Gary Nickels was focused on a baseball life since he can remember.
Reality, however, hit during his days at Illinois Wesleyan. He had shown up decently on the diamond in his youth but he had hit the end of the road of his playing career. That, however, didn’t mean his life in baseball had to come to an end. There were other ways to make an impact on the game that was his passion.
And 51 years later, Nickels is still having an impact on the game with his ability to see and project the potential of raw talent, an ability that has been a factor in Nickels being recognized as this year’s Midwest Scout of the Year.
Nickels got his first real taste in the non-playing side of baseball after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan with a B.S., and enrolling in the graduate program in sports administration at Ohio University, where he also serves as a grad assistant with the baseball program.
That has led to an impressive career in Major League Baseball in scouting. He worked his way up in the business, starting with the Phillies as an administration assistant (1972-76) and then becoming an area scout for the franchise (1977081). He moved to the Chicago Cubs in a mass migration of club officials in 1982, serving as the franchise’s Midwest Scouting Supervisor from 1982-88 before assuming a similar role with the Orioles for two years before becoming the Orioles Scouting Director (1991-98).
His resume also includes a stretch with the Padres (1998-2002) as the organization’s pro scouting director before joining the Dodgers, where he has been ever since, serving as the Midwest Scouting Supervisor )2—2-2004) and since 2005 as an adviser to amateur scouting.
When he speaks, scouts do listen.
“Gary is the most professional, punctual, organized and thorough baseball man I know," said former Dodger scouting director Logan White, who is now senior advisor to the general manager/director professional scouting with the Padres. "I have had the good fortune to have been hired and mentored by this man when I was a young scout, and he is the epitome of a class act in all facets of life."
The 2019 season was Nickels' 48th season as a talent evaluator.
And his resume includes scouting and recommending the likes of Shawn Dunston, Mark Grace, Rafael Palmeiro, Joe Girardi, Mike Mussina, Corey Seager, Jason Werth, Mike Mussina, Jeff Hammonds, Clayton Kershaw and Jim Bullinger, among others.
Nickels ranks his proudest moment in the game coming in 1999 when Grace and Palmeiro ranked 1-2 in most hits in the 90s.
“I was involved in recommending both to the Cubs,” he said. “A lot of hits for two major league hitters, both signed by the Cubs in 1985.”
His insight to the person, as well as the physical ability of a prospect, was underscored with the Cubs eventual drafting of Joe Girardi. Nickels liked Girardi when he was a junior, but knew it was not an issue worth pushing until Girardi’s senior year.
“I knew Girardi wanted to finish his engineering degree at Northwestern to keep a promise to his deceased mother,” Nickels remembered during an interview before the 2010 Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner in Los Angeles. So the Cubs waited until Girardi’s senior year before drafting him in the 5th round and signing Girardi, who after having a quality playing career has served as the manager of the Marlins, Yankees, and now the Phillies, who hired him earlier this off-season.
It’s the type of ability to evaluate a prospect as a player and a person that has earned Nickels the respect for his peers.