BRISTOL – It was a perfect night for Daniel Norris’ professional debut.
The former Science Hill left-hander came on in the fifth inning and pitched four perfect innings to get the victory as the Bluefield Blue Jays opened the Appalachian League season with a 7-2 win at Bristol's Boyce Cox Field.
A huge crowd (1,278) was on hand – the largest in the league Tuesday – but judging by the ovation Norris got when he took the mound, at least half of those in attendance were there to see him.
And he didn’t disappoint. He struck out five and threw 35 strikes in the 49-pitch outing.
The applause jump-started Norris, who took the mound with a 7-1 lead.
“It sent chills down my spine,” Norris said. “I knew it was gonna be a good night after that.”
Actually, another sign offered even better vibes. A Hannah Montana song that Norris used to goof around to with Science Hill teammate Reed Darden came on shortly before he began his appearance – and Darden was in attendance.
“I kid you not, I get to the back of the mound, I hear that song, I turn around and Reed Darden’s looking at me,” Norris said. “Simultaneously, we tip our cap. I knew it was gonna be a good night. It was unbelievable. It was just like a movie.”
The debut couldn’t have been scripted better for the Blue Jays organization, according to roving instructor Sandy Alomar and pitching coach Antonio Caceres.
Alomar compared Norris to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and David Clyde, who reached the majors as a teenager, although that wasn’t the reason for Alomar’s comparison.
“I think that he’s gonna be an outstanding pitcher,” Alomar said. “If he stays healthy and his mind stays straight, I think that he’s gonna be an outstanding pitcher. He has all the poise. He’s got the pitches. He’s got the understanding. He’s got the youth, so he’s got plenty of time.”
Norris’ command pleased Caceres. All of his strikeouts came when he caught White Sox looking at offspeed pitches. The fifth whiff, which retired Juan Ramirez to end the eighth, came on a 72-mph changeup. Ramirez had just seen a 93-mph fastball, and although his torso twisted for the last pitch, his arms and legs appeared frozen by the change-of-pace absence of another "heater."
Indeed, there were a lot of buckled knees and tardy swings from BriSox when Norris was on the mound.
“Norris, he was outstanding,” Caceres said. “He really made good pitches when he needed to, and he worked ahead much of the night, which has been his problem a little bit.”
Norris' windup and delivery have less unnecessary movement these days. Still, Caceres was somewhat concerned adrenaline and/or nerves might have gotten Norris too excited.
“I was a little worried about that,” Caceres said. “But you know what, once he went out there … and got through the first inning, I was like, ‘He’s okay; he’ll be good.’ You know, he’s got good stuff. He’s got a really good arm. …
“He’s a great kid and he’s a hard worker. I can’t say enough about how good a kid he is.”
Certainly, Norris’ personality had some effect on the large turnout.
“I can’t describe it,” Norris said. “Words don’t describe that, but it was a blast. I had a really good time and I thank all of the fans and everybody that came out and supported.”
Among those in attendance were Science Hill coaches Benny Tolley and Andy Wallen, Science Hill athletic director Keith Turner, assistant principal Jeff Aldridge, Science Hill Hall of Famer Ivan “Jerry” Dempsey and former Hilltoppers teammate Will Carter.
Norris’ outing was the culmination of a surreal three-day stretch for Carter, who grew up playing with Norris. They began in instructional league for Mark Faust at age eight, and played together on the Johnson City Major Little League’s 10-under state runner-up team for coaches Steve Loyd, Robert Shipley and Larry Glaspie.
They teamed with such players as Kevin Connell (Daniel Boone, The Citadel) for a Junior Toppers team that finished third in the nation in the premier 13-under USSSA tournament in Maryland.
Carter, who is transferring from East Tennessee State to Walters State for his sophomore season, allowed one unearned run in four innings for the Asheville Redbirds in an exhibition with the Johnson City Cardinals on Sunday. Norris is scheduled to start when Bluefield hosts the Cardinals this coming Sunday.
“Growing up seeing these teams play all the time, this is a pretty cool experience," said Carter, who recalled having dinner with his father, Bill, and Rick Ankiel at the Doubletree Hotel when Ankiel played for Johnson City in 2001.
Norris said he was probably the first in line to get Ankiel's autograph that season.
Carter proved to be an adept prognosticator when told Norris looked a bit tense while warming up in the bullpen on Tuesday.
“I’m sure he’s nervous, but he’s glad to be here and getting to play in front of everybody,” Carter said as Norris prepared to take the mound. “He’s always good in these situations.”
It was an electric night for Norris’ grounded parents, David and Sandra. She mentioned former Hilltoppers Paul Hoilman and Matt Rice playing in the Midwestern League All-Star game on Tuesday.
“We couldn’t ask for anything better,” Sandra said. “It’s exciting for the hometown people – and then Paul and Matt are playing the All-Star game tonight.”
David has surely never been prouder, although, as usual, his humility was all that was apparent.
“I’m just here to witness the enjoyment he gets out of getting to play,” David said. “I love the fact that he’s got it all in perspective.”
There are other tasks for dad – like driving his son’s coveted Volkswagen van to him this weekend in Bluefield. Daniel was without it during his four-plus month stay in Florida. David said he will drive the van to Bluefield to watch Daniel’s Sunday start and he’ll return to Johnson City in some other vehicle.
The van will be a sight for sore eyes for Daniel, which is what his appearance Tuesday was for hundreds of area baseball fans.
“This is what I’ve dreamed of, you know, being a professional baseball player,” Norris said. “Obviously, there was amazing times at Science Hill and growing up with the Junior Toppers … but out here, knowing this is what I’ve been working for all of my life and coming out here for my professional debut and having (so many former) coaches here, whether it was football, basketball or baseball – it’s a blast. ... It was a great night and I definitely couldn't have scripted it better."