The scout behind virtually every Canadian prospect for the Mariners is doing what he loves at age 73 while engaging in the battle of a lifetime — ALS.
When Wayne Norton was diagnosed last June with ALS — the dreaded Lou Gehrig’s disease — he knew that he was in for the challenge of a lifetime.
He also knew that he wanted — needed — to continue to scout baseball players, which Norton has done with skill, enthusiasm and, yes, love, for most of his life, the last 16 years for the Mariners as their Canadian supervisor.
So that’s precisely what Norton has done — with limitations, sure, but also with courage and grace, even as his body endures the ravages of the progressive neurodegenerative disease.
“It’s part of my rehabbing to say I’m still able to do something,’’ said Norton, 73, whose voice may waver slightly, but whose passion comes through loud and clear.
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Norton must be fed through a tube three times a day, though he has finally been cleared to eat soft foods, a godsend. Now when he goes to a baseball game, as Norton has done thousands of times over the years, he sits in a wheelchair, and his wife of 53 years, Trudy — this is her story, too — holds the radar gun and stopwatch, and types up the player evaluations.
“I can recognize a fastball now really well,’’ jokes Trudy, who met Wayne in high school in their native Port Moody, British Columbia, where they still reside. “A curve or a changeup, they’re still a bit subtle.”
Other scouts, to whom Norton long ago became a legend in his homeland, pitch in as much as they can to make the logistics more manageable.
But Norton’s baseball instincts and keen observational skills are undiminished. When the Mariners convened last week to prepare for the amateur draft, they pored over Norton’s reports, just as they have done for nearly two decades. He has signed numerous players for the ballclub, from Michael Saunders to Tyler O’Neill.
“He doesn’t miss anything,’’ said Tom McNamara, the Mariners’ scouting director. “He’s sending me updated emails about his guys. It’s a grind for him, but he’s a tough, tough guy.”
“He has no time to discuss his limitations,’’ said long-time friend Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “Once you’re around him, you don’t think about them for a minute. He stays sharp, informed and fully invested. Wayne is a baseball man. He doesn’t want sympathy.”
There were doubts at first whether Norton could keep scouting. But the family realized quickly that doing so would be therapeutic — and taking his passion away might be debilitating.
“As far as he was concerned, that was definitely a goal for him,’’ Trudy Norton said. “That has been the carrot on the stick.”
Virtually every Canadian to go through the Mariners’ organization, and most players from Europe — also Norton’s territory until the ALS severely limited his travel capabilities — have Norton’s stamp, from first-rounder Phillippe Aumont to Alex Liddi and the late Greg Halman.
Pitchers Bobby Madritsch and George Sherrill, signed out of independent leagues, were his, too. One year, three of Baseball America’s top 10 prospects were Norton guys. Norton is thrilled these days to follow the rise of top Mariners prospect O’Neill from Burnaby, B.C., a Norton signee from 2013, and pitcher Dylan Unsworth from Durban, South Africa, who recently made the Southern League All-Star team.
“When I got this job (in 2009) and moved out here, Wayne was one of the first people I spent time with,’’ McNamara said. “He gave me a really easy feeling that we have Canada covered. I’m not going to lose sleep we’re going to get burnt in Canada.”
But last spring, just as preparation for the draft was heating up, everything changed. There had been some subtle warning signs for about four years, mobility issues that finally led Norton to visit a neurologist in March. That’s when the specter of ALS was first raised.
Then, on May 3, 2015, Norton fell and broke his hip. While in the hospital, he developed aspiration pneumonia, leading to tests that determined Norton had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, a disease that leads to progressive degeneration of the motor neutrons.
Friends and colleagues are amazed at the positive attitude maintained by Norton, despite such a devastating diagnosis. Norton doesn’t like to discuss his disease. He’d rather talk baseball.
“That’s the only attitude you can take,’’ he said. “You’ve got to be positive. I work on strengthening my muscles. That’s what I’ve been up to, trying not to let my muscles deteriorate.”
Norton walks in a pool three times a week, and goes for strolls outside when he can using a walker. After six months of physical therapy, he’s even able to get up stairs — slowly and with help.
“When he came home from the hospital,’’ Trudy said, “Wayne was very, very weak. Everyone has been very pleased with his progress.”
The recent ability to eat soft foods like pudding and scrambled eggs has allowed Norton more flexibility to scout around Vancouver. He even made the 220-mile trip to Kamloops this spring to see a tournament.
“The Mariners have been very good about keeping me on even though I’m restricted in my travel,’’ he said.
Norton is more selective in the events he attends, focusing on particular players he wants to see. But he stays as informed as possible on all the Canadian prospects. During a recent tournament in the Dominican Republic, Hamilton had numerous phone conversations with Norton to discuss players.
“I plan on doing this as long as I can,’’ Norton said.
And Trudy will be there every step of the way. It has been a baseball life for her, from Wayne’s days playing at Whitworth College in Spokane, to his 10-year minor-league career as an outfielder in the A’s organization, where he played with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue and Tony La Russa. Norton hit 107 home runs and advanced as high as Class AAA.
“He talks about perseverance,’’ Trudy said, “and what I see is almost a transference of his determination and competitiveness that was always there from his athletic days and scouting, now directed toward ALS.”
For the bulk of Wayne’s career, Trudy Norton rarely went on scouting ventures with her husband, except for a trip to Europe when they were accompanied by close friends Pat and Doris Gillick.
But now Trudy is a fixture at the ballpark. In an article for the Canadian Baseball Network, Trudy wrote: “I have to laugh at the fact that, at 73, I am sitting behind home plate with these guys, holding a stopwatch and radar gun, checking out keen, young athletes, commenting on a ‘good body’ or ‘quick hands.’ You never know what life holds in store!”
Trudy had long helped type up Wayne’s reports. “I’ve been a secretary for a while; I’ve just added to my job description,’’ she said cheerfully over the phone. “I’m the robot that holds the radar gun and stopwatch and writes down the times.”
Also lending invaluable help are Norton’s daughter, Elizabeth, who lives with her parents (along with her fiancé), and son Steve and his wife, who live in Kimberly. The Nortons have three grandchildren.
When his playing days ended, Norton immersed himself in the amateur baseball scene in Canada as a coach, administrator and founder of the National Baseball Institute, before Gillick brought him into Seattle’s fold in 2000. Virtually every great Canadian player, from Larry Walker to Corey Koskie to Justin Morneau and Brett Lawrie, has some connection to Norton.
“These kids look at Wayne like their grandfather,’’ McNamara said. “They don’t want to let him down. The kids in Canada always turn it up a notch when Wayne is at the game.”
Next weekend, on June 18 in St. Marys, Ontario, the Canadian baseball establishment will get to show its love and affection for Norton when he is inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. It will be his first plane flight in a year, which Norton admits will be “a bit of a test for me.”
But much to the family’s gratitude, the ALS Society has chipped in to help outfit the hotel in St. Marys with the equipment he needs. And Norton wasn’t going to miss this for the world. As much as the award itself, he said, it’s the respect and recognition from his peers that moves him.
“That’s very important to me,’’ he said.
And then, shortly thereafter, you’ll no doubt find Norton in his usual spot – at a ball field, watching ballgames, and scouting ballplayers.
“What I find interesting,’’ Trudy Norton said, “is that he always refers to himself as an ‘old-school guy.’ He knows the stats, but he still refers to his gut-feel guys. He had some gut-feel guys in this draft.’’
And, let’s hope, for many drafts to come.