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Beyond the Offseason

As MLB pitcher Daniel Norris and adventure photographer Ben Moon filmed Offseason, they forged a bond over their passion for photography, their love of the great outdoors, and their both being cancer survivors.
Outdoor

Photography and story by Ben Moon

Daniel Norris and I sat afloat on our surfboards, deep in conversation at Ventura’s gritty but surprisingly high quality point break, C Street. A chest high wave approached, and as I spun my board to catch it to the right, I caught a glimpse of Daniel gliding down the left-handed portion of the peak.

While paddling back to the lineup, Daniel’s bearded demeanor cracking into a huge grin as he threw me a shaka sign. “Amazing” he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to share that wave with you.”

From an outside perspective, he and I are unlikely friends, but over the past couple of years we’ve formed a bond that transcends the different paths our lives have taken. Daniel is a starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers — my favorite team from growing up in Michigan—and I’m an adventure photographer and filmmaker who has spent the past 15 years shooting in the realms of rock climbing, surf, and music. We first met over Instagram in spring of 2015 when he was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, and soon afterward we made plans to take a road trip during his offseason and shoot photos along the way.

I have a passion for portraiture, and have photographed close-up portraits of many of those who have inspired me throughout the years. When I switched from Canon to Sony’s mirrorless system, I passed my favorite Canon 85mm lens on to Daniel, mentioning that it had photographed two of his heroes, surfer and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and adventurer and photographer Jeff Johnson. Within a week after I sent him the lens, Daniel had posted a gorgeous portrait of a homeless girl he had met on the streets in Baltimore. 

“Who is this guy?” I thought, recognizing Daniel’s insightful and gifted eye for portraiture. Images of the homeless can often feel voyeuristic, but Daniel’s images draw you in, capturing the soul and humanity of the individual.

That fall, I flew out to Daniel’s hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee to meet up with him. Our plan was to drive his ’78 VW Westy named Shaggy out west to where I live on the Oregon coast, then continue on to complete the trip in Ventura, California. Driving across the country in late November, in a van with no heat or power steering, skinny tires, and a tiny engine turned out to be quite an adventure. 

During one particularly cold night in western Kansas, with temps dipping into the single digits, I slept in Shaggy’s popup top wearing of all my warmest layers, including a puffy jacket, inside of my sleeping bag. When Daniel fired up the engine the next morning to warm it up, we realized immediately that something was wrong as one of the cylinders was misfiring badly.

We limped on 3 cylinders across the plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado for eight long and frigid hours, never going above 35 miles per hour in 3rd gear. Driving required full attention, with the stiff crosswinds and passing big rigs nearly wrenching the steering wheel out of our hands. We used hand and toe warmers to stave off numbness and bundled up while driving. My kneecaps went numb more than once.

Finally, we arrived in Denver, as Shaggy sputtered, struggling with the grade of the off ramps. At precisely 4:59pm we sputtered into yard of the VW mechanic shop just before they closed for the weekend. Shaggy seemed to like these shops more than we did, as we later ended up breaking down in Carbondale, Colorado and Hood River, Oregon as well. We finally did make it to the Oregon coast, and the westward journey resulted in our film Offseason, as well as the behind the scenes piece Beyond the Offseason shared above.

While driving across the country with Daniel, many parallels surfaced between both our interests and influences. Photography. Cancer survivorship. Portraiture. Love for the outdoors. Similar inspirations… people, films, music. Patagonia catalogs.The Malloys . 

Living on the road in my van when I was embarking on my career in adventure photography, my go-to music was the soundtrack to Jack Johnson and Chris Malloy’s 1999 film Thicker Than Water . as well as bootlegs of Jack’s early songs. Years before I would ever work with motion, the 16mm films that Jack and Chris made such as Shelter, September Sessions, and A Brokedown Melody fascinated me. Watching how the water, footage, music and personalities all wove together on screen transported me to another place and sparked my own interest in storytelling. Prior to the days of music sharing and streaming, the soundtracks to these films were also how I often discovered my favorite new artists.

 

I had the opportunity in 2005 to meet Jack Johnson while surfing an irrigation canal wave near Bend, Oregon with he and surf legend Gerry Lopez. Imagine the smell of surf wax mixed with juniper, sage and a narrow concrete lined standing wave—this was how we got our surf fix in the high desert. Jack and his opener Matt Costa let me photograph their amphitheater show that evening and that singular gesture has enabled me to go on to shoot music videos and photographs with many other musical artists throughout my career. Daniel was also inspired by Jack, first by his music, then in committing to learn to surf, and has been motivated to be conservation minded because of Jack’s dedication to environmental causes.

In telling Daniel’s story, I did my best to tip my hat towards those inspirations, in the footage and especially in the music for both the films. I chose a favorite Jack Johnson track “Ones and Zeroes” for the closing scenes of Offseason and called up Todd Hannigan to create the original music. Todd’s title track to the Thicker Than Water soundtrack has stood the test of time. Collaborating with Todd and Fernie Apodaca at Brotheryn Studio was a surreal experience, as their scoring of Shelter had been such a positive influence on me while I battled colorectal cancer and the intense chemo and radiation treatments.

For Beyond the Offseason, Todd, also brought in Jon Swift, the astrophysicist and surfer behind the incredible “Run River” track in Shelter. If you listen closely, your can hear me humming the bass part of the closing track. Listen to the full soundtrack for the films here . 

A year after the trip in Shaggy, Daniel and I reunited to do finish up our trip with tour of southern California, something we had hoped to do the first time before the breakdowns. This time we traveled in my van, a more modern Ford Transit model and surfed the breaks near the Patagonia headquarters in Ventura.

During a tour of the Patagonia facilities, the always enthusiastic Chipper Bro pulled us into the cafeteria to “meet someone.” Daniel’s eyes widened as he realized this was none other than his hero Yvon Chouinard. After some laughs and small talk, Yvon invited us to come surf up at “The Ranch” with him that weekend.

The next day at a maker’s market at Poco Farms in Ojai, as we walked up to the gathering, I casually joked with Daniel that there might be a few folks that he’d like to meet. I introduced him to Jeff Johnson and all three of the Malloy brothers, afterwards Daniel was grinning like a 12 year-old kid through his thick beard. To me, the irony of this major league starting pitcher being star struck by this understated but legendary crew of surfers, filmmakers and photographers only reinforced the roots of our common bond with this community.

I stepped out to call Yvon about meeting up in the morning, realizing that he probably rarely answered the phone. He picked up on the first ring and kept it brief, “Let’s drive in my car, meet me at the Patagonia office at 8am.”

We stopped at his house to check the surf out front and as we walked to the overlook I had the feeling that this was a place I could wake up every morning and drink my coffee for the rest of my life. As Daniel and I gawked at the perfect sets rolling in, Yvon said, “Let’s have a closer look.” He expertly maneuvered his beat-up Subaru Outback around the rocks that littered the beach while sardine cans and old paperwork shifted around me in the backseat. After suiting up Yvon wasted no time paddling out to the shifting overhead peak. Daniel, still grinning, just shook his head and he then I followed.

Yvon mentioned that this was his first time out since shoulder surgery, then spun for a wave as I hollered in encouragement. That procedure is difficult to recover from at any age, much less at 79 years. He rode the wave gracefully and hooted me into one of my own before he paddled in, satisfied that his shoulder had some years of surfing left in it.

After the surf, Yvon offered us each a can of sardines for lunch then stepped into his garden to plant a few vegetables while perfect A-frame peaks peeled in the background. Daniel and I sat chatting in the sunshine about how Yvon indeed had his priorities dialed in. Driving back to Ventura, we helped Yvon change the flat he got after hitting a rock on the beach. Daniel chuckled as he quoted Yvon’s famous line from 180 South: “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” 

A few days later as Daniel was leaving to begin preparations for spring training he turned to me and said, “So many of my dreams came true on this trip. Thank you.” I thought of sharing the wave with him early in the trip, spending time with the community that had influenced and motivated my career and then dropping in on that glassy peak with Yvon and I said, “Me too bro, me too.”

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