02/02/2015 01:41 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT

Open road leads Blue Jays' top prospect Norris to peace, spring training

Blue Jays pitching prospect Daniel Norris has had plenty of time to reflect on his 2014 season. That's one of the perks of living alone in a van for weeks at a time.

The 21-year-old left-hander, who rose through three minor-league levels last year before making his major league debut in September, spends most of the off-season driving on the open road, camping in the mountains, and surfing on the ocean waves — all while living out of a 1978 Volkswagen Westfalia microbus.

The large, mustard-coloured vehicle, which Norris named Shaggy, remains one of the only major purchases from the US$2-million signing bonus the Blue Jays gave him in 2011 after selecting him in the second round of that year's draft.

"I do it to be alone and to find peace within myself," Norris said from Toronto's spring training complex in Dunedin, Fla. "I love my teammates and family but I'm not the kind of person who likes to be around a ton of people. I'm a thinker, I like to be alone with my thoughts.

"When I'm out there, it's just me, Shaggy and God and I can really connect with myself. It's very peaceful."

For the past three years, Norris has fashioned a tradition out of driving from his home in Johnson City, Tenn., to Dunedin, stretching the 1,100-kilometre trek as long as he can.

He cooks meals on a backpacking stove — chicken stir fry is his specialty — and stops wherever he pleases along the way.

"Depending on where I am, there's a lot of surfing, a lot of just hanging out," Norris said. "I like to explore so sometimes I'll just stop at the side of the road and look around. There's no plan involved."

Love of the outdoors runs in the Norris family.

With Great Smoky Mountain National Park just 116 km down the highway from his childhood home, Daniel's parents, David and Sandra, would take their kids on frequent camping excursions.

David Norris sells and repairs bicycles out of his shop in Johnson City. Melanie, Daniel's sister, had her wedding ceremony — complete with a camp-out style reception — in the North Carolina mountains last summer.

"It's always been a part of me and that's definitely what kickstarted my interest," Norris said. "But I've tried to take it to the next level over the years."

Norris has gained increasing notoriety for his dedication to outdoor living.

A photo he tweeted of himself shaving his thick beard with an axe caused a stir earlier this year. Though the shot was staged for a modelling gig — he hasn't even taken a razor to his facial hair since October — it helped solidify Norris' persona as a rugged woodsman.

His long hair, which he's been wearing in a bun at the top of his head, and his wide array of flannel and denim shirts all add to that image.

That's not exactly how he wants to be seen, though.

"It doesn't necessarily bother me, but all the attention is surprising," said Norris. "I'd rather be known for being the best baseball player I can be — that's my passion, that's my dream.

"All this other stuff, I think it's important because people want to know who they're cheering for, so I can agree with it in that sense. I want people to know who I really am and that's what's being portrayed."

While not everyone understands Norris's Mountain Man lifestyle, the Blue Jays say they don't have a problem with their top prospect's off-season adventures.

"We trust that Daniel is taking care of himself and will be ready for spring training ... " assistant GM Tony LaCava said in an email to The Canadian Press. "Everyone prepares for the season their own way and based on the success to date in his career, I'm not sure I would want Daniel to change a thing."

Norris has been in Dunedin since Jan. 15 and will continue to live in his van until Feb. 22 when he officially reports to the major league side of camp for the first time.

This spring, Norris will compete against right-handers Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada for the fifth spot in the big league rotation, but a bullpen job could be up for grabs as well.

"I had so much fun in the big leagues, I just want to get back there," he said. "Obviously I want to start, but if it comes down to me heading to the bullpen to help Toronto win games then heck yeah, I'm down. ...

"Best case scenario: Sanchez and I have the best spring training we can and we make it a really tough decision for the Blue Jays."


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