Blue Jays Prospect Marches To The Beat Of His Own Drummer [VIDEO]
He's not quite 22, and every morning he wakes up in a 1978 Volkswagen camper behind the dumpsters at a Wal-Mart and wonders if he has anything to eat. He rummages through a half-empty cooler until he finds a dozen eggs. "I'm not sure about these," he says, removing three from the carton, studying them, smelling them and finally deciding it's safe to eat them. While the eggs cook on a portable stove, he begins the daily ritual of cleaning his van, pulling the contents of his life into the parking lot. Out comes a surfboard. Out comes a subzero sleeping bag. Out comes his only pair of jeans and his handwritten journals. A curious shopper stops to watch. He's gotten used to people staring.
But Daniel Norris isn't what you think. He's not homeless, he's not a drug addict or a burn-out; he's quite probably the future of the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff. This is where Norris has chosen to live while he tries to win a job this spring; in a broken-down van parked under blue fluorescent lights in a Wal-Mart in the Florida suburbs. There, every morning, is where you'll find one of baseball's top-ranked prospects, doing pull-ups and resistance exercises on abandoned grocery carts. There each evening, he makes French press coffee and organic stir-fry on his portable stove. There, wearing a headlamp, he writes in his "thought journal" or reading Jack Kerouac.
He has been here at Wal-Mart for long enough that some store employees have begun to question where he's from and what he might be doing. A few have felt so bad for him that they've approached the van with prayers and crumpled bills, assuming he must be homeless. They wonder: Is he a runaway teen? A destitute surfer? A new-age wanderer lost on some spiritual quest? Is he the son of a long lost Saturday Night Live character, living in a van, down by the river? The truth is even stranger: the "Van Man" as the WalMart employees have come to call him, has a 92-mile-an-hour fastball, a $2 million signing bonus, and a deal with Nike, yet he has decided the best way to prepare for the grind of a 162-game season is to live here, in the back of a 1978 Westfalia camper he purchased for $10,000.
If a baseball life requires notoriety, the van offers Norris seclusion. If pitching demands repetition and exactitude, the van promises freedom.
He bought the van in 2011, just after signing his first professional contract, and it's been his best friend and spiritual center ever since. He drives it each year to spring training in Florida, this year stretching that trip out over a few weeks. He drove without a schedule from his home in Tennessee, avoiding the interstate and exploring the dirt roads of Appalachia, sleeping each night in the crawl space behind the driver's seat with his head tucked against the back door. When he finally arrived in Florida, he parked illegally on the beach and camped until local police evicted him, offering directions to the 24-hour Wal-Mart, his home ever since.
Morris has always lived by his own code, no matter what anyone thinks: a three-sport star athlete in high school who spent weekends camping alone; a hippie who has never tried drugs; a major league pitcher whose first corporate relationship was with an environmental organization called 1% for the Planet. He is 21 and says he has never tasted alcohol. He has had one serious relationship, with his high school girlfriend, and it ended in part because he wanted more time to travel by himself. He was baptized in his baseball uniform. His newest surfboard is made from recycled foam. His van is equipped with a solar panel. He reads hardcover books and never a Kindle. He avoids TV and studies photography journals instead.
"Nonconformist," reads one sign posted inside his van.
“Where else can you be as free by yourself in the middle of nowhere. Adventure is freedom.”
- Daniel Norris' thought journal
But all professional sports value their conformists -- athletes who sacrifice individuality for team, and whose predictable behavior elicits predictable results. Perhaps nowhere is consistency more valued than in baseball. Before the Blue Jays understood his convictions, Norris felt like the team had trouble making sense of his unpredictable life. Coaches, teammates and executives asking him questions that indicated a measure of unease.
It was all so … unconventional. Yet for some reason, it also seemed to be working, so the team's curiosity never rose to the level of complaint. Last season, Norris started the year in Class A, led all of the minor leagues in strikeouts per nine innings and climbed steadily into the major leagues, appearing in five games for the Blue Jays in September. He usually set his alarm early on the road and headed into the city with a camera to explore. He started behaving like "a big leaguer," one teammate teased him, but what so many teammates didn't seem to understand was conventionality was the exact thing Norris wanted to avoid; terrified of living by someone else's code.
On the morning in 2011 when his $2 million signing bonus finally cleared, Norris was in Florida with the rest of the Blue Jays' new signees. All of their bonuses had been deposited on the same day, and one of the players suggested they drive to a Tampa mall. They shopped for three hours, and by the time the spree finally ended they could barely fit their haul back into the car. Most players had spent $10,000 or more on laptops, jewelry and headphones. Norris returned with only a henley T-shirt from Converse, bought on sale for $14. It's been a fixture of his wardrobe ever since.
It unsettled him in those first months to see so many zeros on his bank account balance, so he hired financial advisers and asked them to stash the money in conservative investments where Norris wouldn't have to think about it. His advisers deposit $800 a month into his checking account; about half as much as he would earn working full time for minimum wage. It's enough to live in a van, but just barely. He never fills Shaggy beyond a quarter tank. He fixes the van's engine with duct tape rather than taking it to a mechanic. Instead of eating out with teammates, he writes each night in a "thought journal" that rests on the dashboard.
"Research the things you love, gain knowledge. It's valuable. Be kind. Be courteous. Love others and be happy. It's that simple. Where else can you be as free as by yourself in the middle of nowhere, or in the middle of the ocean, or on the peak of a mountain. Adventure is freedom."
For now he continues to live as if he is Matt Foley, Jr.; but instead of living "down by the river", instead he lives in a van, behind a WalMart. But then again, Matt Foley didn't have a 92 mile-per-hour fastball. Or a seven figure bank account. Right now, Daniel Norris is happy just being himself. Who ever that may end up being.