Daniel Norris: Lived in van, beat cancer, ready to pitch

After inspiring offseason journey, lefty looks ahead to 2016

Daniel Norris: Lived in van, beat cancer, ready to pitch

DETROIT -- Daniel Norris beat thyroid cancer. Then he surfed in Nicaragua. He also went back home to Johnson City, Tenn., where he served as the grand marshal for the annual holiday parade.

And he drove his van to Oregon with filmmaker Ben Moon, a trip that lasted three weeks.

"His humble demeanor and lifestyle is a refreshing departure from the typical glitz and excess of pro sports," Moon wrote of Norris on his Facebook page.

It's an amazing life, especially one just 22 years old. For Norris, it was all one offseason.

That's all over now, aside from the offseason beard. His focus is on baseball, and yet, his life off the field has proven too fascinating to ignore. He plans on driving Shaggy, his 1978 Volkswagen van, to Florida shortly to get an early start on workouts in Lakeland. The meandering winter journey from northeastern Tennessee to Florida's Gulf Coast has become a tradition for Norris, who the last couple years has shunned a direct route for backroads and blue highways, surfing and hiking and living out of his van.

• Cut4: Norris drives fan to Spring Training

"In search of 3 things: 1. Eternal life 2. The strike zone 3. Good waves," his Instagram bio reads.

He attracted more attention for the van than he expected (or wanted) when he lived in it last Spring Training with the Blue Jays. He'd rather be known for his game than the van -- or the cancer, for that matter -- yet he can't be completely defined by the game. He leads an incredible life outside of baseball, yet can credit baseball for possibly saving his life.

 

@ben_moon shreddin' the surface in style. #yetiadventures

A photo posted by Daniel Norris (@danielnorris18) on

When he went to see a doctor last April, he was getting his arm examined, not a cancer screening. He made the Blue Jays rotation with an impressive Spring Training, but once the regular season arrived, his mid-90s fastball was under 90 at times, and the Blue Jays wondered if he was hurt.

"I didn't feel anything," Norris said. "It was just dead arm. Everybody goes through it, and I've had it before. I didn't feel any pain, just fatigue."

An MRI exam on his shoulder confirmed as much. Other tests revealed a bigger concern.

"They were just like, 'Yeah, you need to go get this checked out,'" Norris said.

Much like his shoulder, Norris didn't feel anything that made him suspect cancer. He went back and forth for tests while pitching in Triple-A Buffalo and trying to get his fastball back.

The survival rate for thyroid cancer sits between 98 and 100 percent over a five-year period for early stages, according to the American Cancer Society website. Longer-term survival rates are similar. But like any cancer, early detection is vital. Players undergo so many physicals that another exam might have caught it later, but Norris doesn't take it for granted.

"I got really lucky," he said.

Norris joins Tigers' broadcast

He was lucky enough, the growth found early enough, that doctors told him he could keep pitching and wait until season's end to have surgery. The Blue Jays knew of his diagnosis, as did the Tigers when they acquired him in the David Price trade last July. Who else knew was up to him.

"That was kind of my thing," Norris said. "I wanted to take care of this myself."

Norris waited a bit to tell his family, he said, because his sister was pregnant. Randy Wolf, his good friend and teammate in Buffalo -- and, eventually, his Tigers teammate, too -- figured it out. His agent, Matt Laird, not only knew, but was a confidant. Other teammates didn't know until he revealed it in an Instagram post following the season.

"I never had any symptoms, really," he said. "It was just mental. It was more or less just trying to focus on baseball for me, and that really kept me going, just focusing on pitching."

To say the mound was an escape for him would be underselling what baseball means in his life. Between prayer and doctors, he felt good. When he took the mound after a 54-pitch first inning in his next-to-last start in Texas, he didn't do it for a distraction.

"For me, honestly, wanting to pitch was [about] wanting to win ballgames," he said.

Norris underwent surgery in October at New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to remove part of his left thyroid. He was on the road to his offseason adventures soon enough. And on to offseason workouts sooner than that.

"They were like, 'Yeah, wait three weeks before you work out,'" Norris said. "And I was like, 'I can't do that.' So I waited a week and a half, I think. I started doing curls while I was sitting in bed. I had to do something."

Norris' surfing interest has taken him to the Nicaragua's Surf Ranch before. With a fellow surfer in Brad Ausmus, he texted his manager about the waves. He also barely missed teammate Anibal Sanchez, who visited later in the offseason.

The drive to Oregon in the van with Moon did not go as smoothly.

Norris' unique living situation

"We did a stop in Colorado, Utah, seemingly everywhere," he said. "It broke down twice. We were basically camped out in Boulder, Colo., for five days while it was getting fixed. It was frustrating at the time, but obviously looking back, it was awesome. ...

"We were both getting frustrated, and then we were like, 'You know what, we're going to look back at this and laugh: Hey, remember that time we traveled from Kansas to Boulder, Colo., in third gear with one cylinder missing going 35 miles an hour for 8 1/2 hours?'"

Moon gathered plenty of film material. Norris gathered tips for another hobby -- photography. His Instagram account during the season regularly features shots he takes on the road, often portraits.

 

In the end, though, the coolest ride of the offseason -- the one that might have meant the most to him -- took him through his hometown. Christmas parade director Deanna Hays told the Johnson City Press she was looking for an inspiration for kids when she sought out Norris as grand marshal. Norris took it to heart and had kids join him on the float from youth leagues he played in growing up, from Boys and Girls Club to Little League.

"My dad built a float for the thing," Norris said. "It was pretty cool. It kind of gave people a perspective of where I came from."

He followed that with a fundraising project for a nature park in Johnson City, helping a family honor a son.

Norris' solid start

The beard remains for now, but once Norris began his throwing program, the offseason adventures ended. And as he began throwing bullpen sessions in Johnson City, his thoughts turned back to last April.

He's not thinking about cancer. Aside from blood work and annual checkups to watch for recurrence, he's fine. It's the dead arm he's focused on preventing. He still has to win a rotation spot in camp, but he doesn't want to sabotage his season doing it. He picked up some advice from Justin Verlander, who learned a similar lesson as a rookie a decade ago.

"Last year going into the season, all I wanted to do was make the team, because it was kind of an outside chance," Norris said. "I was just crushing it every time, trying to make the team, and it caught up to me in April. This year, obviously I want to make the team, but I want to pitch a full 200 innings."

On and off the field, rotation spot or not, he can think long term.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.