From nurturing his passions for surfing and photography to surviving cancer and the pressures of the pitcher’s mound, how Detroit Tiger Daniel Norris cultivates a healthy mind, body and spirit.
By Jeff Waraniak
Featured photo by Allison Farrand
Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris believes in the power of mantras.
If he’s on the mound and having a bad inning, he might tell himself: “Take a deep breath and go to the next pitch.”
Before a morning workout, if his motivation levels are low, he might urge himself to “Put the car in drive and just go.”
If his 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia van (affectionately known as @Shaggynorris on Instagram) breaks down on a cross-country excursion, which it did during one recent roadtrip, he doesn’t kick its pale yellow paneling and call an Uber. Instead he says, “This will be fun.”
Norris’ mental refrains aren’t just hokey phrases lifted from self-help books or sessions with a sports psychologist; instead, they’re intentional affirmations that reflect the internal calm that lingers behind his striking blue eyes and bulky 6-foot-2-inch frame.
But for all the phrases that Norris relies on to maintain his composure while training, traveling or slipping fastballs past Major League sluggers, there’s one that remains at the top of his rotation: “What am I doing today to get better?”
Riding the Wave
Norris has been a starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers since 2015, when he was acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in a trade for fellow pitcher David Price. Upon arriving here, the 26-year-old from Johnson City, Tennessee, was perhaps better known for his life off the field. That same year, media outlets from ESPN to Buzzfeed to Men’s Journal latched onto Norris after learning that, despite having recently signed a $2 million contract, he was living in a van for about $800 a month — and occasionally shaving his bushy mountain-man beard with an ax.
“I’ve never been interested in landing a big contract,” says Norris while sipping a coffee in Birmingham, where he lives solo during the regular season. “I’ve always just wanted to get better, be happy and play baseball until, frankly, I can’t.”
Norris, a devout Christian, has always used his faith to keep him grounded amid the pressures that come with being a professional athlete. In fact, per his social media accounts, Norris is “in search of three things: 1. Eternal life. 2. The strike zone. 3. Good waves.” (More on that last one later.) “A lot of people can pretend to live simply, but that’s just who Daniel is,” says Ben Moon, Norris’ friend and frequent travel companion. “There’s just some perspective and kind of an old soul there.”
Despite the simple-sounding nature of Norris’ personal and professional goals (perhaps except for eternal life), it hasn’t always been easy for the laid-back pitcher to meet them. In 2015, a year after making his Major League debut, he underwent a successful surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his thyroid. Since then, he’s been sidelined with injuries every year — a process that’s required him to rely less on his pitching speed and more on his finesse.
“Early in my career, the real reason I got drafted was because I threw hard — that was it,” says Norris. “Once I started getting hurt, I lost a little bit of velocity, so I actually had to learn how to pitch.”
Employing a positive attitude in the face of turmoil has helped Norris refine his style and maintain his notoriously strong work ethic. During the regular season, the day after a start, he hits the gym for a full-body workout, followed the next day with another training session dedicated to leg and core strength. In between, he sprinkles in activities like yoga, lifting, and running.
“Daniel’s very athletic,” says Chris Walter, head strength and conditioning coordinator with the Detroit Tigers. “He’s very diverse in what he can do physically and do it well. This past year, he really found a routine that worked for him. I couldn’t have asked for anything more for a player to be consistent.”
Between Norris’ roving #VanLife and travel photography (he often posts Instagram photos of the people and places he encounters while on the road) it may seem like routine isn’t his strength. But when it comes to training and baseball, consistency is paramount — even in the peak of summer or when a season wraps. “A lot of guys will take a couple weeks off to reset their body,” says Norris. “But if I do that, I feel like I’m playing catch up. I don’t stop. For me it’s just staying the course, all year, no matter what.”
Growing up in the mountains of Tennessee, Norris’ passions were shaped by his surroundings. In addition to baseball, he also played basketball and football, and thanks to his dad, who owned a local bike shop, mountain biking and other forms of cycling were regular family activities.
As a teenager, despite being more than 400 miles from the ocean, he became enamored with the music of singer/songwriter (and former professional surfer) Jack Johnson. “He had a big hand in molding my life in what I wanted to become off the field,” says Norris. “Trying to be sustainable and appreciating what we’ve been given and all of that.”
When Norris was old enough to travel alone, he headed for the Atlantic Coast and taught himself to surf. “Surfing will humble you,” he says. “It takes a while to get into paddle shape. When I haven’t surfed in a while, the first time I go out there, I know I’m going to be toast.”
Years later, he’s incorporated surfing into his offseason training regimen — a hobby that dovetails nicely with his travel photography: He’s hit the waves in California, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and a handful of other enviable surfing destinations, documenting the scenery along the way.
Since 2015, Norris and Moon — a professional photographer and fellow cancer survivor — have taken annual excursions during the baseball offseason. “We spent three weeks in Japan together and [Daniel] bought, like, a hoodie and baseball cap for his dad,” says Moon. “He doesn’t have that desire for consumerism. For him, it’s all about experiences.”
Norris is a talented portrait artist, too, as Moon can attest. In fact, the pair met after Moon came across Norris’ work on Instagram; he was so impressed that he offered to sell Norris his prized camera lens. “The first few photos he posted with that lens were stunning portraits of some of the homeless population in Baltimore,” recalls Moon. “He captured the humanity of those people with respect. I was pretty blown away.”
While chasing waves and photos, Norris has also ventured into foreign territory to expand his fitness routine. In 2016, he started training with former MMA fighter Keith Olson, who’d opened a martial arts academy in Norris’ hometown. Norris had heard of other pitchers learning taekwondo to boost their leg work, and found it helped with baseball’s mental components too. “When I’m working out, it’s half for my body.” he says. “The other half is to ease my mind. Every time I’m working out, I know I’m doing something to get better.”
That mental fortitude has helped Norris power through injuries and a cancer diagnosis. It’s helped him change pitching styles and stay grounded in a high-stakes career where million-dollar contracts are the norm. And as he looks to his sixth season with the Tigers — and someday, a life beyond baseball — his goals, unsurprisingly, remain simple.
“I’d love to play baseball until I’m 40,” he says. “Once I’m done with that, hopefully I’m settled down — and then I can surf the rest of my life.”