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Norris taking road less traveled to camp
Blue Jays prospect spends weeks living out of van, surfing along coast
01/21/2015 10:00 AM ET
When Daniel Norris isn't on a pitcher's mound, he's frequently on a bigger bump, like a mountain or the crest of a wave.

Daniel Norris has a tendency to surprise people.

In that respect, the man he met on the side of the road in Folly Beach, South Carolina, on a mid-January morning was one of many. In another way, the man stood out: he, like Norris, was living alone in a van.

"I had the French press out, making some coffee," recalled the Blue Jays' top prospect. "A guy hops out of his van. It was one of the old Astrovans, pretty cool -- I just have a Volkswagen -- and the guy hops out and says, 'You got any extra for me?'"

Norris did. As they sat and drank their cups of joe, the man noticed something atypical in the Volkswagen.

"I had my Blue Jays bag with all of my gear in the back," Norris said. "He looked at it and said, 'What's this?' I tried to just kind of brush it off, 'Oh, that's just my bag.' 'Blue Jays? You play for them or something?' I said, 'Well, yeah, I do... ' He was like, 'Why are you doing this? What are you living out of a van? You don't hear about that much. Usually, you guys are driving Ferraris.'"

There are those in the Toronto organization who've expressed similar sentiments to the 21-year-old left-hander, who, for the third straight season, is on a slow journey from his home in Johnson City, Tennessee, to Dunedin, Florida, for Spring Training, stopping and surfing as often as he can. And, yes, living out of his 1978 Volkswagen van as he goes. He cooks his meals and his coffee with a backpacking stove that's also served him on mountain treks, and he passes his days enjoying the solitude he finds on the road and in the waves.

"[The Blue Jays] have expressed concern as far as living in the van. For them, it's just, 'Why?' They've kind of said, 'Well, we don't think that's a very good idea.' I said, 'You've got to understand, I've been doing stuff like this my whole life,'" explained Norris, who, in addition to surfing and hiking, is an avid mountain biker and rock climber and also ranks as MLB.com's No. 25 overall prospect.

"They've kind of said, 'Well, OK, but we don't get it,' and I'm kind of like, 'I don't expect you to get it -- that's OK.'"

Norris is used to people in the baseball world not "getting it," but adventure in the great outdoors has not only been normal but an important part of his life. His father, David, is the second-generation owner/operator of Norris Bikes in Johnson City.

"I love the outdoors. I grew up in the outdoors and that's why I love it. I'm passionate about it -- being able to be with the environment and having a relationship with it on a personal level, because you're living in it," Norris said. "My dad's had [the mountain bike shop] for 35 years. His dad had it before him. I've been mountain biking my whole life. I've been hiking my whole life."


More on Norris' off-the-field interests


Surfing is a passion developed more recently, one he took up in Dunedin after turning pro. During the last few offseasons, he's made up for years spent in landlocked Tennessee.

"I took a few offseason trips. I got a board and started doing it a lot in different places along the East Coast," he said. "I went down to Nicaragua last year and went to a lot of the surf spots. Those were the best waves I've ever ridden."

Like any professional athlete, Norris sticks to a year-round training regimen.

"Being outdoors and in the outdoor world -- all the activities out there -- the action sports are a workout by themselves," he said. "Obviously, I am getting my [baseball] work in. I am in the gym a lot during the offseason, but I really want to make sure I get out and do something in the mountains or go on a surfing trip as much as I can.

"I went on a number of hikes this year, just because I live in the mountains. I took a couple [shorter] surf trips down in South Carolina. It's important to take a few days and enjoy some peace and quiet. I'm always going on journeys and hoping to find a little adventure. The offseason, I try to be surrounded by journeys, camping out and stuff."

The spring and summer months are a different story. But even during the season, Norris heads out when he can. He's surfed several times with fellow Blue Jays prospect and California native Blake McFarland and he's occasionally converted teammates who "don't get" his predilection for communing with nature.

"Almost all of my teammates think I'm the weirdest guy in the world. Most people [in baseball] think I'm pretty far out," Norris admitted. "But when I was in Dunedin in [Class A Advanced ball], I had my paddleboard with me. I took some guys out on that, a couple of guys who hated the water. They loved it! The next day, one of them asked me if we could go out again. It was great to see them get over that fear of the water."

In his rookie season, after the Blue Jays selected him out of high school in the second round of the 2012 Draft, Norris led some of his Rookie-level Bluefield teammates on a hike through nearby Pipestem Resort State Park in West Virginia.

"Some of them had never gone hiking before, so that was really cool to see them out there and enjoy it. It's important to me. I think everyone should experience it and see what it's like," Norris said. "I've experienced a lot of different kinds of things in my life, and I think the outdoors is something everyone should experience. A lot of people just don't have that opportunity."

Being someone who's always had that opportunity, Norris has gained plenty by taking advantage of it.

"Through backpacking, you really learn to be self-sustainable, and not only through backpacking but also living out of the van and even hiking," he explained. "That's a really important thing and it feels really good to be able to take care of yourself."

That's a skill set Norris takes with him, not only when he comes down from the mountains or out of the waves, but every time he takes the mound.

"As a pitcher, you're the guy making the pitches. You're the one the whole team's depending on. Living by yourself in a van, you've got to tend to yourself, cook for yourself, and if anything goes wrong, just deal with it. It teaches me a lot about adversity," he said.

"It's fun living like this and I love it, but sometimes you get frustrated if, like, the stove won't light or it's getting cramped and crowded with all your stuff in the van. It really teaches you to make the most of what you get."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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