The drive from Los Angeles to San Diego is a two-hour spiral along the coast. It’s long enough to make your back a little sore and your mind a little hazy. Backseat dreams give way to freeway revelations, the kind of expansive thinking only found in the art of journeying.
A fondness for the open road is clear in the deep-set cowboy eyes of Daniel Norris as soon as we pick him up outside his hotel. Starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, at just twenty-four years of age he’s a self-titled old soul with a passion for baseball, nature, travel, surfing, photography –– i.e. the good life. Yet for this modern day nomad, it’s the good life reflected through a deeper lens, tied to a thoughtful awareness of what it means to be young and old all at once, to recognize great truths in open spaces, and seek out a humble existence in the midst of a fast-paced life.
We spent a morning with Daniel in San Diego before the Tigers faced the Padres. Grateful to step away from the pressures of baseball for a couple of hours, we took him to get breakfast in Oceanside, take a walk along Sunset Cliffs and daydream about surfing.
“Our manager is a pretty rad surfer and he came up to me last night on the plane and was like, ‘I better not catch you out in the water tomorrow!’”
So in lieu of waves, we got swept up in a chili cook-off, and learned that you should always order carnitas at a taco stand in the Barrio.
Pausing over his eggs, Daniel looks up, eyes steady, his voice a little weary. “Baseball’s a tough game.”
The Tigers lost the previous stretch of games and their losing streak is heavy on his mind. “Everyone’s searching for answers and trying to fix it.”
“Our manager is a pretty rad surfer. He came up to me last night on the plane and was like - I better not catch you out in the water tomorrow...”DAN NORRIS
With a soft, easy voice borne out of his roots in Tennessee, there’s a fireside crackle in his eyes, a sense of freedom, and a natural glint of truth that seems to hearken back to simpler times.
He grew up in Johnson City, Tennessee, a railroad town at the foot of the Appalachians, famous for bootlegging and old-time blues. “My best friend grew up on a farm and I basically went there everyday. We were always feeding cattle, running around, enjoying the outdoors. My dad had a bike shop so we were always on the mountain –– camping, hiking, biking.”
A love of the wild left its mark on Daniel, and even while traveling city to city, he always finds time for nature. “I definitely make a point to get outside depending on where we are. Uber’s a beautiful thing. We were just in San Francisco and I took an Uber out, went on a hike and cleared my head before a game.”
Talk of clearing his heard inevitably leads back to surfing. Even while growing up in the mountains, the call of the coast reached him at an early age. “The first music I ever really listened to was Jack Johnson. I just liked everything to do with his music and lifestyle. Once I signed pro, I had a few months to myself in the offseason; that’s when I started to learn how to surf on my own.”
Baseball and surfing might seem worlds apart, but as a pitcher solitary on the mound, Dan’s found the parallels between sports are often profound.
“I think it’s definitely helped my game. The way I feel when I’m surfing is completely relaxed. I don’t feel like I’m competing. With baseball, when I get out there the competition overrides the thought process. Sometimes I get going too quick because of that competitive edge. There are times when I try to bring in that surfer’s mentality and find my rhythm.”
Honing in on that sense of rhythm, he contemplates his team’s recent losing streak and his own performance.
“I’m notorious for being too focused. Sometimes I kind of blackout and don’t remember what just happened. I don’t want to be like that. Instead of game-face, intense, I need to relax and have fun –– because that’s when you’re loose and not so worried about screwing up.”
“Breathing is so important. Especially as a pitcher –– and I happen to be the worst at this –– I just stop breathing sometimes. Like the other night in Seattle, for the first three innings I just wasn’t pitching very well, kind of rushing through everything, and then in the last three innings I just kind of said screw it. I started taking deep breaths and just felt so much more relaxed and was able to make pitches. Sometimes that competitive edge –– go faster, try harder ––needs to be honed in. Our mental coach…” Dan takes out his phone and shows us his stunning portrait series. Photography is one of his major passions outside baseball. “…see, you can tell just by his face, that sense of calmness. He’s really into Star Wars and loves talking about how Jedis fight, and that technique of ‘not trying, just doing.’”
As we sip coffee and look through Dan’s photographs, it’s clear there’s passion for everything he puts his mind to. Yet everything pales in comparison to baseball. When he was just a little kid, his parents recorded him saying: “My favorite color’s red. My favorite food’s popsicle. I want to be a baseball player when I grow up.”
He looks out wistfully, his knuckles wrapping softly on the wooden table as intensity burns out of his voice. “There’s just no better feeling. It’s the thing you love the most. And when you’re successful at it – when you put everything you have into it – and you do it well, that’s the beauty. In the offseason, every time I workout, every time I prepare for the next season, I have every intention of being the best. Part of that is because I want to be the best, but it’s also that I have teammates, coaches and other players that come up to me and say, ‘Dude, you have everything there to be the best in the game.’ For me it’s just the mental side. It’s weird because off the field, I’m laid back, but when I go out there and pitch, I think it’s because my passion burns so hot. I need to care less, even though it seems like the wrong thing to do –– it would help me a lot.”
“Sure I’ve had games where I’ve shown flashes of greatness, but I need to do it consistently. And in order to do that I need to let go. It’s so hard because I want it so bad, but I just have to find that happy medium that’s so easy to say, but when I go out there I’m like a different person. I don’t want to be, I just can’t control it sometimes. There’s so much pressure on top of it. Pressure to win. Pressure to keep your job. Pressure to make the fans happy. Finding that breathing mechanism, something to help you get back into it is huge. Don’t try –– do. When you see a cheetah going after its prey, it’s calm, collected, just doing it.”
"I’m always on the go. But in the off season I’m going where I wanna go. Here it’s going from one big city to the next. In the off season I’m trying to avoid the big citiesDAN NORRIS
Dan found some fame outside of baseball recently when his friend and collaborator Ben Moon created a film. It featured Dan’s love of surfing, travel, photography, and most prominently, his old friend Shaggy, a beat up 1978 VW van that he lives in during the offseason.
“I’m always on the go. But in the offseason I’m going where I wanna go. Here it’s going from one big city to the next. In the offseason I’m trying to avoid the big cities.”
He’s already dreaming about where he’ll take Shaggy come fall. “The van’s been a little cranky recently. Last year I drove it from Tennessee to Oregon and it broke down three times. Kansas, Colorado, and right outside Portland, Oregon. We ran out of food in Idaho for a bit and lived off cans of cold soup. It got to be pretty tasty actually.”
As he recalls his campfire gazpacho, he smiles, leans back, and shakes his head. “People come up to me now and ask, ‘are you that van guy?’ When they ask if I’m the baseball guy I get excited. Right after that video came out, I had parked overnight at a Walmart. I woke up super crusty and when I opened the door there were people waiting for me to wake up, standing outside the van with my baseball card to sign. That’s when I realized I had to make some changes. I couldn’t believe it.”
He’s young, he’s scrappy, and he’s always dreaming about new adventures. “I’m definitely going back to Nicaragua in the fall. I love surfing down there.”
With photography, it just felt like a natural expression. His sister paints watercolor portraits and his father instilled the creative spirit in the family early on. “My dad’s very artistic. He’s always sketching, building stuff, working with wood. My sister’s watercolor portraits really inspired me to find beauty in the imperfections. With my portraits, I love the grains you see in people’s faces. I’m not good at making people look good. I’m trying to find what’s real.”
“I had just gotten a camera and was sort of playing with it, sitting at a café in Baltimore. And all of a sudden this homeless girl comes up to me and goes, ‘you should take a photo of me.’ She ended up doing all these funny poses. And as I took her picture –– there was a quiet moment where I just sort of saw her. I finally got what I was looking for. That’s how it started.”
“My favorite color’s red. My favorite food’s popsicle. I want to be a baseball player when I grow up.”DAN NORRIS, AGE 5
Dan’s made it a habit to wander cities he’s playing baseball in. He uses his camera to chronicle the mystery of the human face and uncover inner landscapes revealed in just a simple glance. They’re striking images that say as much about his subjects as they do about him.
A couple of years ago Dan beat thyroid cancer. He doesn’t talk about it much, and even kept it secret from his teammates to avoid unnecessary attention. Now that he’s completed treatment, it’s all in the past. There are far more important matters to attend to. Winning the next baseball game, for one. But the gravity of going through a heavy experience at such a young age seems to have broadened his spirit. I see it in the deep rivers of his eyes. There’s wisdom there; a secret to living life to its fullest, to playing your heart out, finding your ‘good life’ –– as pure and simple as it might be –– and damn well holding onto it.
As he walks into the ballpark, his broad shoulders dip freely, like some elusive drifter of the Great Plains. Baseballs soar across the field as his teammates rush around in a carnival of practice. The slap of ball to glove echoes across the empty stands, and as Daniel Norris fades back into the hustle, he looks back with a wave and an easy smile. He’s going home.