Alexander Pope said that "Hope springs eternal in the human breast," a phrase that somewhere back in my childhood got connected to baseball in some way. I’m too old to remember just how, but it comes to mind, especially when the season begins and things are so full of promise.
This campaign has been a particularly perplexing one for me as I have tried to come to grips with the many ways our Detroit Tigers have found to lose ballgames. Tonight’s implosion was a perfect case in point. Walking my dog, Cooper, and listening to Dan and Jim has become an almost daily ritual during the season, and things began so well. Buck Farmer escaped his first inning jam as we were leaving the house. J.D. Martinez hit his two-run bomb, and the back-to-back jacks came not long after that. Hope was alive and kicking. We were into the Baltimore 'pen in the fourth inning. But the most joyous part of the entire moment was the excellent work Buck was doing; it seemed he was finally realizing some of his promise.
I shrugged off Jefry Marte’s error as we got back to the house, and decided Cooper and I would go a bit further because I didn’t want to mess with the mojo. By the time I got back around to the house, it was 6-4 and Buck was leaving the game far short of what looked to be a much-needed quality start. I got inside just in time for Ian Krol’s four pitch free pass to the nine hitter, and we all know what happened from there. So much for hope.
Being a mere handful of games from the second wild card keeps me hopeful that this group of promising new kids and the veterans who play with them will find some sort of pluck and make an epic run at just any kind of postseason shot. Games like tonight chip away at that hope as game 162 draws ever nearer. Most of us have been spoiled for the last four years, and coming to grips with the current state of affairs evokes a crazy range of emotion. Thursday, however, I was given a shot of hope to probably carry me through the next decade or so of fandom.
Thursday, former Science Hill Hilltopper Daniel Norris became a Motor City Kitty.
I have known Daniel and his family for around 15 years now. His father, David, owned a bicycle shop in town and was my bike guy until he sold the business last spring so he could spend more time following his son’s career. Both Daniel and his sister, Melanie, an artist of no small water, were students in my English class. But it is our love for the game of baseball, and his deep understanding of relationships, that has kept us connected beyond his high school years.
Daniel, known by most of his peers and some of his coaches as Dino, has been dominating hitters as long as I can remember. When he was an eighth grader, his coach, Andy Wallen, was afraid that he might not have anyone who could catch him, but not so afraid that he’d agree to send him to the JV team. My assistant, Tim Vanthournout, and I tried to catch as many of his home starts as we could because we were curious to see if anyone could put his stuff in play, and if so, what kind of contact it would be. I don’t remember seeing one hard-hit ball that season.
Daniel only pitched one inning for me as a freshman. He’d shot straight to the varsity team, but Coach Ryan Edwards sent him down to work the last three innings of one of our early season games. That plan was never realized because we were winning something like 22-3 when the fifth inning rolled around, and after easily dispatching the opposing team in their half of the inning, the slaughter rule went into effect and the game was over. Whenever he wasn’t pitching for the varsity, he went with us to DH, and was a really good left-handed hitter with speed and a swing slightly reminiscent of Ichiro Suzuki. He was also a phenomenal outfielder who could go get 'em as well as anybody, and, of course, possessed of a cannon.
He started and won the first game of the state tournament his freshman year (on the mound at an adjacent park was a senior from Smyrna named Sonny Gray); the last out he got was on a 3-2 pitch to escape a bases loaded jam. If memory serves, it was a breaking ball. I do remember that it was a Jose Altuve-sized kid who didn’t take the bat off his shoulder until that third strike, praying he’d get a walk. Daniel then moved to center field and, after running down a base hit late in the game, threw a seed to the infield which prevented a runner from taking an extra base. This after throwing over 120 pitches.
I only coached baseball another year, and Daniel never played for me at all that season, but was a student in my sophomore Honors English class. I remember him sitting in my room making pitch grips, and the two of us trying to decipher Donald Hall’s The Ninth Inning. I’m not sure we ever figured out what the poem had to do with baseball.
Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
On the field, Daniel was a fierce competitor. Off it, he was one of the nicest, most respectful, and soft-spoken kids I’ve ever had anything to do with. He was a strong Christian, a gentleman, and I never heard anyone say a single negative thing about him.
I followed his baseball career from a greater distance after that year, from summers with the East Cobb Yankees to pitching in the AFLAC All-American Game to winning the Jackie Robinson Award for the best high school player in America.
Daniel signed with Clemson, and because people thought he was committed to going there, he dropped a bit in the draft. If I recall correctly, he was taken with the 77nd pick of the draft (Ed.: He went 74th). The Tigers had pick 76, and I remember that morning holding my breath at around 70 and hoping he’d fall five more slots. That didn’t happen as the Jays got him before we did.
When he signed, he asked God to not let the money change him. He’s lived up to that so far. I’ve followed nearly all of his starts, and he never fails to answer texts or come to visit when he’s home. We coaches wonder how many texts he gets in a day, and are amazed and pleased that he always finds a way to respond. He is the kind of kid you want only the best for, because he always does things right and loves this game. He is humble and thankful for the opportunity he has been given to live his dream.
So, in spite of this season’s disappointment, I still have hope. Sunday will probably be the happiest day of my baseball fandom. I have my tickets and am gearing up for the 450-mile drive from Johnson City, Tennessee, to Baltimore. It was amazing to see Daniel win his first major league game against the Yankmees, but that won’t come near the joy of watching him toe the slab for what I hope will be a thousand starts for our team, and to hear Jim Price talk about his arsenal and his art of pitching, or for Rod Allen to see him or tell him to stop it.
More than anything else, I hope you all will come to love him as much as I do.