Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos gives a prepared lecture to his best young players. He calls it the "Don't change" speech.
Don't change what got you here. Trust yourself. You're going to see some things. Don't give in to the temptations of major-league life.
"They all change," Anthopoulos sighs.
Last September, he started giving Daniel Norris the talk.
Norris was standing there staring at him. The 21-year-old pitcher has the dead-ahead, deep-blue gaze you associate with prophets coming out of deserts in epic films. Which he kind of is.
As Anthopoulos talked, Norris began to slowly shake his head.
Anthopoulos: "I thought to myself, 'What the hell am I doing? He's not going to change.'"
Mid-speech, the GM stopped and walked away. He'd already scratched Norris off his "things to worry about" list.
Norris spends the off-season living in a 35-year-old VW van he calls Shaggy. Though he's a millionaire, he gets by on $800 (U.S.) a month. He cooks on a portable stove. He wears a miner's headlamp at night to write in his "thought journal."
He's also a good baseball player. Maybe a special baseball player.
Though they haven't told him yet, Norris will be the fifth starter in the Jays rotation to begin the year.
On Wednesday, he introduced a new pitch to complement his cut changeup – a sink change that breaks away from right-handed hitters.
Pitching coach Pete Walker floated the idea last week. Norris "messed around" with grips for a few days. Then, as you do, he used it to repeatedly embarrass major-league regulars. Baltimore all-star Adam Jones was a particular victim. Jones didn't look like he was batting against Norris. He looked like he was chopping down a tree.
A week from conception to successful implementation – it's not supposed to be that easy at this level.
Norris already had a five-pitch arsenal – two-seamer, four-seamer, cut change, slider and curveball. Anthopoulos said that when Norris is on, they're all above average – which presents an insoluble problem for an opposing batting order.
So what pitch comes next?
"I think I'm good for now," Norris said breezily.
If it keeps up like this, Shaggy the Van will soon be a holy relic of Jays' history.
When Toronto was considering drafting Norris as a high schooler out of Tennessee, assistant GM Andrew Tinnish brought him to Florida for medical testing. Once done, the pair were driving together through downtown Dunedin on their way to lunch.
Norris perked up and pointed.
"He said, 'Oh man, that's the car I want. That's what I'm going to buy if I get signed,'" Tinnish says. "I'm looking around for a Lexus or a Beemer. But, no. It's one of those VW camper vans."
Then Norris turned to Tinnish and said, "This might be a sign."
That night, Tinnish called Anthopoulos to tell him the story in a "Get a load of this one" sort of way. Like everyone else in the Jays organization, Tinnish has settled into a gently baffled admiration for Norris's eccentricities.
"It is 1,000-per-cent genuine," Tinnish says.
Norris ended up buying a similar van.
That's a big deal in this environment. Professional athletes have a high tolerance for talented oddballs, but they cannot bear a phony.
Even as the universe was speaking to him through automobiles, Norris was still set to attend Clemson University. He chose the Jays and a $2-million signing bonus instead.
As previously noted, money doesn't mean much to him. He may actually dislike it.
He took the professional route because the Jays painted him a picture: You can go to college, where they expect you to win now, and be buried. Or you can come to the minors, where we don't care about wins or numbers, and get better.
Norris had obvious talent, but it was camouflaged by a variety of mechanical faults. It was a rough start. As current bullpen coach and former roving instructor Dane Johnson puts it, "He spent a lot of time backing up third."
But he listened, and he got better. In a hurry. Sometimes in a week.
As he got closer to the top level, the Jays went out of their way to be seen embracing his quirks. When Norris decided this spring to park his van at a Clearwater Wal-Mart and live there, they shrugged.
"The only thing we worried about was that he'd get mugged," Anthopoulos said.
"They're doing a really good job of letting me just be who I am," Norris said. "I think they know that's what makes me tick, and make me work. So they've been really cool about it."
Everybody wants a piece of Norris now. ESPN called him "the most interesting pitcher in baseball." Good Morning America is sniffing around. One guesses the attraction is three-parts Kerouacian non-conformism and one-part good looks, mixed up in a national-pastime batter. Like all great counterculture heroes, Norris is familiar and foreign at the same time.
The only real fear you have is that this will all get old in a hurry. For Norris, if not for the rest of us. Every time the team stops in a new city this year, he's going to be chum for local media sharks. Everyone will want to mine his story for new tidbits. After a while, it's going to be hard to tell if people are nodding along with him, or just ogling his otherness.
On Wednesday, he was asked how he'd describe the day in his thought journal.
"I don't know. 'Good job.' 'Keep it going.'"
You'll do a bit more than that, right?
"Yeah. I'll write it in cursive."
Norris laughed at his own little joke. He knew he was being ribbed. It didn't bother him in the least.
Maybe that's the key to Norris. He finds the rest of us a whole lot weirder than we find him. Based on how things are turning out, he's right.