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“The whole baseball thing is something I suppose I was born with,” Daniel Norris reckoned in his soft spoken, lost-in-thought manner. “I knew from the get-go that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, or as long as I could.”
The son of a second generation bike shop owner from rural Tennessee, Norris played three sports in high school before getting drafted right after by the Toronto Blue Jays. The left-handed pitcher cut his teeth in the minor leagues, eventually getting called up to the majors in 2014. 2015’s season started with him emerging from spring training amidst a swell of positive reviews and high expectations.
“People were predicting I was going to be rookie of the year, and everything was going perfectly according to plan,” he admitted.
And then things started to unravel.
“My body wasn’t right,” Norris' voice tightened. “My arm wasn’t working the way it was supposed to, and then I got sent down May first to AAA.”
“Which was, you know, at that time the worst day of my life. I couldn’t believe it.”
Promising pitching skills aside, Norris has also made a name for himself off the field. No, he’s not raging in night clubs or whipping around in exotic sports cars. Instead, when Norris isn’t in the clubhouse he’s on the road, living out of a ’78 Volkswagen van dubbed “Shaggy,” slowly cruising back roads in search of waves, climbing spots, and isolation. This penchant for a nomadic existence led to ESPN Magazine declaring him “the most interesting pitcher in baseball,” with scores of other publications following suit.
To Norris, his love of #vanlife is more in tune with the way he was raised than even baseball, the result of a childhood spent roaming the woods and mountains. His passion for the outdoors led him to even take a job at a local outfitter during the off seasons of his first couple pro years, not because he needed the money, but because he wanted to learn more about that world. In doing so he discovered a community of dirtbag adventurers, photographers and filmmakers like Jeff Johnson and the Malloy brothers, whose travels inspired his own desire to hit the road and explore at every opportunity.
“I knew when I got drafted I wanted to get the van so I could camp in it and drive it everywhere,” Norris said. “That’s what makes me feel good, I feel at peace. It prepares me for when I’m around 24 other guys for six, seven, eight months and I need to be alone. It’s not that I don’t love being in the clubhouse, there’s nothing better than having a team that’s all after one goal, you know? But it’s nice to have a little contrast, to get away and do my own thing.”
After the drop to the minors in 2015, the speed bumps in Norris’ career started to take a toll.
“I had ups and downs that year pitching-wise, like two good games, then one bad game,” he explained. “It was frustrating. I wanted so badly to get back to the big leagues. It consumed me, and every day I woke up stressed out.”
Then came a call from his doctor that would change everything: A test had revealed a malignant growth on his thyroid. At 22-years-old, Daniel Norris was diagnosed with cancer.
“It just immediately put things into perspective, you know?” He said wryly. “I was like, ‘why am I worrying so much about baseball? I need baseball to be my happy place.’ So after that I really focused on having fun and enjoying the game that I was playing.”
It didn’t take long for, as he put it in his characteristically understated manner, “things to just kind of turn around.”
Deciding to keep his diagnosis a secret from the general public, that summer Norris was traded to the Detroit Tigers, where he immediately pitched the team to victory against the Baltimore Orioles. Two weeks later, he smashed a home run at his first time at bat in the major leagues, a first for the Tigers – and the first homer for one of their pitchers in a decade. Finishing the season in good standing with his new team, Norris announced via Instagram that he’d had surgery to remove a tumor, and was now cancer free.
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To celebrate, he took off to Nicaragua and surfed. Then, returning home in the dead of winter, he teamed up with one of his outdoor heroes, Ben Moon, to hit the road.
Moon, an avid surfer, climber, photographer, and filmmaker, had connected with Norris via social media earlier that summer, around the time he got traded to the Tigers.
“I was just trolling through Instagram, procrastinating, I’m sure, and I saw his name,” Moon chuckled. “I clicked on it, and then I saw some photos I recognized of him doing his thing.”
Moon left a comment on one of the photos, and within moments Norris responded, leading to a string of messages.
Moon, 19 years Norris’ senior, was at first surprised by the number of things they had in common. As he got to know Norris, via texting sessions that would sometimes run until the wee hours of the morning, he found himself inspired to tell the pitcher’s story.
“Basically, he goes, ‘I want to portray your story the right way,’” Norris, said. “Which I thought was super and so out of left field. I never ever would have expected him to have interest in that.”
It wasn’t until after they’d locked in plans for the trip and ensuing film that Moon discovered the two of them had one other thing in common: Cancer.
When he was 29 years old, Moon, a healthy, fit, globe-trotting adventure photographer, had also found himself facing a sudden cancer diagnosis. After rounds of chemotherapy and a surgery to remove his rectum that left him with a colostomy, Moon beat it, though he describes the struggle as the hardest thing he’s ever done.
“Obviously young people have cancer, but somebody that you see who’s super fit and at the top of their game in baseball isn’t what you expect,” Moon said. “That’s a club you don’t want anybody to be a part of, but it’s also one that…. Once you’ve gone through that you understand… You have a different outlook on life.”
With the film, Offseason, completed, Moon and Norris’ initial camaraderie has fused into a lasting bond.
“We talk a couple times a week,” Norris, who described the highlight of the road trip being the relationship he’s developed with Moon, said. “He’s just a good person to have in my life. Even through ups and downs this year, he pays attention to my games and shoots me words of encouragement after them. I really appreciate his presence.”