By Kim Constantinesco
Honoring your past can be the greatest gift that you can give yourself, even if that past is filled with violence and bad memories.
Former Kansas City Royal and current host of “Breakin’ The Norm,” Les Norman, 46, grew up in less than ideal conditions. He was born into poverty and immersed in violence thanks to an alcoholic father. However, school, baseball, and religion — and their roster of teachers and mentors — saved Norman from repeating the same pattern with his own family.
Norman could have fallen into heavy drinking and drug use, but he was smart enough at a young age to let the positive outside influences into his world. Today, Norman thrives as a husband, father of two boys, motivational speaker, radio host, author, and TV analyst for the Royals.
Turmoil at Home
Born in Warren, Michigan, Norman and his sister lived under the roof of an abusive foul-mouthed “always intoxicated” father.
“We would come home from school and find my dad laying on top of my mom in the driveway punching her,” Norman said. “Later that night, my sister and I would be picking rocks out of her back.”
If Norman didn’t mow straight lines when he cut the grass, his father would make him cut a limb off a tree and then beat him with it.
“Those were the times he gave me attention. He never played catch with me or anything like that,” Norman said.
The family eventually moved to Braidwood, Illinois, where they lived in a trailer with little or no heat, no air-conditioning, an empty fridge, and a 1974 station wagon that always broke down.
Norman’s father had a good job at a nuclear power plant, but years later, the family found out that he also had a mistress, and a lot of his paycheck went to her family and alcohol. Norman’s mother worked 3-4 part-time jobs just to support the family. When Norman’s parents were actually home at the same time, he regularly had to cover his ears and eyes to shield himself from the yelling and abuse.
“School was my escape and my teachers were my cool mother and father figures,” Norman said. “I would come home from school trying to figure out what I was going to do that day to stay away from my dad.”
Out in Right Field
One day, an 8-year-old Norman came home from school to his intoxicated dad fighting with his mom. Norman threw his school books down, got his bike, and left.
“I remembered seeing some kids down at the baseball field. They were playing slow pitch, so I begged them to let me play, but they wouldn’t let me for the first month because I was a kid from the poor side of town,” Norman said. “At first, it wasn’t the baseball I enjoyed; it was just being away from home.”
Norman went down to the field every day to watch, and eventually, they put him in right field, where he picked dandelions because the ball never went there. That led to the short kid with a good arm trying out for his local baseball league, where on the first day of try-outs, he hit the ball and ran to third base because he didn’t know the rules.
“Eventually I developed a passion to play baseball. It was a team game. I belonged to something,” Norman said. “I had people who saw value in me as a person and as a player. It was natural for me to use baseball as my coping mechanism and my escape.”
A Male Support System
When Norman was 12, his father left home.
“I remember thinking that day that this was going to be the best day of my life because he couldn’t hurt us anymore,” Norman said. “My thought was if I ever see him again, I’m going to beat him to within an inch of his life, let him heal, and then keep doing it.”
Norman never saw his dad again, but learned just three months ago that when he was 22, not 15 like he was originally told, his dad, who was blind, homeless, and had cirrhosis of the liver, was hit by a car and killed.
“My father didn’t have a father. He was the result of a one-night stand,” Norman said. “After I got into my 30s, I realized he could have never given me something he didn’t have in the first place.”
Luckily, Norman had men like Bob Keca, his first baseball coach and second grade math teacher. Norman would voluntarily stay in from recess to work math problems with Keca, to the point where he advanced to a fifth grade math book.
“He was the first male to show me what it was actually like to be kind to someone,” Norman said.
He also had Chuck Kuchar, a father with two sons who played in Little League, but would watch Norman’s games and simply tell him, “You played a good game.”
“I was an angry kid. My dad left and my mom was doing her own thing working multiple jobs to support me. I didn’t trust any man at all except baseball coaches and teachers. Anyone else, I didn’t want to deal with,” Norman said. “After a while, Chuck started to break that wall down a little bit. When I got to the big leagues for my first game in Kansas City, he hopped a plane from Chicago just to watch my first home game. He didn’t tell me he was coming. He caught my attention in the stands, and we had dinner together that night.”
Cash Over Baseball
From his freshman year in high school to his junior year, Norman grew from 4’11” to 6’0″ and at 16 years old, that’s when he started to develop into a legitimate baseball player. That’s also when he dove into drinking.
“I could have had 100 DUI’s during my high school career, but somehow never had one,” Norman said. “Drinking became my escape.”
Still, Norman went on to earn a Junior Olympic gold medal in 1987. He was a two-time All-American at the University of St. Francis who tried out for the regular Olympic team, but injured himself. He also had a “huge ego.”
Before his junior year of college, he was projected to be selected within the first five rounds of the draft, but fell to the Boston Red Sox in the 23rd round. He didn’t have anyone counseling him on what he should do. He loved Boston, but decided that there was a certain amount of money that they needed to offer him or he wouldn’t sign.
“The offer was $2,000,” Normand said. “I laughed at the scout. Imagine the ego. I mean, this guy was handing me my dream, and I laughed at him because I thought the game owed me.”
He turned the amount down, but after several players didn’t sign with the Red Sox, they upped their offer to $30,000.
“I said, ‘You’re about $20,000 short.’ I wanted to buy a Mustang and other dumb stuff,” Norman said.
So, Norman didn’t sign with the Red Sox. He continued to play baseball at St. Francis, where he was a bitter young man. He stopped going to class, he was drinking excessively, and his batting average went from .400 to .280. The Kansas City Royals eventually drafted him, and ironically, offered him $2,000, so with no other option, he took it.
A New Escape
A cluster of shoulder injuries while he was playing in the minors took Norman away from his sport — away from the escape he relied on.
“I was in the clubhouse with my arm in a sling, and I remember thinking, I’ve worshiped alcohol, worshiped women, and worshiped ego, and it hasn’t worked out for me. My family doesn’t call. Radio and TV reporters don’t want to talk to me,” Norman said. “Here’s an ego statement for you: I was amazed that the game went on without me.”
Norman thought about ending his life, but was saved by some insight from his first base coach and former Yankees shortstop, Bobby Meacham.
“Bobby Meacham would always go kiss his wife first and then love on his three kids after games,” Norman said. “I noticed that and didn’t know why, but always caught myself staring at him. I admired what he had.”
Norman broke down into tears in the clubhouse after one game, and Meacham sat him down to talk about turning toward religion and having a personal relationship with Jesus.
“To think that after all the crap and filth that I pulled in my life that God could forgive me by putting my faith in him, I was blown away,” Norman said. “About a week later, I prayed and asked God to save me, and became a believer that day.”
The Wrong Childhood, But the Right ‘Map’
Norman still stumbled through his 20’s, but with his newly found faith, he dropped the ego and met his wife, Kristin. Together, they had two boys — Mack, 14, and Tayt, 10.
After re-signing with the Royals in 1999 and having the spring training of his life where he led the team in many offensive categories, Norman didn’t get called up to the main roster. He played in Triple-A for two years, and then decided to retire in order to start a family.
“I think all that stuff from my childhood made that decision for me. I wasn’t going to be absent as a father,” Norman said. “I just wanted to be there for them.”
So, it wasn’t in what Norman received directly as a child that he could pass on, but there was a gift in his troubled childhood.
“I believe we’re all given a map, and I was given a wrong map, but even the wrong map can be informational in telling you which way not to go,” Norman said. “I’ve been able to raise my boys the right way; with love and spending time with them, and treating them the right way because I already know every single thing you should not do as a father.”
Whether a loving husband and father, a face in baseball, or a voice to the positive stories in sports, Norman has been the master of his own fate. He’s made it this far despite his past because he isn’t afraid to step into life’s “box” and keep swinging.