He pitched in the big leagues alongside Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson, but Ron Piché’s most important contribution to his sport was as a mentor, ambassador and inspiration to baseball-loving kids in Quebec.
One such youngster was Derek Aucoin, who, with a relief appearance on May 21, 1996, became the only Montreal-born player to be developed by the Expos to appear in a big league game with the club.
“Ron was such a pleasure to be around at Olympic Stadium and at any event where he was honorary president, and they were numerous. I don’t believe he ever said no to anyone – hockey tournaments, baseball tournaments, you name it, Ron was there as an ambassador,” recalled Aucoin, after hearing of Piché’s death on February 3. “Ron was such a generous man. I loved working out with him in the ‘Big O’ in the off-season and I was amazed at how hard he worked every day. I would sit in the sauna with him and we would talk about the old days, Hank Aaron and Lew Burdette. I would be in a towel and he would have four sweatshirts on while riding the bike in the sauna.”
Born in Verdun, Que., on May 22, 1935, Piche, a hard-throwing right-hander, was signed by the Milwaukee Braves in 1955. After minor league stops in Lawton, Eau Claire, Evansville, Jacksonville and Louisville, Piche made his big league debut on May 30, 1960.
The young French Canadian would excel in a relief role with the Braves in his rookie campaign. Suiting up alongside Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews, Piche finished 27 games and notched nine saves (9th in National League) that season. For the next three seasons, he continued to be an effective option out of the Braves’ bullpen. His finest season was in 1963, when he pitched in 37 games and recorded a career-best 3.40 ERA.
He would also pitch for the California Angels in 1965 and for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966, a squad that boasted Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda. In parts of 16 minor league seasons that included stops in Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg and Quebec, Piche recorded 130 wins and an impressive 2.96 ERA. After retiring as a player, he became the Montreal Expos director of Canadian scouting from 1977 to 1985. More recently, his public relations work with the Expos earned him the nickname “Monsieur Baseball.”
One of Piché’s greatest honours was being inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. In recent years, he rarely missed the Canadian ball hall’s annual induction ceremony in St. Marys, Ontario.
“Ron was and will remain a true baseball icon in Canada, because he was a gentleman who represented everything that is great about the game and the industry,” said Hall president & CEO Tom Valcke in a statement. “His passion and pride for Canadiana were second to none. Everybody loved Ron Piché! As far as being a supporter of what we do here, it was never more evident than when he suffered a terrible automobile accident on his way to St. Marys two years ago to attend the induction ceremony, and when he was being removed from his vehicle by the emergency crew using the jaws of life, he asked them to please not damage the Hall of Fame blazer that he was wearing. He will be dearly missed, but will always serve as an inspiration to all of us.”
Aucoin echoes Valcke’s sentiments.
“I wish I would have had the chance to see him more and interact with him more in the last 10 years, but I always knew he was out there promoting the game with class and dignity,” he said. “Ron was an MVP to many young French Canadians and will continue to be, as people that were fortunate enough to know him will continue his mission of giving and teaching through baseball.”
Piché is survived by Helené, his partner of 20 years, his daughter Christine, his son Luc, and his grandson Jonathan.
A funeral service will be held for Piche on Monday at 11 a.m. in Laval, Quebec. For details, follow this link: http://www.memoria.ca/FuneralsSearch/?q=piche&id=5150
*Some information in this article came from the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame: http://www.baseballhalloffame.ca