‘Please don’t let the money change me’

Norris and his van. (Photo: Daniel Norris)

He was far from the first player to sign a contract that would reward him with a $2-million bonus. He wouldn’t have been the first to drop to his knees before the cheque cleared. Others, though, would have knelt and given thanks to their respective makers.

Instead, Daniel Norris was beseeching Him for help in his hour of need. That hour fell in the summer of 2011 when the Toronto Blue Jays drafted the left-handed pitcher out of Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., in the second round of the MLB draft.

“I prayed, ‘God, please don’t let the money change me,’” the soft-spoken Norris says. “I was 18 and I hadn’t seen a lot of the world but I’ve seen what money does to people. It makes them into something that they’re not.”

Though he eschewed going to Clemson University on a scholarship for a pro bonus, Norris didn’t take the money and run—he took it and gave. He gave money to the Central Church of Christ in his hometown. He gave money to travel teams he played for. He looked after his parents. He just couldn’t see spending it in any significant way on himself. There would be no bling. In place of gold and diamonds, he wears a thin leather necklace with two short nails in the form of a small pewter cross. No designer threads, just a trip to a Patagonia store where he bought a few items of clothing from the style-free brand that prides itself on durability. No real estate. No golf memberships. Instead of the fast lane, he sought out the soft shoulder.

While Norris might have taken Matthew 6:24 to heart (“No one can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and money”), his anti-materialism tracks back to both family and a philosophical searching.

His upbringing was clear-cut: Norris’s parents own and operate a trail-bike dealership. “We never had a ton but we never wanted for all that we needed,” he says. “Sometimes it would bother me when I was young. If I wanted a new glove I had to go work to be able to buy it. But that was for the best. I don’t think that I’ve changed from looking at things that way.”

The philosophical quest is harder to get a grip on: Start with the hobby he has taken up since signing with the Jays, surfing. He had watched Endless Summer and other surf movies from the ’60s, and embraced the idea of a nomad’s life in search of the perfect wave. This requires the reduction of your worldly possessions for portability—not to mention a leap of imagination for a kid in the mountains of west Tennessee.

To take him on this quest, Norris purchased one item that rates as the antithesis of extravagance: a rusty but roadworthy 1978 Volkswagen microbus that he has christened Shaggy, an homage to Scooby-Doo.

Norris hasn’t tricked out Shaggy. Other than replacing the original starter, he has only invested in a couple of toy vans that he has mounted on the dashboard.

“[The van] has a way of focusing you,” Norris says. “If you have anything in excess it’s just too crowded, too hectic.”

If the van seems to be just an indulgence of a peculiar sort, consider this: Shaggy isn’t just transportation but also accommodation. He spent most of the past couple of years living out of it, parking it by the beach. He found waves in Florida, naturally. He found them even on Lake Michigan when he pitched for the Lansing Lugnuts last summer. (When Norris was called up to double-A New Hampshire in mid-June, Shaggy returned to his parents’ driveway.)

Shaggy didn’t make it on the vacation that Norris allowed himself last winter, a trip to Nicaragua, but even his time away was in keeping with his seemingly unnecessary financial restraint.

“I had some friends [surfing] there and so I stayed a few nights with them, a few nights in a hostel, some just sleeping on the beach,” he says.

Norris might seem to some like he’s spinning obliviously in his own orbit, but the difference between his values and his teammates’ escapes him.

“Everyone [in baseball] is striving for that next paycheque,” he says. “I’ve never desired money. The adventures on the road, the journeys, that’s what I’ve always desired. Money is there but when you have money, you spend it and it’s gone. When you have an adventure, when it’s over, it’s still in your memory for as long as you want. You can’t spend memories.”

The $2-million questions hang like belt-high curveballs over the plate. Where can a ballplayer find motivation to make it to the big leagues if he’s not driven by greed? After all, pro sports seems like an analogue of the market economy or, even in micro terms, its very epitome.

“My sister Melanie is an artist and I’m probably like her in a lot of ways,” Norris says. “I can find beauty in a lot of things. There’s beauty out on the surf and there’s beauty out on the mound. There’s a feeling that you get when you make a good pitch—that’s something that you can’t buy. That’s part of the journey and the adventure. The game has its own rewards. And to not be thinking about it in terms [of money], I think that can really help me down the line—success and failure don’t have to be anything you sign for in a contract or bonus. If you’re free of that, you can focus on what matters.”

It’d make a fascinating study in sports psychology, except you’d never come up with a test group—all the ballplayers with Norris’s mindset could fit in his van.

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