Niyo: After cancer scare, Norris lives life to fullest

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Daniel Norris could say a dead arm helped save his life.

But that’d be overly dramatic, and probably not all that accurate. Besides, the Tigers’ promising young left-hander — acquired from Toronto in the deadline deal for David Price last summer — would rather not spend much time talking about the accidental cancer discovery last April. Or the malignant tumor a surgeon removed from his neck last October. Or the unsettling months in between as his nonconformist life and his budding career all took a sharp detour into “uncharted waters” in 2015.

No, the 22-year-old Norris would rather talk about his other offseason adventures, including a trek from his home in Tennessee to the Pacific Northwest in that now-infamous 1978 Volkswagen bus — the one he bought for $10,000 and turned into a makeshift home the last two years during spring training with the Blue Jays. Yet as the Tigers kicked off their winter caravan Thursday in Detroit, Norris knew he’d be asked to start where he left off last fall, with an Instagram post announcing he’d be undergoing surgery to deal with a thyroid cancer diagnosis he’d kept largely to himself.

The Tigers’ brass knew about it, but not many of Norris’ new teammates in Detroit did. And that public admission — a couple of weeks after his season-ending shutout win in Chicago -- certainly came as a shock to fans, just as it had to Norris six months earlier when a “dead-arm” phase earned him a trip to the hospital for an MRI and a demotion to Triple-A Buffalo.

The talented lefty and one of the Blue Jays’ top prospects had been throwing 95-97 mph in spring training, having gone all out in a bid to make the big-league roster. But by April he was having trouble touching 90 mph on the radar gun.

“It’s kind of crazy — I got really lucky, actually,” said Norris, who got good news about his shoulder —the MRI showed nothing structurally wrong there — along with an alarming referral to further investigate a nodule on his thyroid.

A month later, more tests confirmed a cancer diagnosis. And though the prognosis was good, Norris was able to put off surgery until after the season, it wasn’t easy, pitching in the minors and wondering what was next, personally as well as professionally.

Moving forward

Norris said he leaned on his family and his friends, including agent Matt Laird, as well as his faith — “It gives me something to help find peace,” he says — as he worked through it all. The July 30 trade to Detroit offered a new opportunity, and Norris quickly took advantage, showing off a rejuvenated arm in a couple of impressive starts for the Tigers before an oblique injury sent him to the disabled list for a month.

He showed some more when he returned, tossing five perfect innings before getting lifted on a pitch count Sept. 22 in his final home start of the season, a hopeful sign for the Tigers at the end of a disappointing season.

“I felt like myself and felt like I had the life back in my arm,” he said.

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And after successful surgery at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, he was back to his old life rather quickly.

He spent a week again in Nicaragua — one of his favorite spots — hanging out and catching waves with brothers Luke and Travis Boychuk, who built their own “surf ranch,” an action-sports resort in San Juan Del Sur. Thursday morning, Anibal Sanchez told him he’d met the Boychuks this offseason, too.

“Small world,” laughed Norris, who is sporting a long, shaggy beard that he’ll soon shed for spring training.

His van — also nicknamed “Shaggy” — will make the trip to Florida with him, he says. And this summer, it made the trip from his childhood home in Johnson City, Tenn., all the way to Cannon Beach, Oregon, as Norris and Ben Moon, a well-known photographer/filmmaker and rock climber, embarked on a three-week odyssey. Moon, a fellow cancer survivor, reached out to Norris after reading an ESPN Magazine profile about him last spring, and the two struck up a friendship. Norris is an amateur photographer himself — his sister, Melanie, is an accomplished painter —and he’s using a portrait lens these days that used to belong to Moon.

The van broke down a couple of times — the pair had to drive from Kansas City to Boulder, Colo., in third gear thanks to a dropped valve seat — but that just added to the stories. They spent several days in Boulder hanging out with Moon’s friend, Scott Jurek, the ultramarathoner who recently set the record for the fastest completion (47 days) of the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail. And they ended it with a week in Oregon at the home of another of Moon’s pals, Israel Nebeker, lead singer for the indie folk collective Blind Pilot. And it turns out the band’s drummer, Ryan Dobrowski, is a “huge Tigers fan,” Norris said.

Shooting to start

Small world, indeed. But now it’s back to baseball, and Norris, who already has thrown one bullpen session this winter — he’ll throw another this weekend before heading to Lakeland early next week —is trying a slightly different approach.

Heeding the advice of Justin Verlander, who told him to “prepare for 200 innings (this season) rather than 25 in March,” he’s taking a longer view, with a spot in the rotation likely waiting — “That’s his to win,” general manager Al Avila says — though not guaranteed.

“Last year, all I wanted to do was make the team,” Norris said. “And it caught up to me in April.”

This time, he’s thinking beyond that, eager to get to work with new pitching coach Rich Dubee and “stoked” to see what this $200 million roster really looks like.

“But for me, I just want to establish myself, get here, feel comfortable, have confidence,” Norris said, “and then go from there. …

“I want to be known for baseball. I don’t want to be known for the van, I don’t want to be known for the cancer.”

He doesn’t even want to be “known for the home run,” he adds, though it was pretty cool, that 420-foot shot he hit off Jon Lester at Wrigley Field in August in his first professional at-bat.

“I want to be known for pitching, and striking people out,” Norris said.

“That’s my focus. I want to be the best pitcher I can be. I want to make a name for myself on that little circle in the middle of the diamond. That’s what I want. That’s what I’ve desired my whole life. And we’re getting there.”

The detours, he says, are just part of the journey.