Shortly before pitcher Daniel Norris signed a baseball contract for life-changing money Monday night, he closed the deal spiritually with a private sermon on the mound.
Major League Baseball’s signing deadline was looming, and perhaps Norris was getting an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The former Science Hill pitcher had shockingly fallen to the second round of the MLB draft in June, and while forecasts didn’t suggest any such disappointment this time, the hard-throwing left-hander sensed similar anxiety as a bystander watching a process unfold.
It was difficult to feel in control while waiting to see if he was going to become a Toronto Blue Jay or Clemson Tiger, so Norris went where he’s in control – in prayer on a pitcher’s mound. Less than two hours before the clock would have struck midnight on Toronto’s signing rights, Norris’ advisor told him it might be a wild finish.
Norris struck out for Broyles Field, Science Hill’s on-campus practice field, where he saved one sacred spot of solitude for his old stomping grounds.
“I went on the field and just sat on the pitcher's mound for about 45 minutes and prayed and just thought and talked to God for a while tonight,” Norris said in a phone interview that began at 2:16 a.m. “I felt like that helped me a lot. It was around 10:30ish.”
An hour later, his professional career had taken flight as a Toronto Blue Jay. Norris signed for a reported $2 million, concluding a 5 1/2 month roller-coaster that included a somewhat disappointing senior season and an emotionally grueling MLB draft in June.
But the ride concluded with a wide smile on Norris’ face.
“Gosh, it was so – not stressful – but just more anxious and ready for it to be over,” Norris said. “I was just very excited to see what God had in store for me.”
Norris celebrated the moment with his mother and father (Sandra and David), two sisters (Melanie and Amanda), brother-in-law Tim Haywood and infant niece Evy.
“I got the call and they gave the offer, so I just came back in and told everybody,” Norris said. “When I told them, we all, like, simultaneously – my dad was like 'Let's say a prayer’ – and we all got in a group hug and said a prayer and just thanked God for everything, first of all, just thanking him and realizing what he's done and how evident he is in that process.
“Then we did individual hugs, and what a sense of relief you felt throughout the whole room. You could just feel it being lifted. It's just been a great night for us.”
Actually, Norris had experienced the pressure drop while at Broyles Field.
“It was pretty cool – a neat experience,” he said. “I could feel it, I could just feel it at that time.”
Norris has been in a regional spotlight since striking out 12 batters in a state tournament game as a freshman, if not before, and he’s been in a national spotlight since a summer with the East Cobb (Ga.) Yankees that helped earn him Aflac’s Jackie Robinson Award and Baseball America’s Pitcher of the Year award in 2010.
But he felt like a kid again Monday night.
“I feel like someone's gonna pinch me here in a little bit and I'll wake up,” he said. “It's so surreal. … I'm just excited. I mean it's a dream come true. I'm a professional baseball player. I can't explain it.”
Norris did have a tough task to tend to amid the celebration. Having signed with Clemson, where he would’ve played had he not sealed a deal with Toronto on Monday, Norris decided to call all three coaches – head coach Jack Leggett and assistants Bradley LeCroy and Dan Pepicelli – to convey his appreciation. He said he was on the phone with them from approximately 12:30 to 1 a.m.
“I'm sure they already knew, but I wanted them to hear it from me out of respect for them,” he said. “And I tell you what, they are just a classy group of guys. I'll say it for the rest of my life – that they're a great group of people over there. I'm gonna be involved with that program no matter what. I really will, because they mean a lot to me. I explained that to them and they were happy for me, so that was really good.
“I was glad to get that over with. I feel like at some point I'll be almost like a recruiter for them.”
Norris took a chance by playing with the East Cobb team again this summer after being drafted. He didn’t feel he needed to raise his stock after his senior season, which was successful but not sensational, but he couldn’t stand the thought of not playing baseball in the summer.
As it turned out, it might’ve been his last chance to play center field, and it was most likely a final opportunity to play with his lifelong friend and teammate, East Tennessee State signee Will Carter.
“For the most part, going down there and playing this summer, I just wanted to play,” Norris said. “I have a true passion for this game, and that will always be something inside of me. I didn't feel like I had to prove to anybody that I was a good ballplayer and all that. It was for me. I just wanted to play and have fun, and I did. It was a lot of fun.
“And there was a part of me that just wanted to go out there and prove to myself that I could do it. There were times this high school season where I just didn't perform the way I was used to, and I just needed to go down there and prove to myself, you know: I've still got it; there's nothing wrong; just relax and have fun and play the game you've always loved.”
Norris’ senior season was filled with highlights. He pitched a no-hitter, made a good Murfreesboro Siegel team look bad and got the win at Farragut, which went on to win its fourth straight state title.
Also an exceptional center fielder and excellent hitter, Norris was 33-3 on the mound during his career at Science Hill.
He could end up pitching in Johnson City again this month and/or next year. The Blue Jays have an Appalachian League affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va.
Bluefield is at home through Sunday, and begins a three-game series at Greeneville on Monday. Bluefield is also likely to make the playoffs, where it would open against Kingsport or Elizabethton, and could face the Johnson City Cardinals in the championship series.
Norris briefly spoke with a Toronto official Monday, and was unsure when he’ll learn his initial destination. But regardless of where he takes off and ultimately touches down, part of Norris will always be on a diamond in Johnson City remembering being a boy of summer and praying to remain a man of faith.