Former Cubs scout Nickels reflects on his years on the North Side
A 1979 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled a young baseball scout with the Philadelphia Phillies.
At Clover Hill Park in Staunton, Virginia, Gary Nickels was scouting an 18-year-old outfielder from Robert E. Lee High School named Larry Sheets.
The writer, Bill Ordine, wrote that Nickels was "one of 20 'area scouts' employed by the Philadelphia Phillies to comb the byways and backwaters of America in search of new talent."
Ordine portrayed an exacting lifestyle.
"A scout's life is far from glamorous. He spends long, lonely days on the road, sleeping in motels, eating in diners and fast-food joints, dropping by to talk to high school coaches, team managers, umpires, local fans."
But Nickels reminded the writer of the essential role of a scout in finding talent in places like Staunton. "This is where the players come from. Without players, you can't have a game, can you?"
If it wasn't a glamorous life, it proved a fulfilling one for the Aurora native who spent a half-century working in the Phillies, Cubs, Orioles, Padres and Dodgers organizations before his retirement last year.
He is a member of the Midwest Scouts Association Hall of Fame and the Mid Atlantic Scouts Association Hall of Fame.
Chicago baseball fans will recognize the names of some of the players he scouted, including Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Grace and Shawon Dunston.
I spoke by phone with Nickels, who reflected on his scouting career, in particular his years on the North Side.
The 75-year-old Naperville resident was a star basketball player at Kaneland High School and pitched at Illinois Wesleyan University before pursuing a master's in sports administration at Ohio University, where he was a graduate assistant to baseball coach Bob Wren in 1971.
The team's catcher, Steve Swisher, would play an indirect role in Nickels' ultimate career.
"Scouts were coming all the time to see Steve Swisher, so you got started talking with the scouts and asking them about what they do for their job."
It was a reciprocal relationship. Scouts, he said, would rather talk with someone like the grad assistant rather than the head coach.
Nickels began an internship in 1972 with the Phillies. There, he began his association with future Cubs GM Dallas Green, who was farm director at the time. It was at Green's suggestion that Nickels began scouting.
In the 1970s, he said, "Traveling was quite a bit different back then. You didn't have a means of uncovering talent like you do now with showcases. You pretty much had to go into towns and find out who the best player was and take a look at them and see whether they were somebody that you wanted to follow."
Nickels said he would rely on such sources as Legion coaches, local umpires or even newspapermen.
After Green moved to Chicago, he hired Nickels, who was with the Cubs from 1982-88, becoming Midwest scouting supervisor.
Nickels brought immediate results, signing Dunston.
In Dunston, he saw "Outstanding athleticism. Physical skills. Of course, his arm. Everybody knows about that. He could run. He needed to be controlled a little bit as a hitter, but it didn't take that long. And he had the ability to play shortstop."
In the 1980s, the Cubs farm system blossomed, with such products as Palmeiro, Mark Grace and Jamie Moyer.
Nickels said he recently heard Joe Girardi, who was drafted by the Cubs out of Northwestern University, talking about all the great catching talent the Cubs had when he was in the minors with the Cubs.
"Joe said that we had seven or eight catchers in the system at that time who all played in the big leagues."
They included Girardi, Rick Wrona, Rick Wilkins, Damon Berryhill, Kelly Mann and Matt Walbeck.
He said 1985 "was kind of a unique year," with the Cubs picking both Palmeiro and Grace in the same year, "which is a pretty incredible feat, for a team to have those two hitters in the same draft. We drafted Palmeiro in the first round, and that was probably the greatest draft ever with those college players," including Will Clark, Bobby Witt and B.J. Surhoff. "We got Palmeiro 22nd. Barry Bonds was in that draft.
"So that summer, I actually went to Alaska to see Grace," who was drafted in the 24th round. "Grace went to San Diego State, and he was playing in Alaska that summer, so I went out there and followed him for a week or so and got to see quite a bit of him. And it didn't take long to figure out that this guy could hit. And so at the end of the summer, we signed him."
After his tenure with the Cubs, Nickels moved to the Orioles, where he worked under former White Sox GM Roland Hemond, whom he remembers fondly. During those years, eight of which were spent as director of scouting, the Orioles picked Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina.
He later worked as pro scouting director for the Padres before joining the Dodgers, where, under his supervision, the team drafted Clayton Kershaw.
Nickels said people think, "Oh, gee, you just get to go to ballgames? How much fun is that?"
But, he said, "There's a lot of work that goes into preparing and evaluating and writing the reports and dealing with coaches and parents and weather and all those kind of things."
Last year, Nickels decided it was time to retire.
"You get to the point where it's real work to get out there and see players, and the travel is not easy. And so you reach a point where you don't really feel like going to the ballpark maybe every day. And you don't want people saying, 'Well, when's this guy going to quit?'"