Daniel Norris is on the road to the big leagues, and he’s driving a vehicle that’s older than he is.
After signing with the Blue Jays in 2011, Toronto’s second-round draft pick celebrated by purchasing his dream car—a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia camper van.
Three years later, Norris is still driving that big yellow automobile, affectionately known as “Shaggy,” making the annual trek from his home in Johnson City, Tenn., to the Blue Jays’ spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla., with stops just about everywhere in between.
The 20-year-old lefthander eats, sleeps and quite literally lives in his van most of the year.
“I’m not really sure why I do it, to be honest,” said Norris, who’s been camping out in Dunedin since Jan. 25, weeks before minor league camp was set to begin. “Traveling alone and living on the road can be tough sometimes, but learning to answer my own questions can be very rewarding. I desire the journey, the adventure, and well, the surf.”
Norris took up surfing a year and a half ago and has been hooked ever since.
He says riding the waves is a thrilling experience, but as a pitcher there’s more to it than that.
“Surfing is an unbelievable workout,” he said. “It’s great for your shoulders because you’re kind of mimicking a throwing motion every time you paddle stroke into and through the waves.
“The reason I surf, though, is because it’s the most natural rush you can have. Riding these massive walls of water, it’s exhilarating and mellowing at the same time. It’s just me, the water, the board and God out there. And maybe some fish, too.”
Norris was drafted by Toronto out of Science Hill High in Johnson City and signed for $2 million.
After a shaky start to his professional career—Norris had an 8.44 ERA in 42 innings between Rookie league Bluefield and short-season Vancouver in 2012—the young southpaw managed to turn things around in 2013.
He split last season between low Class A Lansing and High Class A Dunedin, pitching 91 innings through 23 starts and dropping his ERA to 3.97, while recording 100 strikeouts.
So, what was different?
“I learned to leave my laid-back demeanor out in the Volkswagen,” Norris said. “And between the lines it was all controlled chaos.”
But there was more to be done than simply refocusing his mental game.
Norris worked closely with Lugnuts pitching coach—and Nova Scotia native Vince Horsman during his time with Lansing, and he credits the former big league lefthander with his recent success.
“In 2012, we were revamping my entire delivery, so naturally it took some time getting used to,” Norris said. “The organization did a great job of staying patient with me and reassuring me that it would pay off in the end. Even though I still have tons of work to do, it began to pay off a bit last year.
“Vince spent time with me on the side, working with me on my landing point and staying linear in my delivery. I can’t thank him enough for all he did.”
Heading into the 2014 season, Norris is ranked the sixth-best prospect in the Blue Jays’ system, but he knows he has to improve if he wants to rise up the minor league ranks and eventually land in Toronto.
That’s part of the reason he’s in Dunedin so early—to get a start working with the organization’s strength and conditioning coaches.
“I’m trying to get my delivery as consistent as possible,” Norris said. “No more spinoffs, no more cutting fastballs unintentionally, keeping my arm angle up with a solid foot every time, and missing a lot of bats. I’ll work extra hard on that.”
He might have to work on finding a new hobby, too, or at least learn to love the waves of Lake Ontario if he finds himself in the oceanless city of Toronto in a few years.
For the thrill-seeking Norris, who actually learned to surf in Lake Michigan, that could be a possibility.
“Every off day in Lansing I drove two hours to St. Joseph Bay—they’ve got some pretty good waves up there,” he said. “My first day out there the water was 38 degrees, so a full body wet suit was necessary.”
Norris admits that Shaggy has never been north of the border, but he did say he’s contemplated driving his camper nearly 745 miles up from Tennessee to tour his possible future home.
“I’d have to bundle up, there’s no heat in the Volkswagen,” Norris said. “But I’m always game for an adventure.”
This story first appeared on the Canadian Baseball Network.
Melissa Couto is a reporter and editor for Canadian Press. Follow Melissa on Twitter @ThrowinSmoke