New Tiger Daniel Norris redefines ‘uniqueness’

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers are about to look a lot different.

Fitting, then, the newest Tigers player looks and acts a lot different than most pro athletes.

By trading David Price to the Blue Jays early Thursday, the Tigers acquired three pitching prospects, none more highly regarded than Daniel Norris, who’s just as much of a free spirit as he is a possible ace-in-training.

That was the first of several moves expected from the sell-mode Tigers before today’s 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline, as they look ahead to next season and beyond after coming to the realization the playoffs weren’t in the cards this year.

Later Thursday, they sent closer Joakim Soria to the Pirates for a minor-league infielder/outfielder.

Norris, however, was the headliner Thursday, at least from the perspective of the Tigers, and one unique individual — he prefers bikes to sports cars, staying in his Scooby Doo-like van over five-star hotels, frequenting independent-owned businesses over high-priced malls, and taking trips to faraway jungles over vacations in Bora Bora.

“Uniqueness is a pretty close description,” said Gary Allenson, Norris’ manager with Triple A Buffalo the last two seasons. “He’s down to Earth, very respectful.

“He’s not a finished product.”

Norris, 22, will make his first start for the Tigers on Sunday against the Orioles in Baltimore, and is likely to stay with the team the remainder of the season as the Tigers try to gauge what they have in the left-hander.

The scouting report on Norris: He has four pitches that grade out slightly above major-league average, including a fastball (around 92 mph), curveball, slider and change-up. His command of all four remains a work in progress.

In 79 minor league games, his ERA is 4.08; in 10 major league games, his ERA is 4.20.

“He’s experienced some failure up there, you think you’ve gotta throw it harder,” Allenson said during a phone interview from Syracuse, N.Y. “When he figures it out, stays in rhythm with the four pitches and is not trying to blow someone away with the fastball or trying to blow someone away with the nastiest slider, he’s gonna be pretty good.”

That’ll come with age, most baseball insiders believe.

Made 1978 van his home

Norris is already beyond his age.

A player who received a $2 million signing bonus when the Blue Jays made him a second-round pick out of Science Hill High in Johnson City, Tenn., in 2011 — and then went on a shopping spree of all shopping sprees.

Well, maybe not, but he did splurge on a $14 T-shirt — on sale.

His big purchase was a 1978 Volkswagen van for $10,000, and he’s more than made it worth the investment. During spring training this year, he took it to Dunedin, Florida, home of Blue Jays camp — and lived in it (in a Wal-Mart parking lot) rather than a hotel or dorm. That decision made him an instant celebrity, thanks to a piece by ESPN The Magazine.

He lived in the van just out of convenience. And he still owns it.

“It’s sitting in my backyard,” Norris’ father, David Norris, said on WMGC. “That’s just that adventurous nature he has in him.”

David Norris was surprised when his son said he wanted to buy the van, his dad calling it “hippie-type stuff.” But Daniel Norris had his heart set, and they picked one up 100 miles away in Knoxville, Tennessee.

One time recently when he was home, he told his father he was taking off. To the beach. At 8 p.m.

“I want to see the sun rise in the morning,” Daniel Norris said, getting in the van.

“He kind of comes out of right field on some of this stuff,” David Norris said. “He lives a real basic life. He just loves baseball.”

Most athletes would have taken that signing bonus and blown it on fancy rides or luxurious digs.

But Norris helped his father buy an old truck, and then, according to ESPN, turned the rest over to a financial adviser, who allots him $800 a month (“I’m actually more comfortable being kind of poor,” he told ESPN).

During spring training, when he was living in the van, locals thought he was poor — and some left him money.

‘Likes his quiet time’

When he’s not on the mound or in the van, he’s riding a bike — he rented one in Buffalo — or a skateboard. For fun, he reads, fishes, listens to music, works on his photography, hangs out at local coffee shops and simply thinks.

And if he sounds like a loner, well, outside of baseball — which has included, per ESPN, a trip to Nicaragua, where he lived in hostels and shaved with an ax — he likes his alone time. But that doesn’t make him a bad teammate.

“He gets along with everybody, though he’s not as wild as some guys are,” said Allenson, adding that Norris doesn’t drink or smoke. “He’s more introverted there. I think he likes his quiet time.

“But he’s a really good kid.”

Norris, who spent the 2013 season pitching for Single A Lansing, grew up playing three sports (baseball, football and basketball). He really took off in baseball, even though his parents never were athletic, and athleticism never really ran in the family.

There might be one connection, though.

Norris is a second cousin of Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, which was news to Ausmus when he found out this spring.

“He’s a special young man,” said David Norris, who long ran the family bicycle shop in Johnson City. “He’s a fierce competitor, but very laid-back.

“He’s just a kid, like anybody else. Yeah, he’s different.”