Wayne Norton is backbone of ball in Canada
By Dan Olson
Tri-Cities NOW sports
A bird’s eye view off the Norton family deck unveils the calm Rocky Point waters, Burnaby Mountain and the hometown where it all began.
With the water, boaters and rhythmic calls of gulls reminding residents how close to nature the north shore of Port Moody is, Wayne Norton looks southward and sees his old neighbourhood.
Port Moody Centre is where he grew up, attended school and began the journey that took him around the world, a world of diamonds and dreams. Baseball diamonds and dreams.
From the treed, waterfront property that has been home for the past 49 years, Norton nutures the memories of a baseball career that has helped build a national pipeline to the majors.
“I got this property through Nat Bailey in 1966 — I ended up borrowing some money from him for the down payment,” recalls Norton of how he ended up on Port Moody’s north shore. At the time, Norton was a member of the Vancouver Mounties AAA baseball team that Bailey owned and operated in the same stadium that carries the Bailey name.
From snaring outfield flies to playing an integral role in establishing the Canadian development program, Norton has carved out his own spot in baseball’s honour roll. A scout for the Seattle Mariners for the past 15 years, he’s currently sidelined after suffering a broken femur that required hip replacement surgery.
At 72, Norton still welcomes visitors with the grip of someone whose word is bonded in a handshake. His mind is sharp, with the names of those whose paths have crossed and intersected reading like the game’s list of Who’s Who, including a Canadian version.
Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron, Pat Gillick, Tony LaRussa, Larry Walker, Michael Saunders — over his years in the game Norton has either played alongside, scouted or managed a lineup of top-level talents. And it all began in Port Moody.
Heading up the hill to Coquitlam to play Connie Mack baseball as a youth, because “Port Moody never had enough people to form a team,” Norton was unknowingly on the road to something big by the time he finished high school. Graduation saw him earn a scholarship — at six-foot-two, he earned a varsity deal for both baseball and basketball — at Spokane’s Whitworth College.
“During my first year there, they didn’t have any lefthanded hitters on the team and I had hurt my arm trying to prove I was a good pitcher … I pinch-hit seven times and got seven hits, and the coach Paul Merkel said, ‘Hey, I’m going to put you in the outfield.’ That’s where [New York Yankees scout] Eddie Taylor saw me, and he signed me as a free agent. That’s how I got started in pro ball.”
A commitment to pro baseball at 18 was huge, but his best decision came a few years later when Norton asked high school sweetheart Trudy Drake to join him on his baseball journey.
“I was playing winter ball in the instruction league for Kansas City in 1963 and it was a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated. I called Trudy up and said, ‘Hey, let’s meet in L.A. and get married. We’ll save our parents some money.’
“We’ve been married for 53 years now. We’ve both helped coach baseball when our son Steve and daughter Elizabeth played in Port Moody.”
A .242 hitter with 107 home runs over 1,206 games, Norton met numerous greats on their way up or like him, battling for that one chance.
In 1967 with AA Birmingham, he slotted in the outfield beside future Oakland A’s (then the Kansas City A’s) stars Joe Rudi and Jackson, with Rollie Fingers, Tony LaRussa, Bill Stafford, Ken Suarez and Dave Duncan amongst a championship lineup. He called the two months with that club probably his best time as a player.
It wasn’t a tough existence, but the main goal seemed so close and yet so far for Norton, who accumulated 940 games at AA and AAA — until one evening in 1969 when Kansas City called his manager.
“[The Athletics’ outfielder Rick] Monday got hit on the wrist in New York on the Sunday and they were going to call me up on the Monday. I couldn’t sleep that night and my wife packed my only sports jacket. I was to fly to Baltimore the next morning,” he recalled.
Instead, as he prepared to get on the flight, his Des Moines manager gave him the news that the major league club decided to take someone else. “It was my ninth year of playing, and I thought ‘Hey, I’m going to the big leagues, and even if I had one at bat,’… close but no cigar.”
But his dream of the majors would eventually be fulfilled by the players whom he managed and scouted.
Norton transitioned from player to organizer and manager over the next few years, launching a Canadian youth program in Vancouver in the early 1970s. From there he moved to managing and coaching the senior national team.
At the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City, with him as manager and John Haar as coach, the team came within a clutch hit of advancing to the final.
“We did very well, finished fourth and were only one pitch out from defeating Cuba. That was the closest and toughest loss I can remember,” he said.
In the early 1980s, Norton was working for Baseball BC and put together the B.C. Select program to scout and groom the top-30 players in the province.
Maple Ridge’s Larry Walker would enter that program and go on to become one of the greatest Canadian baseball players with the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals.
Walker’s big chance — or perhaps better said Montreal’s big break — came almost accidentally.
“One of the teams backed out [of a Grand Forks tournament] at the last minute and [the organizer] phoned me as a friend and asked if I could provide him a team. All I could do was send up our young kids, 16-17 year olds, and Larry was on that team. The [Expos] scout saw him and liked him. But Larry was a goaltender in hockey and that’s what he wanted to do… Fortunately he signed with the Expos.”
Through all his years in baseball, Norton had built a large network of friends. None stronger than the friendship with Baseball Hall of Famer and current Philadelphia Phillies’ president Pat Gillick, who as a MLB general manager won three World Series titles — in Toronto in 1992-93 and Philadelphia in 2008.
The two first crossed paths in 1963, when Norton toiled at Binghampton, NY, while Gillick was a left-handed pitcher with Elmira.
“We used to kid each other that we couldn’t have been very good if we don’t remember him getting me out or me getting a hit off him,” Norton said with a laugh.
“It goes a ways back,” Gillick told the Tri-Cities NOW from Philadelphia. “We knew each other as competitors but we became great friends along the way.”
Years later, Gillick, then the GM of the Blue Jays, provided essential support in helping Norton launch the National Baseball Institute [NBI].
“We started thinking about how we could put together a program, probably started talking about it in 1983-84,” recalled Gillick. “Wayne was the driving force and he came back east to Toronto and got the Blue Jays on board, got Labatt’s on board… He drove the engine on this thing.”
“It was basically a program to take the best players from across Canada and locate them in one spot. That’s what we did in 1986, with Pat’s help,” Norton added. “At the time the Blue Jays were owned by Labatt’s Brewery, and with those two onboard it was easier to get the remaining three sponsors: the B.C. government, the Canadian government and Gulf Canada.”
Using the template of an NCAA Div. I program, Norton and Haar attracted the top teenage talent from across the nation. Players were expected to maintain their academics and prepare for a variety of routes to pro leagues.
The program, coached by Haar, would operate until 2000 and steer the likes of Matt Stairs, Corey Koskie< Denis Boucher and Rob Butler to the Majors. Nine players in total took that step, and just as important, Norton said, were those who went on to college and found a rewarding career.
J.J. Hyde is a case in point — a scrappy shortstop from Port Coquitlam. The program gave him a chance to play elite at tournaments in California and across the Pacific Northwest, and even three games against the Toronto Blue Jays — but most importantly an education that led him to his post as a vice-principal at Riverside Secondary.
“It was really kind of unbelievable and it gave me an opportunity I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise,” said Hyde. “Getting an offer from Wayne and John to attend the NBI was a dream come true, that gave me an education and set me up.”
Although he came in with hopes of a pro career, his focus shifted once he saw the imposing talent that Norton and Haar recruited from across Canada, like future Minnesota Twins slugger Corey Koskie, a native of Manitoba.
“I remember Wayne jumping on the tractor prior to a big game, trying to cut the outfield grass,” recalled Hyde. “He’d drive the van down to our next tournament, and I couldn’t sleep in the night so I’d sit by Wayne and ask him what was it like playing with Reggie Jackson … I was likely that annoying kid who always has questions.”
After Norton left the NBI in 1994, it looked like baseball was a closed chapter.
“I built this house after I retired and was out of baseball for about a year and a half. [Gillick] kept approaching me wanting me to sign as a scout for Canada for Baltimore and I finally relented.”
Gillick said he knew Norton would be a perfect fit for the position, having spent so many years evaluating players and learning about what it takes to play at the pro level.
“He has an instinct for players, that’s the most important thing. What makes a true Major Leaguer, and it goes back to his experience, what he observed over the years,” said Gillick. “He played at a high level, most of his career at AAA. Wayne was a tremendous centre fielder… He’s a competitor. He’s a solid, down-to-earth person with character and integrity, and he’s a fighter.”
Having earlier served as a part-time scout for Montreal, as well as years of evaluating players for the national, youth and NBI programs, Norton came to his new position with a firm idea of what it took to reach the pro level.
“Tools. The five major tools for position guys are running speed, fielding, hitting, hitting for power, throwing … But I added character and makeup, [which] are becoming even more important.”
While sabermetrics are modern staples of the scouting lexicon, Norton isn’t ashamed to admit he relies on what baseball birddogs have been honing on for a century.
“I’m a dinosaur. I look at tools — when it comes to metrics and all that, I’m not a high-tech guy at all,” he noted, crediting Trudy for helping him with that side of things. “I’m not saying it’s not important, but it’s not all. It’s a good combination… The makeup of [a player] you can’t figure into it. It’s harder to project, especially 16 year olds.”
He followed Gillick to Seattle in 2000 and stayed after his long-time friend moved to Philadelphia.
With the Mariners, Norton covers Canada and Europe, and has seen a number of his picks selected — including current Blue Jay Michael Saunders, and the team’s 2015 top minor league slugger, Tyler O’Neill of Maple Ridge. He inked two American free agents, George Sherrill and Bobby Madritsch, who were playing in Winnipeg.
Two European signees, Greg Halman and Alex Liddi, would debut with the Mariners in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Tragically, Halman would be killed in a domestic dispute in 2011 in his native Holland. Other players signed by Norton who saw major league time were first-round pick Phillipe Aumont and Kamloop’s Tyson Gillies, both later dealt to Philadelphia in the Cliff Lee trade in 2010.
Twice he was named the Canadian Scout of the Year by the Canadian Baseball Network — in 1998 and 2013 — as well as the Mariners’ International Scout of the Year in 2007.
Not all his recommendations got selected; Norton filed strong assessments on local products Justin Morneau and Rene Tosoni only to see other teams grab them. It’s a lottery, he says of the draft, but his support for Canadians chasing the baseball dream is unwavering.
The life of a baseball scout has two sides; it can be a lonely, gruelling life with long roadtrips, late motel stops and cold coffee. But no sport celebrates its scouts to the same degree as baseball, where the bird-dog that found and convinced his team to sign or draft a player is always noted. Norton says the bond between player and scout is unique.
“It was very gratifying to have a player you scouted drafted and signed. You want to see them do well — even the kids you sign that haven’t done well [in baseball]. Obviously the kids you sign who get to the big leagues you watch and follow the success they achieve.”
Although his career took him away from home for long stretches, he held off taking full-time scouting duties until his two children were grown.
Now a proud grandfather of three, Norton is, as daughter Beth notes, a father and family man first. Son Steve continues the family sports commitment as a Special Olympics skiing coach in Kimberley.
Beth, meanwhile, recalls her father’s ever-present support during her middle and high school athletic career.
“His greatest achievement is his family,” she says. “He’s our Hall of Famer and I’m the luckiest daughter in the world because I get to call him Dad.” - See more at: