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Mudville: May 28, 2024 7:45 am PDT

Les Norman

"Sometimes you have to look behind you to see the path you took to explain where you’re at."

When you visit Les Norman’s website, the first sentence in his bio is, “I’m Les Norman, and I have a passion for people.”

The more you learn about Norman, the more you know that to be true.

The former Royals outfielder is incredibly busy and just about everything he is doing is working with or communicating with others.

He is a keynote speaker, does leadership training, works with the Royals alumni and is heavily involved in the Royals Fantasy camps. He has done radio, television and does two podcasts, one called The Well, with members of his church, and another called Breaking the Norm which highlights the great things many people do. Some of his previous guests included Gary Player, Annika Sorenstam, Bubba Watson, Taylor Dayne, Tom Berringer, Brandon Puffer and Rob Riggle among a host of others.

“After I retired, I was listening to a lot of sports radio and a lot of what I heard was negative. I figured there had to be more out there than the negative, beyond the scores. I really like the stories behind the people, not just that they went 2-4 with a home run. I wanted to get to know the players, but couldn’t find that.”

Norman played ten years professionally including the 1995 and ’96 seasons with the Kansas City Royals.

On top of all of that, it took nearly 200 installments, but we finally have a guest who was also a contestant on a famous game show.

Find out which one and so much more as we go Spitballin’ with Les Norman.

Outfielder Les Norman #66 of the Kansas City Royals on Photo Day during Spring Training at the Baseball City Stadium in Davenport, Florida. (Credit: Scott Halleran /Allsport)

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Norman! Appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us. I like to start these interviews out by asking our subjects to take us back to their childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?

I grew up with a really abusive dad who was alcoholic and angry. We didn’t have a good relationship and he left when I was 12. He never played catch with me or went to a Little League game. But I loved baseball because he used to watch the Cubs and Harry Caray on WGN. I grew up an hour south of Chicago in Braidwood, Illinois and went to Reed-Custer High School and won a state championship there. I found my love of the game by watching the Cubs and wanting to get out of the house. I wanted to get out of the house so I didn’t have to listen to my dad yelling and screaming and doing the horrible things he did.

When I was a kid, I would watch Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Rick Suttcliffe, Andre Dawson, Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier and would say that I was going to play for the Cubs one day. Being the smallest kid and not athletic, I would get made fun of for saying that, but something in my heart said I was going to play for them one day. I was like 4’11” when I graduated eighth grade, but then grew to about 5’7” that summer. My sophomore year, I really started to develop and had a great coach in Jerry Cougill. When I was about 16 was when it started to turn for me. We won states in baseball and had a senior, Brian DuBois, who was the first draft pick in the fourth round that year. Playing with all those seniors made me better and it started to click.

You played collegiately at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. What was your experience like playing ball there?

They were the only school that gave me a shot. We couldn’t really afford for me to go to college and I wasn’t going to get an academic scholarship. I went there to play football and baseball, but football only lasted one year. [College Baseball Hall of Famer] Gordie Gillespie was our baseball and football coach and I went to him and said I was going to give up football. I said that I wanted to be a Big League baseball player, but I had to make it there first. He smiled and said it was a good idea to concentrate on baseball. The late and great Gordie Gillespie continued what was started by Jerry Cougill at Reed-Custer. Having a dad that left when I was 12, it leaves an indelible mark on you and I was still going through things emotionally and mentally. Those two coaches helped me through that.

The Royals called in the 25th round and I think God has a sense of humor because their offer was $2,000, the same amount I turned down from the Red Sox the year before.

It’s great that you had awesome mentors like that, not just in sports, but in life. You were drafted twice out of St. Francis. What was the story behind being drafted in 1990 and ’91?

I got drafted by Boston my junior year, but turned it down and went back for my senior year and then got drafted by the Royals in 1991. We had a scout, Chuck Koney, who would come around my junior year. I didn’t have anybody advising me, so I really didn’t know what to do. Originally, he would come by because we had a pitcher named Don Peters who was a stud on the mound. He was first round pick for the A’s and was supposed to be part of their “four aces” staff with Todd Van Poppel, Kirk Dressendorfer and Dave Zancanaro. It seemed like every time Chuck Koney came, I would go 3-4 or throw somebody out from the outfield. That put me on the map and when my name was called in 1990, it was a boyhood dream.

Their first offer was $2,000 and we didn’t have money in our family. I didn’t have a car or a whole lot of wisdom in what to do. I said, “Chuck, thank you very much but $2,000 isn’t gonna cut it for my family. I’ll go play summer ball and go back for my senior year.” I played summer ball and came close to winning the Triple Crown. Boston came back and upped the offer to $10,000 then $15,000. In my head, I had the idea that I needed $50,000 to get me a vehicle and a little nest egg. Their final offer was $30,000 and I turned it down.

Chuck Koney wasn’t very happy with me, but I went back for my senior year. I thought it would be better, but I had a miserable year. I was still trying to bury all that stuff with my dad. I was depressed and didn’t know it. I didn’t have any help or counseling. It’s funny, my junior year I was hoping to hear my name at the draft because I wanted to live that boyhood dream. My senior year, I wanted to hear my name called because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life if they didn’t call. The Royals called in the 25th round and I think God has a sense of humor because their offer was $2,000, the same amount I turned down from the Red Sox the year before. That was their only offer, so I had to take it.

You had some good years in the minors, especially early, as you worked your way up through the system. What was it like moving up through the Royals system?

It was an interesting path. As a Christian man of Faith who trusts in the Lord, the way I got to the big leagues was unheard of. I was hitting about .165 and separated my shoulder sliding into home plate. They were going to sit me down for the year, but I told them I was OK and was taping my own arm up. I was taking 12-16 Advil a day, which isn’t good for you. But I knew that if I was a 25th round draft pick hitting .165 and hurt, there was a good chance I’d be released once I was healthy. I took it upon myself to play through it and pretend everything was OK. I got my average up to .245 but then dove for a ball in the outfield and separated my shoulder again. I needed a full reconstruction of my shoulder and came back to spring training in 1992. I figured they would release me, but we had a manager named Tom Poquette. He was a former Big Leaguer. The way I played was similar to the way he played. He worked with me hitting and in the outfield every day. It taught me to work hard and trust the Lord. If I was meant to be there, I would be there.

Outfielder Les Norman #66 of the Kansas City Royals goes from second to third base during a Spring Training game against the Florida Marlins at the Space Coast Stadium in Melbourne, Florida. The Royals defeated the Marlins 8-1.

I always like asking guys about their first call up. Can you share the story about how you learned you were going to be a Major Leaguer?

We had a day game in Omaha. We were destroying some team and I was on first. I know the unwritten rules where you don’t steal when you’re up big. Keith Hughes was hitting behind me. He flew out and I went first-to-third and when it was caught, I gave my helmet to [third base coach] Mike Jirschele and he said, “Did you see the steal sign?” I said, “It’s late in the game and we’re up ten, there’s no way you gave the steal sign!” He said, “Don’t tell me what I did and didn’t do!” I went out to the outfield and was playing catch with Keith Hughes and asked him if he saw the steal sign. He said the same thing I did, we wouldn’t be stealing up ten. I went into the clubhouse and told Jirsch that Keith didn’t see the steal sign either. He said, “Keith wouldn’t know his head from a blanket-blank…”

In the dugout that day was minor league coordinator Joe Jones, John Wathan and Bob Hegman who was the bigwig everyone was afraid of. All the brass was in town and I was getting undressed by my manager in a game where I got four hits. We won the game and everyone was in the clubhouse having a good time. I started taking my uniform pants off and Jirsch came out and said, “Hey Norman, in my office right now!” I asked if I could take my pants off first and he said, “See it’s that kind of mouth…you have some kind of attitude!”

I went into his office and there was a chair in the middle of his office with all these bigwigs sitting around and they all looked mad. I’m thinking that I’m hitting .380 in AAA and am gonna get released. I sat down and said, “Jirsch, before you start, I want to apologize for disrespecting you. Doesn’t matter, right or wrong, I shouldn’t have challenged you.” He said, “Well, I’m glad you said that because tomorrow if you do that in Kansas City, you’ll come right back down.” I was like, “You know what, you’re right—wait! What did you say?” Then everyone started laughing. He set the whole thing up. He never gave the steal sign and I was never in trouble. They were just messing with me and that’s how I found out.

I love hearing stuff like that. Seems like managers are always looming to mess with guys about their call up. What was it like walking into the Royals clubhouse for the first time as a big leaguer?

It was intimidating. I got to the clubhouse before everybody and met my manager, Bob Boone. I went down the tunnel and the stadium was empty. I walked up the dugout steps and walked on the field for the first time and started to tear up. I remembered all the coaches, all the hits, all the errors. Just a huge video of all these memories came flooding back to me. I was looking at how big the stadium was, how beautiful the grass was, how smooth the dirt was. All of a sudden, I heard this voice behind me say, “It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it young man?” I said, “Yes it is,” and turned around and Len Dawson was sitting there! Lenny wore number 16 and about five minutes before that, I was given my first Major League jersey and it was number 16. I knew who he was right away. He shook my hand and said, “I know who you are, buddy. Welcome to the big leagues.”

Les Norman of the Texas Rangers in action during a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers at the Joker Merchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport

Man, what an incredible way to start life as a big leaguer! And you still had a game to play.

Yes, we had hitters meetings and Mitchell Page, our outfield coach, took me to the outfield to work in the corners. We were playing the Rangers and I made a pinch hit appearance. There were about 30,000 fans there that night. I faced Terry Burrows, someone I saw before in the minors. He threw about 78-84 and I owned the guy. I pinch hit and he threw a first pitch sinker on the outside corner for a strike. I looked at the radar gun and it said 78. It felt like it was 105! The mound felt like it was right on top of me and he could just reach out and put the ball in the catcher’s hand. I stepped out and took a deep breath. When I was walking up to the plate, I saw my picture on the Jumbotron and it said, “First MLB at bat.” The crowd was going crazy for me. I thought that if he threw me anything close, I was swinging. I sat on that same pitch and he threw it. I smoked it. I could see it going down the line for a double, but Mike Pagliarulo jumped as high as he could and snow-coned it, robbing me of a double. 30,000 people gave me a standing ovation anyway.

When you were first getting started with the Royals were there any veteran players who helped you out along the way?

I had three of them. I lockered right near Mark Gubicza and we don’t even need to talk about how great he was. He’s a Royals Hall of Famer. We’re still friends. I’m the Director of the Royals Fantasy Camp every year and Gubie is one of the guys who comes down. He told me some really valuable things. He told me as a rookie to work hard, do as I’m told, work hard and be ready when my name is called. He said that if I had questions, to come ask him anything. Jeff Montgomery was the same way. Mike Macfarlane was the other one. I was the last guy on the totem pole, so if they ever needed an extra catcher, that was me. I never caught, but I was an athlete so I could do it. Sometimes I would help Brett Mayne and Mike Macfarlane in the bullpen. I got to know Mike really well and am still close friends with him. His advice was to have fun, do my best to contribute and not to take things too seriously. He told me that I belonged there, no matter how much or how little I played.

Les Norman of the Texas Rangers poses for a portrait during Spring Training at the Charlotte County Stadium in Port Charlotte, Florida. (Credit: Rick Stewart /Allsport)

Moving away from baseball for a minute, I have to ask about this. I saw you were a contestant on Wheel of Fortune in 2018 and did great. How did that all come about?

I had watched Wheel of Fortune since I was a kid. I loved that show and I love puzzle games.  About eight years ago, I was sitting on the couch with my wife and youngest son, Tayt. I was getting all the answers and Tayt asked me to have the last puzzle, so I went in the kitchen to start making dinner. I could see the TV from the counter and I just couldn’t wait anymore. They couldn’t get the puzzle, so I blurted it out. My son said, “That’s it! You’re going on the show!” I didn’t know this, but he had done some research and said we needed to make a video. I asked him how many people tryout a year and he said over a million. I said, “Son, I don’t want to disappoint you, but those are really long odds.” He said, “If I say you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it.”

About a month later, he came in from cross country practice and I asked him how his day was. He said, “Did you do it?” I asked him what he was talking about and he said the video for Wheel of Fortune. I told him I forgot and he said, “Well, I guess you’re a promise-breaker.” We went right upstairs and recorded it. He told me to put my Royals jersey on and put my hat on goofy. He told me to keep it under 30 seconds and what to say and what not to say. We made the video and he said, “OK, before I push play on this video, there’s three things you need to know. You will be on the show. I’ve never been to California and want to go to Hollywood, so you have to take me out of school and I want to go. If you win, I want 25% of the winnings because I’m the reason you’re going on the show.” I said, “Well, you’re definitely your mother’s son, fair enough!”

How long did it take for you to hear back from them about being a contestant?

My wife called me when I was on the road and said there was a message I needed to check. It was a rep from Wheel of Fortune and there were going to be tryouts in Kansas City. I went there and there were like 100 people in the room. They called my name and there was a puzzle for me to solve. I got it in 17 seconds. I won a pencil that said “Wheel of F” because it was sharpened down to the F. They called 30 people back into the room and I wasn’t one of them. They told us if we didn’t hear back from them by September 19, we could tryout again. A while later, my wife told me that I got an email from Wheel of Fortune. I called the number and it was the guy who called my name in the tryouts. He asked me to be in California in two weeks. I asked if it was for another audition and he was like, “No, you made it!” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me! I wasn’t cheerful or anything and I thought that’s what you were looking for.” He said, “Well when I called your name, you had such a mean look on your face that I was afraid and better pick you.”

They recorded six shows that day. I drew the number six, so I had to sit around and wait for the final show. I did really well and made it to the final round. I picked “place” as my category and the puzzle was “The Usual Hangout,” but I didn’t get it. If I would have gotten it, the card I picked was $100,000. I ended up winning like $12,000 in cash and a trip to Costa Rica. I got to take my wife on a second honeymoon for eight days. Then I put $3,000 in my son’s bank account for his 25%.

That’s an absolutely incredible story! Thanks for sharing that and the stories about your path in life and baseball. I have one last question for you. When you reflect on what you accomplished in baseball and the work you continue to do, what thoughts come to mind?

I just turned 55 in February and my answer is a lot different than what it was when I was 35 or 45. Sometimes you have to look behind you to see the path you took to explain where you’re at. I worked really hard for being a 5’11”, 185 pound late-round draft pick. To even get to the Big Leagues for a day was monumental. It has allowed me to become a speaker, radio host, TV host on a cable channel here called the Blue Zone Show for 12 years. It has allowed me to meet so many people, work with the Royals alumni board and Royals fantasy camp. That’s God all the way; I have to give him credit. He saved my life. He gave me my salvation as it says in Romans 10:9-10. He gave me, through baseball, the most amazing best friend and wife of 27 years. I have a 22 year old son and 19 year old son who both love the Lord, who both work hard, who are both respectful and kind and still call me Daddy. God has brought me through so many things and has shown me more love than I ever deserve. As I look back, everything is because I found favor in God’s eyes by giving my life to Him and he’s pulled me through everything.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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