Wayne Norton was a baseball lifer to the end.
Norton, a driving force behind the development of baseball in his native Canada, died last weekend at the age of 75, nearly three years after being diagnosed with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig ’s disease.
The native of Port Moody, British Columbia, was an 18-year-old outfielder when he signed with the Yankees in 1961. He appeared in 1,206 minor league games over the next 10 years, the last nine in the Athletics organization, and then transitioned into the world of a scout and executive.
It was a challenge in recent years. Norton was diagnosed with severe arthritis years ago, followed by ALS. His ailments limited his mobility but not his commitment to his passion, which also happened to be his job—looking for Canadian talent with big-league ability.
It was therapeutic.
“It was a carrot on the stick,” said his widow Trudy, who met Norton in high school in their native Port Moody. In recent years she became his ballpark companion, helping him navigate through his physical limitation.
“I can recognize a fastball really well,” she said with a laugh a couple of years ago. “A curve or a changeup, they’re still a bit subtle.”
Norton most recently worked for the Mariners scouting not only his native Canada, but also Europe, until his growing physical limitations made the lengthy plane flights overseas too big of a hurdle.
Norton’s value is underscored by the fact he was a part of the Mariners organization during a time in which it had four different general managers and four different scouting directors.
“Wayne was a role model and mentor for so many young scouts and coaches,” said Tom McNamara, Mariners special assistant to the general manager and their former amateur scouting director. “When I was hired by the Mariners as scouting director in 2008 it took me exactly one meeting with Wayne to know that I never had to worry about having Canada covered.”
Norton’s impact on the game of baseball was anything but subtle. His scouting career began on a part-time basis with the Expos. He was hired by the expansion Blue Jays, and moved with original Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick to the Orioles and then Mariners, where he had been a scout since 2000. He is credited with the Mariners drafting James Paxton, Michael Saunders, Tyler O’Neill and Phillippe Aumont, among others. He also signed Bobby Madritsch and George Sherrill out of independent leagues. And when he was traveling overseas, among the players he signed were third baseman Alex Liddi from Italy, outfielder Greg Halman from The Netherlands and pitcher Dylan Unsworth from South Africa.
“Wayne was responsible for thousands of young players in Canada having the opportunity to grow through the game, and hundreds of young players having a chance to play professionally,” Mariners pro scouting director Tom Allison said. “More than that, he was truly one of the great gentlemen in the game.”
Norton’s impact, however, extended well beyond players he scouted for whichever team employed him.
Inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016, he was named the Canadian Scout of the Year by the Canadian Baseball Network in 1998 and 2013, and the Mariners international scout of the year in 2007.
Shortly after his retirement as a player following the 1970 season, Norton established Baseball Canada’s Junior National Team. He managed Canada’s Pan Am Games team in 1975, founded Baseball British Columbia in 1975, and in 1986 established the National Baseball Institute in Vancouver, which during its 13-year existence spawned big-league talent that included Matt Stairs, Corey Koskie, Denis Boucher, Steve Sinclair, Paul Spoljaric, Rob Butler, Jason Dickson, Aaron Guile and Derek Aucion.
“It was a model that we were able to follow,” said Terry McKaig, a graduate of the NBI, who went on to become head coach at the University of British Columbia, which, among others, produced big-league pitcher Jeff Francis. “The program is a milestone marker in baseball development in (Canada). When you take his playing career and what he accomplished scouting into consideration along with the NBI, Wayne Norton has to be near the top if you put together a list of the most influential people ever in Canadian baseball.”
Norton is gone. But he will never be forgotten.