• • •
About the time White Sox DH Dan Pasqua pulled a second-inning, single between Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar and future batting champ John Olerud, it seemed to be just another cloudy afternoon in Johnson City, Tenn.
But, inside the Johnson City Medical Center a journey was beginning.
Johnson City was founded in 1856 by Henry Johnson, a railroad station called Johnson’s Depot.
The town, with a current population of 63,152, near the Virginia state, line is the home of Steve Spurrier, head coach of University of South Carolina Gamecocks.
Johnson City, nicknamed Little Chicago for its bootlegging days in the 1920s, is part of the Tri-Cities area with Kingsport and Bristol, is home to East Tennessee State University and the class-A Johnson City Cardinals,
Johnson City boasts about residents or natives such as ex-Buffalo Bills running back Van Williams, Field of Dreams actor Timothy Busfield, country singer Kenny Chesney, former NBA coach Del Harris, and Spurrier, of course.
At 3:33 p.m. that afternoon inside the hospital, Sandra Norris gave birth to a 9-pound, 6-ounce bouncing baby boy.
The boy was her third child. Her first son.
Sandra, and husband David, named the boy Daniel.
On that day, the Norris family didn’t know that a future celebrity had arrived in Johnson City.
• • •
Daniel Norris was 181 days, 8 1/2 hours old when Carter homered off Williams in 1993.
Norris was 18 when he agreed to terms with the Jays, minutes before the Aug. 15 midnight deadline, passing on a scholarship to Clemson University.
The $2 million US bonus from scouting director Andrew Tinnish was the largest the Jays handed out this year, equalling the fourth highest in franchise history.
The amount of money the Jays committed to Norris is more than Casey Janssen, Ricky Romero, Jesse Litsch, Dustin McGowan, Brett Cecil, Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia, Henderson Alvarez and Joel Carreno all got in their first pro contracts.
How did Norris get to Dunedin, with set-for-life money, another face of the Jays future to sit on a ball bucket during rookie-class Gulf Coast League games waiting to throw his first pitches next month in instructional league?
Will Norris be the one who leads the Jays back to post-season play?
• • •
Dave Norris has run Norris Bicycles, a Schwinn dealership, since 1983.
Dave and Sandra enjoyed riding their bikes with their children
Now, 25, daughter Amanda is a Johnson City housewife with a one-year-old and a teaching degree from East Tennessee State.
Melanie, 22, is an art major at East Tennessee.
And Daniel who grew up liking mountain bikes was born with a golden arm.
“We struggle trying to figure things out,” the father says. “Where did Daniel’s competitiveness and athleticism comes from? My wife and I look at each other, shake our heads and say, ‘He’s on his own.’”
Was there a ball player amongst his grandparents?
“Neither my father, nor my wife’s father, had athletic backgrounds,” Dave said. “They were both determined men, men of character.”
Dave’s father, Sidney, served in the U.S. Army and Marines during World War II and the Korean conflict.
Sandra’s father, Leo Ely, was a salvage diver in the U.S. Navy.
It all started for Daniel Norris playing second base in T-Ball for the Kansas City Royals ... well, not THE Kansas City Royals.
T-ball is where most kids wait for the post-game Fruit Roll-Ups or popsicles, while others pick dandelions in the outfield, blowing them into the wind.
“One night he caught a ball, tagged a runner and then threw to the other base,” Sandra said as if describing a play from last week.
Triple play ... by a left-handed second baseman.
• • •
When Daniel was 15, Dave Norris decided to make the four-hour drive from Johnson City to Marietta, Ga., the home of the East Cobb Yankees in 2009.
James Beavers, who started the Yankees in 1979, watched Norris throw a bullpen session.
“The ball came out nice and easy, I’m thinking he’s 82-83 mph, pretty good for a 15-year-old,” Beavers said. “After the game a guy from Perfect Game (a scouting service) comes over and says he was 87-88.”
Beavers eventually approached Daniel’s father and said “Mr. Morris, we may have something special here.”
Norris was hoping his son could gain a scholarship to East Tennessee State.
Daniel quarterbacked the Science Hill High Toppers until grade 11.
In one game Norris had over 100 yards rushing, 150 yards passing with two touchdowns and had another 100 yards receiving, including two more touchdowns from Stacey Carter, whom Norris split time with calling signals.
“Baseball has been my passion, football and basketball were just sports,” Norris said. “I didn’t play football my last year of high school. Too much risk.”
His coach’s reaction? “Go, ahead, I know you’re chasing a dream.”
There are currently 28 ex-East Cobb Yankees playing pro and 28 ex-Yankees are on the rosters of Georgia Tech, Georgia, Georgia Southern.
Graduates include Jeremy Hermida (Reds), Chris Nelson (Rockies), Jimmy Barthmaier (Astros), Dexter Fowler (Rockies), Micah Owings (Diamondbacks), Matt Capps (Pirates), Gordon Beckham (White Sox) and Marlon Byrd (Cubs).
Beavers knows special.
“Mr. Norris, I’ve had some guys in the majors, we have something really special here,” Beavers told Daniel’s father.
In the summer of 2010, Norris showed off his 94 mph fastball at the Perfect Game showcase for the top 200 high school at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
He helped the East Cobb Yankees reach the Connie Mack World Series in Farmington, N.M.
Norris pitched in the eighth annual Aflac all-american Baseball classic at Petco Park Aug. 15, 2010, a year to the day before he signed. The day before the game, Norris was presented the Jackie Robinson award by Sonya Pankey, Robinson’s granddaughter, and Hall of Famer Andre Dawson.
“I’ve been proud,” the father said. “I was probably proudest that night. Daniel respects the game, is honoured to carry on in the game.”
Norris was named pitcher of the year by Baseball America and in September of 2010, Perfect Game acclaimed him the best high school prospect in North America.
A sense of gratitude: “For people to think that highly of me, seeing me a couple of times, to project me that high, it’s touching, exciting.”
And he saw the big picture: “I’m going to have to work extra hard to stay here, I remember a quote, ‘It’s easier to become No. 1 than to remain No. 1.’ ”
The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder compiled 33-3 record at Science Hill.
“We’re proud of the way he can accept a loss as well as a win,” his mother says, “we all talk about that. His father’s very good at talking things over.”
His best game for Science Hill?
A no hitter with 15 strikeouts — one hit batter and a man reaching on an error — against Tennessee High in Bristol. He had 11 whiffs in the first four innings.
His best with the Yankees?
A one hitter against the Florida Legends with 14 strikeouts, including six straight, in Atlanta.
• • •
“This past year the family experienced the business of the industry,” said Beavers, who coached Norris this summer.
The courtship of Daniel meant plenty of calls.
Agents’ impressive clients calling to say the teenager should sign with his agent. To name a few:
- Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos quarterback, winner of the 2007 Heisman trophy with the Florida Gators, at the behest of his agent Jimmy Sexton.
- Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers lefty, represented by Hendricks Brothers Management. “Clayton and I are similar, we both throw curves and sliders, our velocities are similar. He’s religious, like I am.”
- Josh Hamilton, the Texas Rangers all-star slugger, called when agent Michael Moye asked. “He’s very inspiring, he talked about his journey through the minors, we talked about God,” Norris said.
So, who carried the most clout?
Tebow, Kershaw or Hamilton?
“I went with the man who came to our house, he was inside for 30 minutes when I knew I was going to sign with him,” Norris said. “I went with Randy Hendricks.”
Alan and Randal Hendricks of Spring, Tex., have represented previous Jays like Jim Clancy, George Bell, Kelly Gruber, Roy Halladay and Rogers Clemens.
Said Norris’ father: “We wanted someone who has been around, someone respected who could represent our son without a lot of hoopla.”
Norris’ idol growing up was Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones.
One of his best friends is right-hander Jameson Taillon, of The Woodlands, Tex., second overall in the 2010 draft, from various showcases around the United States. Taillon’s mother Christine is from Toronto, his father, Michael, from, St. Andrews West near Cornwall.
The Norris family attends the Church of Christ.
A scout asked Beavers if Norris was “too nice” since he was religious.
“Grab a bat, get in there, see how nice he is,” Beavers said.
• • •
Jays scout Nate Murrie of Bowling Green, Ky., and Tinnish chose Norris in the second round on June 7. He was the 74th player chosen and the 41st high schooler.
“It was a long process, I was appreciative of the Jays interest,” Norris said. “Obviously, it was a family decision. When the offer was made we couldn’t turn it down.
“We probably got it done 5-to-10 minutes before the deadline,” Norris said. “The weight of the world was off my shoulders.”
Norris signed the eighth highest bonus among high schoolers.
How good is he?
“He’s the most talented pitcher I’ve had since Kris Benson,” Beavers said, “but most scouts compare him to Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels.”
Papa Norris says he likes the Jays, the direction they are headed.
“The organization seems very hungry, going after a lots of players, doing what it needs to get back. I love the fact they compete in the AL East. If you can compete there, you can compete anywhere.”
What did Norris to to celebrate when the agreement was finally reached?
“Went to sleep.”