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Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Fascinating Man

Daniel Norris wearing baseball mit
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Daniel Norris, starting pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, is white-knuckling the passenger-side shotgun door as Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard drives way too fast down the Hollister Ranch beach. “He’s just crushing rocks in his Subaru, playing cat-and-mouse with the tide,” Norris, over the phone during the Tigers’ three-game series in Cleveland, tells The Manual.

Never mind how this motley crew of Chouinard, Norris, and Norris’s friend arrived at this remote stretch of Southern California waterfront. Hollister Ranch is the unicorn of surf spots, a 14,000-acre privately owned piece of coast that has remained largely untouched by development since primitive man walked across the Bering Strait. Public access is restricted, and as a working cattle ranch, more cows than people see it every year. To surf its storied, uncrowded waves, you have to know someone who knows someone, and with Chouinard, Norris had hit the jackpot.

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Daniel Norris inside yellow van
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Wrapping up a three-hour surf session and then enjoying a lunch of canned sardines care of Chouinard’s largesse, the billionaire was now chauffeuring them in his very dented vehicle toward the exit when they heard it. As Norris remembers, whomp whomp whomp whomp whomp.

“‘Yvon, I think we have a flat,’” Norris says. “He’s like, ‘No, no, no, we’re good.’”

Norris and his friend exchanged looks, then, “‘’Yvon, I’m pretty sure we have a flat.’”

And so Chouinard, founder of the definitive B-corporation and pioneering alpinist, pulls over, and he, a photographer, and a Major League ballplayer all get out to confirm a very, very flat tire.

“He just looks at it, and he looks at me, and he kicks it. ‘I don’t even think I have a warranty on it any more,’” Norris says, laughing. “Classic one-liner.”

(The Manual was unable to confirm this story through Chouinard directly. “Yvon is traveling overseas for the next month or so and is blissfully out of communication,” a rep for Patagonia wrote. “If [Norris] says that is what happened, feel free to use it in your story.”)

Daniel Norris #44 of the Detroit Tigers delivers a pitch
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It’s remarkable in its own right that Norris, a 28-year-old from the Tennessee side of the North Carolina and Virginia borders, would end up in California bouncing around with one of its pre-eminent citizens. But the more you learn about Norris, the more it just kind of . . . makes sense. Recruited to Clemson to play baseball, he instead forwent a collegiate career and was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, where he ground out three years in the minors, hopping from team to team, before being called up to the majors late in the 2014 season. There are no regrets: “Not that I wasn’t good at school, but I loved baseball and I wanted to jump right into it,” he says. “It’s been a fun journey.”

But even while developing in the minors, Norris was, well, different. A 2015 profile by ESPN captured it beautifully: Pre-season baseball in Florida, the Jays prospect, in whom the team had invested millions of dollars, was living in a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia parked in a Walmart parking lot, reading Jack Kerouac and going to bed early. He was that kind of different.

Traded to the Tigers later that year, Norris has since dealt with his fair share of adversity, including four stints on the disabled list while with Detroit alone. And yet, year after year, he’s back and better than before. He recently signed a one-year, $3.5-million contract at the beginning of 2021.

But come the offseason? He’s still living in a van, cruising the California coast.

If anything, Norris has become more entrenched in his ways as he’s progressed through his career. During his non-playing months, he wakes at dawn and drives from north of Santa Barbara down to Ventura, hunting waves. After a few hours in the water, he drops by Peak Performance Project, a Santa Barbara training center where professional athletes across sports build fitness for the field. Then it’s back into the water for another few hours of surfing.

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While Norris is quick to credit the P3 team for keeping him healthy, he nearly contradicts himself a few minutes later. “If anything, [surfing has] helped my career,” he says. “The conditioning aspect is incredible — to stay in shape, but also to have fun and get your mind off baseball when it’s not going well.”

Norris, who grew up closer to the mountains than the ocean, was introduced to surfing through the gateway drug of Jack Johnson. While most think of Johnson as a Rainbow Sandals-wearing beach bum who always shows up to the party with an acoustic guitar, music was a secondary or tertiary career after the job of a professional surfer. Norris says the first record he ever bought, at age six, was one of Johnson’s, and from there, he followed the musician’s footprints in the sand to his film production company The Moonshine Conspiracy. Rather than the activity of surfing, Johnson’s films, including The September Sessions, Shelter, and Thicker Than Water, captured the lifestyle of surfing. “Just really the art of it is what I’m in love with,” Norris says. “It’s something I envision doing the rest of my life.”

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It was these videos that inspired a boy from Tennessee to learn to surf, which drew him to California where he met the Malloys, a surfing family that has offshoots in everything from big-wave surfing to natural rubber wetsuits and filmmaking. (Chris Malloy and cousin Emmett Malloy co-directed Thicker with Johnson.) Oh, and to close the circle? Once drawing a paycheck from Hurley as athletes, brothers Chris, Keith, and Dan abandoned ship en masse to sign with Chouinard’s Patagonia in 2010, where they breathed new life into the surfing side of the business.

“I fell in love with that kind of dirtbag lifestyle,” Norris says. “That’s what really inspired me to do the whole van. It’s been really cool for it to come full circle and get to hang with all those guys.”

“Hang” is an understatement; Norris spends Thankgivings with Chris Malloy and his family, and during a recent road series in Anaheim, the Malloys were Norris’s guests when the Tigers played the Angels. “Daniel is a rare breed,” Malloy tells The Manual. “He has a lion’s heart and a humble heart at the same time.”

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And that brings us back to the start: A Major League ballplayer co-piloting Yvon Chouinard’s dented Subaru, eating tinned fish and then changing a tire as the “old, crusty guy” looks on. “He’s a hero,” Norris says, laughing. “It was a cool memory.”

No one, from teammates to coaches, pundits, or critics, questions Norris’s loyalty to baseball. But for Norris himself, surfing has captured his imagination in a way that will long outlive his career on the mound. In fact, when speaking about his new relationship with Bulldog Skincare grooming products, he speaks of their benefits from the perspective of surfer rather than a pro ballplayer. “You know how harsh that lifestyle can be,” he says, before explaining not the effect of midday on the diamond but “six, seven hours a day in the water, the saltwater and sun and sunscreen.” Belatedly, almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Even post-game, going back to the house and the hotel.”

What Norris is most excited about, it seems, isn’t developing new pitches or strengthening his game. If anything, he’s approaching his peak as a ballplayer. But as a surfer, suddenly within the orbit of the Malloys and Johnson and Chouinard, there’s a whole new world to discover, and he’s going hard after it. “It’s been cool to get into that community and feel at home with them,” he says. “If anything, I just want to learn.”

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