ESPN’s Eli Saslow tells the story of Blue Jays top prospect and “Van Man,” Daniel Norris. Mr. Norris is the owner of an arm that can consistently throw a 92-mph fast ball and a 1978 VW Camper in which he currently resides behind a Wal-Mart in Florida.
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. Why, with seven figures in the bank, did he take an offseason job working 40 hours a week at an outdoor outfitter in his hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee? Would it do permanent damage to his back muscles to spend his first minor league season sharing an apartment with two teammates in Florida and sleeping only in a hammock? Why had he decided to spend his first offseason vacationing not on a Caribbean cruise with teammates or partying in South Beach but instead alone in the hostels of Nicaragua, renting a motorcycle for $2 a day, hiking into the jungle, surfing among the stingrays? And was that really a picture on Twitter of the Blue Jays’ best prospect, out again in the woods, shaving his tangled beard with the blade of an ax?
It was all so damn … unconventional. And yet for some reason, in Norris’ case, it also seemed to be working, so the team’s curiosity never rose to the level of complaint. “He takes care of himself as well as anybody we’ve got,” says Tony LaCava, Toronto’s assistant general manager. “He’s in great shape. He competes on the mound. If that wasn’t the case, maybe we’d be more worried about some of the other stuff. But right now, the van and all that is secondary. He has great values, and they’re working for him.”
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. Suddenly, Van Man was taking private planes to Boston and New York, striking out David Ortiz, packing his teammates’ beer bags for the flight as part of a rookie hazing ritual but still refusing to drink himself. He usually set his alarm early on the road and headed into the city with a camera to explore. “Start behaving like a big leaguer,” one player teased him, but what so many teammates didn’t seem to understand was that conventionality was the exact thing Norris was hoping to avoid. He was terrified of living by someone else’s code.
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