Baseball’s Most Interesting Man

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Let’s just get this over with: Daniel Norris lives in a van during the off-season. Also, sometimes he shaves his sizable beard with an ax. There, done.

If you follow Major League Baseball at all, chances are you already know that. In fact, that might be all you know about the Detroit Tigers left-hander, because being the “Van Man” is the only thing sportscasters seem to want to talk about.

“Any time we play a different team, they say that,” says Norris, who watches broadcasts of his starts to work on his pitching mechanics. “Just out of nowhere. It’s like, ‘Here’s a dull moment. Let’s just bring this up.’ And it’s like, man, I’m a baseball player, I’m a pitcher, and I’m pretty freaking good. That’s what I want to be known for.”

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Indeed, his choice of wheels and grooming implements is only a fraction of the story behind Norris, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound 24-year-old blessed with the skills to be one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game. He’s got an impressive repertoire — a 97-mph four-seam fastball, an 88-mph slider and changeup, and a 78-mph curve. While Norris has had his ups and downs this season, ESPN broadcaster Aaron Boone backed up the hype during a June game against the Red Sox: “This guy is going to turn into an outstanding pitcher in this league,” he said. “There’s a ton of upside with Daniel Norris.”

As we drive around Detroit’s northern suburbs, Norris looks as if he might have just come down from a hike in the mountains: flannel shirt, Patagonia canvas jacket, scruffy facial hair, and brown curly locks flowing out from under a Bailey Seeds trucker cap. But while Norris may have the mellow makeup of a chill dude with similarly casual extracurricular pursuits — including surfing, skateboarding, and those freewheeling adventures on the road in his 1978 VW Westfalia, nicknamed Shaggy — on the field, he’s all business. The previous evening, he struck out eight and allowed just one run in a 7–1 win against the Cleveland Indians. During the fourth inning, after getting a first-pitch strike on Indians catcher Roberto Pérez, a rainbow suddenly appeared beyond center field. All Norris remembers about the moment was that Pérez popped out to center.

“I don’t really notice that stuff,” he says. “It’s just you and the ball and the guy trying to hit it.”

Of course, his reputation for unusual interests on the field isn’t totally unfounded. One of his side passions these days is photography. Norris bought a $500 Canon Rebel camera in 2014, while in the minors. “I was, like, I’ll get this and have it for a year, and if I prove to myself that I’ll use it consistently and enjoy it, then I’ll upgrade to the real thing,” he says. When he made it to the big leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays later that year, his present to himself was a Canon 5D Mark III. Around then, he connected on Instagram with adventure photographer Ben Moon, who had shot some of Norris’ favorite images, for National Geographic and Patagonia. Moon was in the process of selling one of his lenses, an 85mm, f/1.2 portrait lens, and after scrolling through Norris’ Instagram feed, Moon thought it would be perfect for him.

“It’s cool to see him learning so quickly,” says Moon, “especially when three-fourths of his year is occupied by baseball. It seems to me a way to counterbalance all that pressure and have a creative outlet of his own.”

Using the lens he bought from Moon, Norris now ventures off by himself during Tigers road trips, taking black-and-white photos. They’re not what you’d expect — they’re portraits of homeless people he encounters while walking around cities. He posts the best ones on Instagram along with recollections of their conversations. Norris’ interest in connecting with homeless people is nothing new. Back during his high school years in Johnson City, Tennessee, his mom packed extra lunch bags, and he’d keep three or four in his car to hand out if he came across someone in need. “I never saw a homeless person as, ‘Aw, they’re grungy, let’s stay away,’ ” says Norris. “It’s another human life, and they’re still grinding away just like I am. I’m stressing about baseball, and they’re stressing about if they’re going to stay dry tonight if it’s raining. So once I got the camera, I really wanted to be able to at least tell their story.”

During the off-season, when he’s not traveling around in Shaggy, Norris lives with his parents in his childhood home. His dad owned a bike shop for 35 years while his mother stayed at home. His older sister Melanie is an accomplished painter whose watercolor portraits inspired his photography. In addition to baseball, Norris played basketball and football in high school. A lot of people thought football was his best sport, but baseball was his true love. (He was baptized at age 16 in his high school baseball uniform.)

“That’s what kept me up at night,” says Norris. “I was sitting in bed and daydreaming about baseball.”

But Norris has never been your average jock. Four years ago, he became curious about surfing and began driving five or six hours from Tennessee to practice at Folly Beach, South Carolina. A fellow surfer, Moon suggested the duo make a road trip together, and last year, Moon made a short film, Offseason, documenting their travels. The pair drove from the Norris family home to the Pacific Northwest, a journey that took two weeks because of Shaggy’s breakdowns. They took a second trip last fall, through Southern California, where Norris met Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard at the company’s Ventura headquarters. Norris went surfing with Chouinard, took his portrait, and while driving around in Chouinard’s beat-up Subaru Outback, they got a flat. “I ended up fixing the tire for him,” says Norris, something he describes as an “all-time experience.”

Moon and Norris now text each other every few days. “It was an instant connection that I wasn’t expecting,” says Moon. One of the things they share is gutting out a win over cancer. Moon battled colorectal cancer in his twenties. Norris was diagnosed in 2015 when tests looking for the source of his arm fatigue found a tumor in his thyroid. For a while, he didn’t tell anyone about the diagnosis other than his agent. He waited two months before letting his parents know and put off  surgery until the season was over (during which he was traded by the Blue Jays to the Tigers).

“When I found out about it, I was still in Triple A,” says Norris. “I wanted to be back in the big leagues. But when that happened, I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m playing baseball — this could have been a lot worse.’ It was kind of God’s way of telling me, ‘Just have fun, you’re playing baseball at a very high level. It might not be where you want to be right now, but just enjoy it.’ ”

Lately Norris has upgraded his lifestyle — at least when it comes to his daily ride. This spring he bought a used Toyota FJ Cruiser so he wouldn’t have to deal with Shaggy’s breakdowns. “I’m always going to travel in it,” says Norris of the VW. “The only thing is, as I get older, it gets older. The last time I took it on a trip, it broke down three times, which makes for a great story, but it gets expensive and frustrating.”

Norris did customize his Cruiser in one way: He put a rooftop tent on it, and before spring training in Florida, he lived in it for three weeks, often parking on the beach. “I just enjoy being able to pull over to the side of the road and camp,” he says, smiling. “That’s something I’m drawn to.” 

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