More Than Just the ‘Man in the Van’

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I’m straddling my surfboard off the coast of Nicaragua, my legs dangling beneath the water and my head cocked back, looking out into the Pacific Ocean, waiting for the next good wave. Sometimes surfing is a waiting game. You have to be patient.

I’m in one of my favorite surf spots, so I don’t mind the wait. Sometimes the wait is the best part. I love the solitude. You’re alone with your thoughts — just you, the board and the water beneath you.

The waves aren’t coming, so I turn and look towards the beach and into the mountains lining the coast. I think about the hike I want to take later in the day. About the PB&J I’m gonna crush when I get back to the beach.

About firing off the pitcher’s mound and dotting a heater down and away to a righty.

Wait … what am I thinking?

***

“You’re that baseball player who lives in his van.”

I feel like that’s what a lot of people think when they see me or hear my name. Maybe they also think about my surfing, or my photography, or even my cancer. These are the things they’ve probably read about.

And that’s O.K. I mean, it’s true. I am a baseball player who lives in his van. I’m a baseball player who loves surfing, photography, traveling, the outdoors. I’m a baseball player who had cancer. And I love the fact that people know these things about me. I think it’s important to tell people who you really are, whether they’re your fans or the people you interact with every day.

But I feel something’s gotten lost in all the talk about my off-season adventures and unconventional lifestyle.

Take a look above at my list of interest and hobbies. The van. The outdoors. Surfing. Now look at the term that comes before each one. It’s what defines me just as much — probably more — than any of these other things.

Baseball player.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting on my surfboard, waiting on a wave, and my mind just wanders to baseball. It’s the middle of the off-season and I’m out on the ocean doing something I love, and I can’t stop thinking about baseball. Or I’ll be on a hike, or driving my van down a desolate Midwest interstate — nothing around but corn or wheat fields for miles — and I’ll start thinking about pitch sequences or what the Tigers want me to do to get deeper into games. It’s crazy.

That’s because above all my other hobbies and interests, I’m a baseball player first. It’s what I’m most passionate about.

It’s the middle of the off-season and I’m out on the ocean doing something I love, and I can’t stop thinking about baseball.

A lot of times, people ask me, “When did you know that you could go this far in baseball — or that you had a future?”

My answer is, “When I realized I loved it more than anyone else.”

When I was a kid growing up in Johnson City, Tenn., my dad owned a local bike shop. We would always go mountain biking or on family bike rides. We lived up in the mountains, so a lot of my friends were into hiking, too. We were always outside. So my love for the outdoors comes from how and where I was raised.

My passion for surfing came from somewhere else entirely.

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Now, as you can imagine, there aren’t a lot of surfers in Tennessee. Well, around the sixth grade, I discovered a musician named Jack Johnson, who instantly became my favorite artist. When I’m passionate about something, I want to learn everything there is to know about it. And Jack Johnson’s music was the first music I listened to closely — it just spoke to me — so I wanted to learn everything about him. Who he was. What inspires him to create his music.

He was on the pro surfing tour before he became a musician, so he’s passionate about things like the outdoors, the environment and, of course, surfing. So that inspired me to pursue those same interests at an early age.

As soon as I was old enough to travel on my own, I drove from Tennessee to the Atlantic coast and taught myself how to surf.

It changed my life. Just the perspective of having to be calm and glide right into something as powerful as a wave, and harness its power to catch it and ride it — it’s so exhilarating, but mellow at the same time. It’s this happy medium between being super intense, but completely relaxed.

It’s a lot like pitching.

So I developed this love for surfing, and it all started because of Jack Johnson.

My love for baseball, though, came out of nowhere.

I have two older sisters, so I was my parents’ first son. My parents hadn’t raised a boy before, so when I was about two years old, they were like, I guess we’ll put him in … sports?

My dad didn’t play any sports. My mom didn’t. My sisters might have played a little softball, but they never got into it. So sports didn’t run in my family or anything.

Then I came out of nowhere and played three sports in high school.

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I’m sure when my parents first signed me up for baseball they had no idea it would become my entire life. I just fell in love with it. As a kid, all I ever thought about was baseball. I would be out in the front yard throwing the ball in the air to myself and making diving catches until dinnertime. I’m 22 years old now and when I lie in bed baseball is still all I think about. It’s a burning passion.

I can honestly say that my least favorite day of the year is the last day of baseball season, because it means the off-season has arrived and baseball’s over — which is one of the reasons I hit the road in the van in the offseason. If there’s no baseball, I need to keep myself occupied or I’ll go crazy.

Even when I’m traveling, my focus is always on baseball — on making myself the best pitcher I can be. That’s my ultimate goal.

I also enjoy the solitude. It keeps me grounded and allows me to recharge. It helps me remember to be myself. And the simplicity — I enjoy that, too. My dad always used to preach simplicity and being grateful for what you have. When you live out of a van, you have to learn to live with very few possessions, so you have to appreciate what you have. The first off-season I spent in the van, I brought way too much stuff. It’s obviously a small space, and it was so cramped. Now I bring less and less every year to keep it as simple as possible. Living with less, even if it’s only for a few months on the road, helps me keep things in perspective.

But I’m just not just surfing and hiking and wandering, completely detached from baseball throughout the off-season. Even when I’m out on the road, I never miss a workout. I’m working out twice a day, every day, whether I’m back home in Tennessee, out on the Oregon coast (another one of my favorite spots) or down in Nicaragua waiting for the next good wave. A cart rack in a Walmart parking lot makes for a great pull-up bar. Manhole covers and a bar from a surf rack make for great curls. You get creative.

Even when I’m traveling, my focus is always on baseball — on making myself the best pitcher I can possibly be. That’s my ultimate goal. I want that more than anything else.

It might be a little unconventional, but that’s the only way I’m going to come back to spring training and have a great season. I need to start out happy and balanced. With things in perspective.

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To pitch effectively, I need to be true to myself — to who I am as a pitcher — and rely on what’s gotten me to where I am.

I remember my first year of pro baseball. I spent most of the year in rookie ball and made a couple of starts in low A, and I might have had the worst ERA in all of baseball. If I didn’t, it definitely felt like it. I had an 8.44 ERA, and that was in a short season. I just couldn’t get anybody out. My coaches were like, You’re throwing 95 and we don’t understand why you’re getting hit so hard.

I didn’t understand what was going on, either. I went from being one of the best pitchers in high school to being one of the worst in pro ball.

I was always a really good athlete in high school. But for the first time in my life, in my first year of pro ball, I had started lifting weights. I got pretty big, pretty fast. And it just didn’t work for me on the mound. I was strong, but I wasn’t the athlete I used to be. It wasn’t what got me there. It wasn’t me.

So I started getting more serious about what I was putting in my body. I stopped lifting weights and started doing more body-weight exercises and workouts that I had done in high school. I got lean again. I got back to being the athlete I had always been, not the bigger, more muscular guy I had become. I got back to being myself.

The next year, in low A ball, I brought my ERA down to 3.97.

It was my first lesson as a pro ballplayer that I needed to stay true to myself and who I am to have success. Even today my manager, Brad Ausmus, always tells me, “Don’t try to be Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander. Be Daniel Norris, because that’s the reason you’re here.”

***

Like I said, I think it’s important to tell people who you really are.

I’m a baseball player who lives in his van.

I’m a baseball player who loves surfing, photography, traveling, the outdoors.

I’m a baseball player who had cancer.

And now I’m a baseball player who’s cancer-free.

If you didn’t already know these things about me when you starting reading this, it’s all out there. I’m not a celebrity or anything. I’m not a household name. I’m just a baseball player who lives a little unconventionally — especially for a major leaguer. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the way other ballplayers live. To each his own. I think it’s the things that make us different as human beings that makes life so interesting. I love learning about other people and hearing their unique stories and experiences and perspectives, and I love sharing my own and engaging in enlightening conversations with good people.

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So if you hadn’t heard about the van, or my surfing, or my cancer, you can Google it. It’s all out there. And it’s all a part of me. All these things make me who I am.

I just want to make sure people know that baseball is at the top of that list. That I’m committed to working hard and being the best pitcher I can possibly be. That it means everything to me.

I live my life in search of three things:

  1. Eternal life
  2. The strike zone
  3. Good waves

The first one is a never-ending quest. That’s one thing I love about it. All this talk about how baseball is No. 1 in my life is true, but above all else — even baseball — is and always will be my faith. That’s just in a category all its own.

But I was baptized in my baseball uniform …

See? It doesn’t matter what I’m doing. Whether I’m in the Pacific Ocean in Nicaragua waiting for the next good wave, or pledging devotion to my faith, I’m always thinking about baseball. I just can’t escape it. Probably because I really don’t want to.

norris