Originally published in The Tri-City News on May 31, 2017.
It is not possible to spend as much time around baseball as Wayne Norton and not have a few stories to tell.
Like the one about spring training in 1965 when, while playing for the Kansas City Athletics, Norton stepped on to the field to face three-time Cy Young Award-winning Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.
On the way to the plate, Norton asked teammate Wayne Causey for some advice.
“I said, ‘What does this guy got?’”
The response was discouraging: “More than you can handle, kid.”
Causey may have been right. Norton popped up to the catcher on the first pitch.
The encounter is just one of many anecdotes Port Moody’s Norton collected over more than six decades in the sport, first as a player, then a coach and finally as a scout, which is his current job with the Seattle Mariners.
But while Koufax may have been a big test for the young ball player, these days, Norton is facing his toughest challenge yet.
The 74-year-old was diagnosed with ALS two years ago and struggles with the mobility issues that come with the motor neurone disease. Still, he manages to keep busy attending baseball tournaments and dutifully filling out his scouting reports for the Mariners with the help of his wife, Trudy.
Norton can still remember the shock of being told by doctors that he had ALS, which is more commonly known by the name of a Major League Baseball player in the 1920s and ’30s who was afflicted by it.
“They said I have Lou Gehrig’s disease,” he told The Tri-City News. “It was a bit of a shock, I guess.”
“It was a real shock,” Trudy adds. “It is one of those things that you know about it and you hear about it, but it never really touches you personally.”
Port Moody in the 1950s was about as far away from the majors as a person could get.
When a young Norton picked up a bat and glove, the thought of one day playing professionally — or even in college — never occurred to him.
“It just wasn’t available,” he said from the living room of his waterfront home on PoMo’s north shore — a property that he purchased with money loaned to him from Nat Bailey, who founded White Spot restaurants. “I didn’t even think of it.”
But when he was on the mound when his Coquitlam team won the provincial championship in 1957 and again in 1959, scouts started to take notice.
Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., offered him a baseball and basketball scholarship, and it wasn’t long before New York Yankees scout Eddy Taylor asked for a meeting.
“He said, ‘I want you to fly to Seattle,’” Norton said. “That was a big surprise…. I ended up signing with him.”
His first professional contract was worth $7,500.
After struggling early in his minor career in St. Petersburgh, Fla.,, he was eventually brought into the Kansas City Athletics’ organization and attended his first big league training camp in 1962.
And through his life in baseball, Norton has had a front-row seat to some of the biggest changes in his sport’s history.
He was in the lineup of the Southern League’s Birmingham Barons in 1964 — “It was the first year that black and white players played together on a team” — and went on to play alongside players like Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron and Tony La Russa.
His playing days winded up in Vancouver, where he joined Nat Bailey’s Mounties in 1966.
As the only Canadian player on the team, Norton stood out, and he soon became fast friends with the legendary Vancouver restaurateur.
When Norton was eyeing a piece of property in his hometown, Bailey stepped in to help.
“I went to Nat saying I had an opportunity to buy some land but I didn’t have any money,” he said. “So he loaned me the downpayment.”
The Norton family, which grew to include daughter Elizabeth and son Steve, has called the property home ever since.
And baseball has been his home away from home.
After his 11-year playing career came to an end, Norton stayed close to the sport.
He went to work for the BC Amateur Baseball Association (today it is known as Baseball BC) and wrote training manuals that standardized coaching across the country.
Norton helped launch the junior national team program and was an obvious choice when Canada needed a baseball coach for the 1975 Pan Am Games in Mexico City.
But his proudest accomplishment is being a founder of the National Baseball Institute, saying it is “probably the best thing I ever did in baseball.”
Through the NBI, he helped scout and coach household names like Larry Walker, Justin Morneau and Ryan Dempster, all of whom went on to impressive careers in the majors.
There are countless other players who came through the institute who may not have cracked an MLB lineup but have gone on to have impressive families and careers in their own right. J.J. Hyde is one such player of whom Norton speaks fondly. He is a close friend of the Norton family and currently a vice-principal at Riverside secondary, where the Tri-Cities/Ridge Meadows Walk for ALS will start this weekend (see sidebar). Hyde worked his way through the NBI and “now has a 13- or 14-year-old playing,” Norton said.
Watching young players grow up to be productive members of society — whether they become pro ball players or not — is one of the things he said he enjoys about scouting. “You are very proud of them,” he said. “It is nice to see the people that you scout and help to make it available for them to play.”
WALK SUNDAY FOR ALS
Since Wayne Norton’s diagnosis, his family has become involved with the ALS Society of BC, an organization that funds research for a cure and support for patients suffering from the disease.
On June 4, he and his family plan to take part in the Tri-Cities/Ridge Meadows Walk for ALS, which starts at Riverside secondary (2215 Reeve St., Port Coquitlam). Check-in begins at 10 a.m. and the walk gets underway at 11 a.m.
The 5-km route gives people a chance to raise funds — and awareness — for people and their families struggling with ALS. Walkers collect pledgers leading up to the event, with all proceeds going to fund medical advances and support services for people living with the disease.
Christine Hilliard, the walk co-ordinator, said she expects to see 400 to 500 people at the event but more are always welcome. Since it was started in 2012, it has raised $162,000 and organizers are hoping to break the $200,000 mark this year.
“Our goal is to have a great day for families to celebrate,” said Hilliard, whose mother has suffered from ALS since being diagnosed in 1993. “It is not only for the patients but the people that support them.”
Norton has benefited from the support provided by the society. For example, during a recent scouting trip to Kamloops, a medical bed was brought to his hotel to make him more comfortable. He said he appreciates the work the society does he has been introduced to many people who have suffered from ALS since becoming involved with the organization.
“I would do anything for the ALS Society,” Norton said.
• For more information, go towalkforals.ca. Those who are interested in donating or volunteering for the society can email firstname.lastname@example.org.