RIP to Derek Aucoin, a Quebec native who pitched in two games for the Montreal Expos in 1996. He died on December 26 after battling brain cancer. He was 50 years old. After his baseball career ended, Aucoin had a successful career as a baseball instructor and a sports analyst.
According to his family, Aucoin had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme about 18 months ago. “There are very few words to express the deep pain and sorrow that pervades us as our beautiful Derek left us peacefully surrounded by love yesterday in the early evening,” read a statement from his wife Isabelle and son Dawson.
Aucoin had been a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame Board of Directors since 2018. “A gentle giant, Derek was a dedicated and passionate supporter of baseball on all levels and we will miss his infectious smile and enthusiasm for the game. Our heartfelt condolences to Isabelle and their son Dawson. Derek, you will live on in our hearts and we look forward to honouring your legacy in the coming year,” the group wrote in a Facebook message.
Derek Aflfred Aucoin was born in Lachine, Quebec, on March 27, 1970. He attended high school at College Saint-Sacrement in Terrebonne, Quebec, and he pitched in amateur ball for Pierrefonds in the Lake Saint Louis midget AAA Baseball League and the St. Eustache Bisons of the Montreal Junior Baseball League. He was an outfielder or designated hitter when he wasn’t on the mound. At 6’7″ tall, he was an imposing presence wherever he played on the field.
Aucoin was a part of Team Canada in the 1988 World Youth Baseball Championships, and the team nearly took the gold medal. Aucoin fired a 3-hit shutout against China, striking out 6. He also singled and scored the first run in the 7-0 victory. He and future big-leaguer Paul Spoljaric combined on a 1-0 shutout of Cuba, too. Canada ultimately lost 3-2 to Taiwan to get knocked out of medal competition.
After playing for the junior team in Australia, Aucoin went to school in Vancouver and attended the Canadian Baseball Institute, a high-performance training center for up-and-coming Canadian ballplayers. The Montreal Expos signed Aucoin in July 1989 as an undrafted free agent. “He has a professional fastball. He also has a smooth motion that won’t need as much work,” said Expos pitching coach Larry Bearnarth.
Aucoin was sent to Bradenton in the rookie Gulf Coast League and proceeded to strike out 27 batters in 23-2/3 innings. “Sid Monge [the team’s pitching coach] had me work on a higher leg kick. It was amazing. I added two miles per hour to my fastball,” Aucoin told The Gazette of Montreal.
Aucoin was just 19 years old but was a remarkably polished individual. He was fluent in both English and French, had taken acting lessons and had studied marketing as well. It was an ideal background for a post-baseball career in media, though of course Aucoin wasn’t thinking that far ahead. “I’m ready to be an impact addition to the Expos when I make the team,” he said.
Aucoin spent four seasons in the Expos’ A-ball affiliates, moving from Jamestown, N.Y., to Sumter, S.C., to Rockford, Ill., to West Palm Beach. He noted that the American coaches had a bit of unconscious bias against the Canadian players. “I guess it’s understandable. That have this American attitude that it’s their game and who are these guys. They want to know what’s a Canadian national team. Like anything else, you have to prove yourself.”
Aucoin’s minor-league travels were covered pretty thoroughly in The Gazette, and for good reason — the Expos had never had a native Quebecer come from within the organization. Denis Boucher, a Montreal native, played for the Expos in 1993 and 1994, but he was signed originally by the Toronto Blue Jays.
“That’s what keeps me going,” Aucoin said while he was toiling away in South Carolina in 1991. “Sometimes you get pretty down in the minors because everyone is fighting for themselves and there’s no one to pick you up. I keep waiting for my chance.” An opportunity to impress the brass came in 1990 when he was invited to play in the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown against Baltimore, but the game was rained out.
Along the way, The Expos moved Aucoin into the bullpen to work as a reliever. His ERA tended to be in the low-4s, though he did post a 3.00 ERA in 39 games for Rockford in 1992. He frequently struck out more than a batter per inning and was moved up to the AA Harrisburg Senators of the Eastern League in 1994. He had a rough debut after getting called up from West Palm Beach, as the Binghamton Mets rocked him for 6 runs in 2/3 of an inning. However, he settled down after that and became a very effective reliever, with a 3-4 record, 4 saves and a 3.26 ERA in 31 games. He fanned 48 batters in 47 innings.
Aucoin underwent surgery to repair a partially torn labrum in December of 1994, and his recovery led to a rough year in Harrisburg in 1995. His ERA jumped up to 4.96, though he still struck out a good number of batters (48 in 52-2/3 innings) and showed good control, with 28 walks. He was promoted to the AAA Ottawa Lynx in time for the postseason and was a part of the bullpen as the team won the International League championship. In 8 innings of work, he struck out 12 and allowed just 2 hits and a walk. He picked up the win in relief in the championship game.
After the 1995 season, the Expos added Aucoin to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule V Draft and sent him to the Arizona Fall League. “From having surgery and not knowing whether you’re going to pitch again to winning a Triple-A title to going to the Arizona Fall League, and now this,” Aucoin said, referring to his place on the 40-man roster. “Pretty outstanding huh?”
Aucoin was a late cut in spring training in 1996. The Expos told him that he was too good to be the 10th or 11th pitcher on the big-league staff and wanted him to get regular work in Ottawa. To make matters worse, they gave him the bad news on his 26th birthday. “Right now I feel like a dog that’s been run over and handed a bone,” he grumbled.
Aucoin pitched in 52 games for the Lynx and had a 3-5 record and 3.96 ERA, with 3 saves and 69 strikeouts. By mid-May, he had an ERA of 1.57 but watched all his fellow Lynx relievers get short stays in the majors — but not him. “Maybe the Expos don’t have my phone number,” he joked.
That changed when Aucoin was woken up in the middle of the night on May 21 in Pawtucket, R.I., and told to fly across the country to San Francisco, where the Expos were facing the Giants. Reliever Jose Paniagua was placed on the 15-day DL, and Aucoin was recalled to take his place. He arrived a half-hour before the start of the rain-delayed game, put on a big-league uniform for the first time and was thrown into the game in the sixth inning in relief of starter Jeff Fassero.
Aucoin gave up a single to Shawon Dunston, fielded a bunt from Steve Decker for one out and made the putout on a Mel Hall grounder to first base for the second out. He then walked Stan Javier and gave up an RBI single to Robby Thompson before he was relieved. That run broke a 5-5 tie, saddling him with a loss in his MLB debut.
“It was fun, other than a couple of bad pitches,” Aucoin said after the game.
Aucoin’s second game came in Montreal on May 26. He entered the game in the seventh inning to a good ovation from the home crowd and shut down the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers for 2 innings. He allowed just 1 hit to Mike Piazza and struck out opposing pitcher Ramon Martinez for his only big-league K. Minutes after the game ended, he was told that he was being sent back to Ottawa.
“He threw great,” said Montreal manager Felipe Alou. “He didn’t show any fear. We know the kid’s going to be here when there is a legitimate need in the bullpen. Now is not the time.”
Aucoin didn’t pitch for the Lynx when he returned to the minors and was not called up to the majors in September. His control was wild and he led the Lynx in walks (53) and wild pitches (11). His control was even worse in 1997, when he walked 21 batters in 6-1/3 innings for Ottawa. The Expos sent him to extended spring training in Florida with what the team said was a psychological more than a physical problem.
Aucoin acknowledged that he had been suffering from clinical depression, and the effects of it carried over to the field. “All I ever wanted to do was pitch at Olympic Stadium. I was so prepared to play, so ready to do well in the big leagues,” he explained. “What I wasn’t prepared for was to get sent down.”
There have been many stories about pitchers who suddenly lost their stuff with no explanation. For Aucoin, the explanation was simpler; he had lost his confidence. “Confidence is everything. You can’t fake it. You throw one bad pitch and you think, ‘Here we go again.'” To complicate matters, the nomadic life of a minor-league player prevented him from staying in one place long enough to establish a good connection with professional help.
Aucoin was given the chance to resume his career in the New York Mets organization in 1998. He pitched at every level, eventually making his way back to AAA with the Norfolk Tides by the end of the year. He threw 4 scoreless innings in 3 games there without walking anyone to end an otherwise rough season on a high note. The Mets released him at the end of the year, ending his professional career.
Aucoin was 0-1 with a 3.38 ERA in his 2 games in the majors. He struck out 1 and walked 1 in 2-2/3 innings. In 10 minor-league seasons, he had a 22-30 record and 16 saves with a 4.39 ERA and 504 strikeouts.
As noted earlier, Aucoin had well-rounded background before he got into pro baseball, and his post-playing work was varied and interesting. He traveled to Germany as part of an MLB delegation to teach baseball. He had an entertainment production company in Los Angeles with former NHL player Alexandre Daigle. He opened a baseball school in New York called The Baseball Center NYC, located in a 15,000-square-foot space in Manhattan. He became such a renowned youth baseball instructor that he partnered with Derek Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation for several clinics, according to the website Cooperstowners in Canada.
“We teach kids how to play baseball and how to use baseball as a vehicle for self-esteem, confidence and teamwork,” he explained.
Eventually he got into broadcasting and became a popular television and radio sports analyst in Montreal. He was also a regular attendee at Expos alumni events. Aucoin was inducted into the Quebec Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.
Aucoin recently published his memoir, La Tête Haute (Standing Tall), co-written with Benoit Rioux. Copies in French are available on his website, www.derekaucoin.com.