Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris is nothing like his fellow teammates. Instead of partying it up in South Beach during the off-season, he prefers to ride around Nicaragua on a motorcycle for $2 a day and sleep in a hostel alone. Instead of buying piles of expensive clothes and jewelry, Norris sticks to his two pairs of jeans.
And instead of splurging on expensive homes and flashy cars, Norris lives out of a VW van named Shaggy. His father always taught him to live simply and to not take more than he needs. Even as Norris perfects his pitching (and rakes in the dough), he is still committed to living a minimalist lifestyle. This is his story.
While pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, Norris woke up every morning in his 1978 Volkswagen camper behind the dumpsters in a Walmart parking lot. And every morning, he rummaged through his half-empty cooler until he finds something to eat. “I’m not sure about these,” Norris says aloud before removing three from the carton and smelling them.
While his eggs cook on a portable stove, the MLB pitcher begins his morning ritual of cleaning his van. He empties out all his belongings onto the parking lot. For anyone else, this would take hours, but for Norris, it takes only a few seconds. Out comes his surfboard, his only pair of jeans, and a stack of handwritten journals.
While he empties out his van, a curious onlooker stops in his tracks. “Hiya,” Norris says as the guy turns and walks towards the Walmart entrance. “I’ve gotten used to people staring,” he tells a reporter from ESPN. Even though he’s a signed pitcher with the Blue Jays, this is how Norris chooses to live.
He’s traded a house for a half-broken-down van under the fluorescent lights of a low-end retail company’s parking lot. But every morning, Norris wakes up to get in his workouts: pull-ups and resistance training with abandoned shopping carts. And every evening, he makes French press coffee and organic stir-fry before writing in his “thought journal” or reading Jack Kerouac.
Norris has spent so much time living in the Walmart parking lot that the employees gave him the nickname the “Van Man.” As time went on, they began to question where he came from and what he’s doing. A few employees felt bad for him and have approached the van with crumpled-up dollar bills, and prayers, assuming that he was homeless.
Is he a runaway teen? A penniless surfer? Or maybe he’s a wanderer on some spiritual quest? Despite their good guesses, these Walmart employees were surprised to know that Norris was none of these. The Van Man has a 92-mile-an-hour fastball, a sponsorship with Nike, a $2 million signing bonus, and an ever-growing fan club.
Despite the number of zeros Norris has in his bank account, the MLB pitcher prefers to prepare for the grind of a 162-game season in the back of a 1978 camper that he purchased for just $10,000. The Volkswagen van is Norris’ way of escaping the pressures of the major leagues. It also gives him the chance to add balance to his life.
The life of an MLB pitcher demands repetition and promises of fame, but the van provides freedom and offers seclusion. “It’s like a yin-and-yang thing for me,” Norris told ESPM in 2015. “I’m not going to change who I am just because people think it’s weird.” The only way Norris can promise a good season is if he’s happy and balanced.
It may sound unconventional to most people, but the only time Norris feels good is if he has some adventure in his life. On this particular morning in 2015, the MLB pitcher’s adventure turned out to be his van itself.
After finishing his scrambled eggs, Norris turned the key in the ignition, but the van’s engine refused to start. “Come on, old friend. You can do this,” he said as he patted the dashboard. Time is of the essence—in just one hour, Norris has a throwing session, a workout, and a massage at the spring training facility in Florida.
Norris tries the key again, hoping that his van’s engine starts this time. Suddenly the engine erupts like a firecracker, gas begins leaking onto the asphalt, and a cloud of black smoke shoots out from the exhaust, but, somehow, Norris is able to put the VW into first gear.
“There you go,” Norris says to his van. “Back on the road. Just you and me.” Norris first bought the VW van in 2011, just weeks after finishing high school and signing with the Blue Jays. He was in Florida with the rest of the teams’ new signees.
All of the players’ signing bonuses were deposited on the same day and one guy suggested they all drive over to a mall in Tampa. With $2 million in his pocket, Norris decided to join the rest of the players. Everyone shopped for nearly three hours and was barely able to fit everything into the car.
Most of the new players spent at least $10,000 on new electronics, jewelry, and headphones—but not Norris. He finished the shopping spree with just one t-shirt that he bought on sale for $14. It has been in his closet ever since.
But when Norris stumbled upon the VW bus a few days later while visiting his home state of Tennessee, he just knew he had to have it. The van wasn’t available for sale, per se, but Norris put in a generous offer.
He fell in love with the cream-colored paint job and its ready-to-drive condition. “Everything was original, which I really dug about it,” he recalled in 2015. “It was a no-brainer.” Immediately after purchasing his new van, he renovated it into the travel-ready home he had always dreamed of having.
Norris drove the bus, whose name is Shaggy (after the character in Scooby-Doo), back down to Florida for spring training. Instead of sleeping in a hotel with the rest of his teammates, Norris preferred to find a spot for his bus.
“I would get kicked off the beach quite a few times,” the pitcher recalled. “One time, I decided to park at the Blue Jays’ complex. Probably, at like 11:30 or 12:00 that night, I get a knock on the window, and it’s the cops.” When Norris rolled down the window, the cops realized who he was and began to laugh.
Ever since 2011, Shaggy has been his best friend and spiritual center. He writes songs and poems for it and even gives it Valentine’s Day cards. Norris takes Shaggy around the mountains near his parents’ home in Tennessee and on surfing trips along the East Coast.
He drove the VW van every year down south to Florida for spring training and lives in it during the off-season, even today. In 2015, Norris decided to illegally park on the beach until local police evicted him. But before he left, they offered him directions to the nearest 24-hour Walmart, which became his home for a good few months.
As Norris pulls into the spring training facility for a workout and throwing session, he squeezes Shaggy in between his fellow teammates’ tinted SUVs and luxury sports cars. He then crawls into the back of his VW van to heat up some water for coffee.
A few of his teammates stop and watch Norris as he fiddles with his portable stove. It looks like the pilot light is out, and he can’t heat up his water. “Why don’t you just, like, go get something normal to eat,” Marcus Stroman, a fellow pitcher, tells him. There is, after all, free coffee inside, he reminds Norris.
“Don’t you think this is kind of crazy?” Stroman asks Norris. “Not to me,” he responds. “To me, this is the way that makes sense.” The MLB pitcher has always lived life according to his own code, no matter what anyone thinks. Growing up, Norris was an avid athlete who liked to spend the weekends camping by himself.
He’s a hippie who has never dabbled with drugs and had no intention of trying alcohol after his 21st birthday. Norris has had only one serious relationship—his high school girlfriend—but the two parted ways because the MLB player wanted to travel solo.
Norris’ surfboard is made from recycled foam, and his van is fully equipped with a solar panel. He doesn’t like TV, preferring to study photography instead. “Nonconformist,” reads one sign that hangs inside his van.
When Norris first made the major leagues, he felt that everyone—the owners, coaches, and teammates—had a hard time making sense of his unconventional lifestyle. With millions of dollars in the bank, why did he feel the need to take a job at an outdoor outfitter job, working 40 hours a week? Would sleeping in a hammock do permanent damage to his back muscles?
More questions followed, like why did he opt out of the team trip to the Caribbean, choosing to sleep in hostels in Nicaragua instead? And why does his Twitter picture show him shaving his tangled beard with an ax?
For the MLB, or really anyone who came across him for that matter, everything Norris did was just so unconventional. But for some reason, it all seemed to be working. “He takes care of himself as well as anybody we’ve got,” his former team’s assistant general manager, Tony LaCava, said. “He’s in great shape. He competes on the mound.”
LaCava also says that if that wasn’t the case, then the team would begin to worry about Norris’ non-conformist lifestyle. “But right now,” he said, “the van and all that is secondary. He has great values, and they’re working for him.”
These values stuck with him, even after he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 2015 (and became their starting pitcher, no less). But as his career began to take off, Norris says that he was never interested in landing a big contract. “I’ve always just wanted to get better, be happy and play baseball until, frankly, I can’t,” Norris told ESPN in 2016.
But despite how laidback Norris’ goals sound, it hasn’t always been easy to meet them. A year after he was drafted by the Major Leagues, Norris underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on this thyroid. The surgery was a success, but he’s been sidelined for injuries almost every year.
While this injury may have forced anyone else to throw in the towel, it made Norris work harder. “The real reason I got drafted was because I threw hard — that was it,” the pitcher told Seen magazine in 2020. “Once I started getting hurt, I lost a little bit of velocity, so I actually had to learn how to pitch.”
For nearly 80 years, Norris’ father and grandfather owned a small bike shop in Johnson City. The shop was not only a place to sell bikes, but to teach others of their family values. They preached playing outdoors, loving the earth, and using only what you need.
The MLB pitcher spent his childhood going on bike rides and hiking trips with his family and playing basketball, football, and baseball for his high school teams. While he was a star varsity athlete in all three sports, baseball was the one sport that aligned with his personality.
Standing on the mound alone reminded Norris of being out in nature. “I was a good pitcher because I was already good at taking care of myself,” Norris said in 2015. “I love having teammates behind me, but I’m not going to rely on them.”
“It can get quiet and lonely out there when you’re pitching, which drives some people crazy. But that’s my favorite part.” Even as a freshman in high school, the stands began filling up with scouts. Soon, agents like Scott Boras were coming to visit the teenager at his family’s bike shop.
Then, in June 2011, Norris was the Toronto Blue Jays second-round pick. Norris’ agent said that his contract wasn’t going to come in until the end of the summer, so he advised the pitcher to take some time off to avoid an injury. But that just didn’t fit Norris’ style.
He ignored everyone’s advice and did something completely unprecedented for a top MLB prospect—he packed his bags and moved to Atlanta to play for an amateur team. Norris didn’t care that he was risking his career in the Major Leagues. He just wanted to spend his summer playing baseball outside.
After receiving his $2 million signing bonus, Norris felt uneasy about having so much money. “Who am I to deserve that?” he thought to himself. “What have I really done?” Instead of spending his money mindlessly on electronics and cars, Norris hired financial advisors to invest his money in conservative investments.
That way, Norris didn’t have to think about it. Out of sight, out of mind. He then asked his advisors to deposit only $800 into his checking account a month. This is about half of what he would make working full-time at a minimum wage job.
For Norris, $800 a month is enough to live on, but just barely. “I’m actually more comfortable being kind of poor,” the pitcher says. It makes sense. Less money means that he’s less tempted to conform to a more lavish and “comfortable” lifestyle.
With $800 a month, Norris is very mindful about where he spends his money. He never fills up his VW van more than a quarter tank and prefers to fix its engine with duct tape. Instead of going out for celebratory dinners and drinks with his teammates, Norris likes to spend his nights writing in his “thought journal.”
“Be kind. Be courteous. Love others and be happy. It’s that simple,” he wrote one night. “Where else can you be as free as by yourself in the middle of nowhere, or in the middle of the ocean, or on the peak of a mountain. Adventure is freedom.”
But it’s not just motivational quotes that Norris likes to write down. He also keeps track of his very specific workouts. During the off-season in 2015, Norris underwent minor surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow. So, his workouts for spring training are vital.
Today’s workout? “Twenty-five pitches at 90 percent effort, all of them fastballs aimed low in the zone.” But before Norris can even begin to think about pitching, he must go through an intensive warmup that takes at least an hour.
At 192 pounds and only six percent body fat, Norris takes a long, hot shower to relax his muscles. Then, he loosens his shoulder with the help of a trainer before walking out onto the artificial turf. Norris then plays catch with his fellow teammates: 10 throws from 30 feet, then 10 from 60, 15 from 120, and then another 10 from 60 feet.
After warming up, Norris walks up to the bullpen and digs into the mound, preparing for his first pitch. During moments like these, Norris says that arm feels almost foreign to him as if it’s some sort of fluke gift.
For some reason, the pitcher’s arm just knows how to throw a fastball. No one in his family was or is an athlete, yet Norris was ranked 18th best prospect for the Major Leagues. “I am always trying to figure out why I can throw like this because it doesn’t make any sense,” Norris said in 2015.
Norris loves the art of pitching. He obsesses over it, dreams about it. But he also dreams about other things, too. The pitcher also wants to go trekking in Banff, surf in Hawaii, go on a rock-climbing expedition in Oregon, and even publish his photography in Patagonia’s monthly catalog.
He obviously wants to be a great pitcher, but he also wants so much more. Norris finishes his 25 pitches and is told to go cool down. He returns to the training facility and goes through another stretching session, another shower, and another massage.
By the time Norris leaves the spring training facility, it’s midafternoon. During the six hours he’s spent there, he only threw 25 pitches. As he opens the driver-side door of his VW bus, he gets a text from a coach.
It’s a slow-motion video of his workout, along with a short message: “focus on the details.” Norris gets into his car and heads towards the beach but makes sure to stop for groceries on the way. Today’s menu? Chicken and vegetables for a stir-fry for $11.50. He then gets into his car and goes on his way.
Norris drives past the coast until he reaches a two-lane causeway, which is a road in the middle of the water and pulls off onto the sand. This is his favorite beach in Florida. The nearly 25-feet of sand “hidden” from the road by a line of palm trees is so public that no one seems to notice it.
Well, no one except for Norris. Sitting on the beach, you can hear cars whizzing by at 50 miles per hour, but the MLB pitcher doesn’t care. It’s his own private beach—a place where he comes to paddleboard, read, and journal all by himself.
One time, after spending all morning in the water, Norris swam back to the sand and fell asleep on his paddleboard. A few hours later, Norris woke up to find that the tide had risen and swept him and his board out into the ocean.
He was far away from the shore, completely disoriented and a little scared. But it also gave him a feeling of adventure, which is what he lives for. “That was one of the best moments of my life,” he said. Now, he sits on that same beach and watches the sunset while he cooks his stir fry on his portable stove.
As he gears up for his next season, Norris knows that he will have to make two concessions: shave his beard and move into a teammate’s house. While it’s important for Norris to stick to his way of life, he also wants the team to know that he takes his job seriously.
“There are some things that I’m just going to have to get over,” he told ESPN in 2016. “I can’t be by myself all the time. I can’t live the total minimalist life. I guess I’m going to have to figure out where and when to give in.”
Norris sometimes feels that other players and fans think that his eccentricity and unconventional lifestyle are just a phase. Let’s be honest here. Will Norris really be living in a van if his $2 million becomes $40 million? Will he still write in his thought journal when he becomes a full-blown MLB star?
How can Norris’ lifestyle survive the pressures of fame and corporate sponsorship? But Norris sweeps these questions under the rug. “What I’ll do, if baseball goes well, is I’ll become even more of an ambassador for the things I really care about,” he told ESPN.
Norris also says that no amount of fame will come between him and his van, Shaggy. For years, the two were inseparable during Norris’ off-season. Much to the amusement of his fellow teammates, Norris insisted on driving his VW van down to Florida for spring training.
He also takes Shaggy on cross-country trips at least once a year. But as much as Norris loves his car, he knows that it has its limits. Shaggy broke down three times during his 2015 drive from Tennessee to Oregon (and several more times since).
“It was pretty gnarly,” Norris recalls. The second time it broke down, Norris blew the third cylinder while driving through Kansas. He eventually found a mechanic in Denver, Colorado, who could fix it. But in order to get there, Norris had to drive eight hours at 35 miles an hour.
The VW van lasted for one more day before it failed again. “I’m very fortunate for those experiences,” the pitcher continues. “I think they’ve helped mold me as a person.” As time’s gone on, Norris has gotten handier too.
He knows how to fix his car with duct tape and zip ties and has educated himself on how to make Shaggy last long-term. “I like the idea of fixing it myself,” Norris explains. “My dad’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met, so he’s inspired me to relish those opportunities.” Now going on his tenth year with Shaggy, Norris has his traveling system down pat.
He doesn’t pack as many things (to keep the weight down) and now performs maintenance checks before any long drive. While his trips have become increasingly shorter in recent years, he has no plans on abandoning van life.
“I plan on having it my whole life,” Norris said of his VW van. “It helped me find myself in many ways. It means a lot to me.” But for now, it’s just Shaggy and the Van Man sitting together on the beach. As he walks towards the water, he looks up at the sky and starts to name the stars above.
Norris takes out his camera and begins photographing everything he sees—the van, the beach, the stars, everything. “I have to capture this,” he says. For another night, Norris is at peace on the beach, and maybe, just maybe, he can make it last.