt Wilhelm. But Phil Niekro, the best year he had in the major leagues, he was 23-11 in 1969 and I was his starting catcher. I had like 28 passed balls – it went back to the backstop a lot – but catching a knuckleball is really kind of difficult. I got where I was pretty good at it, but it was still very, very tough.
Q. It must be the hardest pitch to catch.
A. I had an extra large catcher’s mitt and, at times, even that didn’t work. I can remember diving from behind the plate trying to catch it and missing the ball and having to run back to the backstop and runners are running around the bases. It’s a hard pitch not only to catch, but to hit, so if you can throw it over the plate, you can get a lot of major league hitters out.
Q. I know that you are still doing some scouting and coaching. What kind of advice do you have for the young kids today that are dreaming of becoming a Major League Baseball player?
A. My advice is just to play and have fun. I hate to use the word train or work hard because baseball’s not work (smiles). But, to be good at it, you have to really dedicate yourself and spend a lot of time practicing. It’s a very difficult game. It’s like golf, tennis, basketball – you can’t just sit in your room and dream about it. You have to get out and practice and play and have fun.
Some people are blessed with great athletic ability and that makes it a lot easier, but even those people have to practice and play. I’m not saying it’s an all-year-round sport, but you have to really be dedicated and train to be an exceptional player. It doesn’t have to be professionally – get a college scholarship and go play in college and help save your parents some money to send you to college. I encourage kids to just, one, be a good high school player, then try to be a good college player, and then, if you’re really, really lucky, you can become a professional player.