Let’s start with the wheels. Draft choices who sign a big-money pro contract often buy a car. But Bisons pitcher Daniel Norris is a free spirit who reaches for his dreams and has squeezed out many of them already at age 21.
So when the Toronto Blue Jays gave him a $2 million deal after he was their second-round pick in 2011, what was his ride of choice? A 1978 Volkswagen camper van. A big, yellow one.
And when he played Class A ball in Dunedin, Fla., for parts of the last two seasons, Norris actually lived by the beach in the banana-colored mobile he affectionately calls “Shaggy” after the cartoon character in “Scooby Doo.”
Shaggy isn’t in Buffalo. Norris’ parents drove the old girl home to Johnson City, Tenn., a couple of months ago before the Blue Jays’ top pitching prospect got promoted to Double-A New Hampshire.
“My mom actually sent me a picture yesterday and said, ‘Hey, we got it washed and waxed and she’s looking really good,’” Norris said Wednesday in Coca-Cola Field. “I think she needed it from being down in Florida with all the salt water.”
(Remember, the ‘she’ refers to the van and not his mom).
Norris is the shiny new ride in the Bisons’ rotation and will make his home debut for the Herd when he starts tonight’s 7:05 game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Oddly enough, it will be your only chance to see him start here this season because the Jays are putting him in the bullpen, likely for a September call-up.
But who knows? The way Norris is going, it might be the only start he ever makes here. The 2015 Toronto rotation could be entirely possible.
He’s won both of his starts, road games at Durham and Lehigh Valley, and has posted XBox numbers: An ERA of 0.77 with 23 strikeouts and just one walk in 11∏ innings. He struck out 10 in his first game and 13 IronPigs in 5∏ innings Saturday, one shy of the Bisons’ modern-era record and their most ever by a left-hander.
In fact, Norris’ back-to-back double-digit strikeout performances are the first in Buffalo’s 30 seasons since returning to Triple-A. Buffalo Hall of Famers Rick Reed and Dorn Taylor never did that. Neither did Jaret Wright or the Mets’ era power arms of Dillon Gee and Matt Harvey. Heady stuff.
“You have to attack guys,” Norris said. “It’s pointless to be timid on the mound. You have to be a bulldog. It doesn’t matter if it’s Albert Pujols or a Little Leaguer. You have to attack.”
Norris, who is 6-foot-2, does that with a fastball that regularly hits 95 mph and some wicked off-speed stuff. You sit on heat, and you’ll get frozen by the big curveball and change-up.
It’s been that way all season really. In three levels of the Toronto chain this year, he’s 11-1, 2.22 with 148 strikeouts in 113∏ innings. And this from a guy who was a major work-in-progress when he was just 1-7 last season at Class A Lansing.
The old herky-jerky delivery is gone. Now it’s pitch and catch. Same arm slot. Same motion.
“Ever since day one I came in with our pitching coordinator, Dane Johnson, and I told him, ‘I’m bought in. You have me. Sculpt me to what you want,’ ” Norris said. “I said, ‘I’m a sponge. I’ll soak it all in. Make me better.’ It was a long process. I pride myself on athleticism, and I knew I could adjust.”
During a spring training interview with the Canadian Baseball Network, Norris had another interesting theory as to what started to change midway through last season.
“I learned to leave my laid-back demeanor out in the Volkswagen,” he said. “And between the lines it was all controlled chaos.”
A specialized offseason program to increase what he calls “my explosion” on the mound has really helped and landed Norris a spot at the All-Star Futures Game in Minneapolis, where he threw a scoreless inning. And in an interview last week on the Blue Jays’ flagship radio, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos pretty much sounded like the decision has been made to add Norris to the Jays’ bullpen in September.
“No doubt we could see him,” Anthopoulos said. “That was definitely part of the plan of having him moved up. He’s earned it. I mean, he’s pitched incredibly well.”
You might say Norris has ridden a wave all summer. Some people teach themselves how to play golf. Or to crochet. This kid, from the mountains of Tennessee, taught himself how to surf.
“I grew up seeing it on TV and I would read magazines like Surfer’s Journal and I always said, ‘Man, that looks so sick,’ ” Norris said. “These guys are putting themselves in situations they shouldn’t be in riding these massive walls of water. “The early stages of teaching yourself to surf are some of the most frustrating of your life. How is this little kid over here riding this wave and I can’t even get up? Then you start to get the hang of it and learn different techniques. It’s all relaxation. And it’s all worth it.”
When he played in Lansing, Norris surfed in 40-degree water in Lake Michigan. He’s practiced on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and places like St. Augustine, Fla. Then last winter came a big moment: Nine days solo in Nicaragua.
“If Minnesota was my best experience of my life, then Nicaragua was a close second,” he said. “Just going down there, living out of a backpack, staying in hostels, riding motorbikes to different surf spots and catching the best waves of your life. I’m kind of a loner and that’s OK. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
It just might. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, two close friends he came up with, have already graduated from Buffalo to Toronto. Norris is interested in chatting up Sanchez to see how he’s adjusted to a bullpen routine.
“It really does feel close, especially when I’m sitting in the stands here charting pitchers and you see people with Jays jerseys on and stuff,” Norris said. “That’s really cool. These people care.
“I want to be part of a winning team and a winning organization. You can’t fake that. If you don’t love it, you can fake it and you can go through the motions. But when you want to win, it shows. I really do.”
Norris insists he’s just focused on tonight. It’s how he rolls. But all eyes will be on what tonight’s outing means, for both the next couple weeks and the spring.
And maybe next year Shaggy will even find a parking spot along the shores of Lake Ontario.