DETROIT -- It was supposed to be a routine checkup. Sent for an MRI on his shoulder last year, what Daniel Norris heard was anything but routine -- and entirely unrelated to pitching.
"You need to get this checked out," he was told.
The news was less than inspiring. He had thyroid cancer. That the doctors found it was a fluke, the timing couldn't have been better. Norris' family had no history of this issue, nor had he been dealing with any signs of cancer. After the season, Norris had the tumor removed, but the best part after that was there was no chemotherapy or radiation treatment involved.
Oddly enough, Norris was never worried. He just wanted to keep playing baseball. Could he do that? Yes? OK, then keep going. Focus on the recovery.
★ ★ ★
After making the Blue Jays' Opening Day roster out of spring training, Daniel Norris had been dealing with dead arm. The velocity was gone, but he didn't feel any different. It wasn't a big deal. At least, it wasn't to him.
"I was throwing 95, 96, 97 in spring training and then in April with the Blue Jays I was like 88, 90," Norris said. "I was throwing OK. I had pretty good numbers, but right before I got sent down they were like, ‘Are you hurt? You're not throwing like you were.' And I was like, ‘I don't know, I don't feel anything.' It's just dead arm. Everybody goes through it and I've had it before. It's where you don't have any pain, it's just fatigued."
The Blue Jays still had their doubts, and had Norris checked anyway. After the doctors discovered the abnormality in his thyroid, Norris went through tests for a month. All the while he was still pitching. Life continued and no one outside of the Blue Jays knew what Norris was pitching through -- until the Tigers traded for him.
And aside from the cancer, Norris was still dealing with up and down velocity. He felt like his arm wasn't quite back to itself until Aug. 7, two starts before he got hurt in Chicago with the Tigers on Aug. 19. He felt like his arm had more life in it, a life he hadn't felt since before April. Even the day he landed on the disabled list, Norris said his arm felt "really good."
As for the day he came back from the DL and pitched a perfect game for five innings? "I think that's when it started (feeling normal)," he said. "Especially coming back off the DL, is when I really felt like myself. I had life back in my arm. I still feel (the life) now when I'm throwing. I can just feel that last little whip when I'm throwing. That's what I feel like now."
Fast forward to October when Norris revealed to Tigers fans he was having surgery. And later the relief when he announced the surgery was a success. Months later, Norris has not dealt with any setbacks. He hasn't needed to take any medication. His body would take care of the healing process over time. All post-surgery blood work has come back clean.
For Norris, the hardest part wasn't dealing with the diagnosis, the news, or the surgery. It was the recovery that drove him nuts.
"I think I waited -- they were like, ‘Wait three weeks before you work out' -- and I was like I can't do that," he said. "I waited like a week and a half, not even. I started doing curls while I was sitting in bed, I had to do something."
★ ★ ★
Last year all he wanted to do was make the Blue Jays team. And he got worn out by April, which led to the dead arm situation. Norris hasn't changed his workout regime, but he has changed his throwing regime, something he and Justin Verlander have already discussed.
"This year obviously I wanna make the team, but I want to pitch a full 200 innings rather than have to spend time on the DL or have to mature," he said.
Having a 200-inning goal may be lofty for a player who hasn't thrown more than 151 in his professional career, but it's not an unrealistic aspiration -- and it's actually what the Tigers need from him. Counter to last year at this point in the offseason, Norris is throwing fewer bullpens. It's only a difference of about three bullpens before spring training gets underway, but it's still a marked difference for him.
This spring isn't exactly uncharted territory, but there are still unknown aspects about himself that Norris is finding he has to adapt to. The difference between last year and this season, though, is he has a long-term goal in mind. Last year he didn't have that, and he paid for it in his preparation.
"Going into spring training last year for bullpen (No.) 1 at camp open, I wanted to be firing on all cylinders," he said. "I was ready to go. And then this year what I really need to do is maintain my strength throughout the year. Building it up instead of -- I don't want to be (in) midseason form in March."
With spring training month away, Norris is no longer focused on getting healthy -- he already is. He realizes he's not an absolute lock for the rotation, but regardless of what shakes out in spring, his goals are no longer immediate. Whether he makes the starting five is up to how he performs in March, but the pitching preparation he's putting in now is vastly different to last year.
And, thankfully, he's healthy, too.