By Jeff Keeling
When Science Hill High School teacher and coach Jeff Price, an avid Detroit Tigers fan, learned the team was trading pitching ace David Price, it was one more indication the Tigers had given up on the postseason to focus on the future.
Then came the good news: Price was headed to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for three prospects, and the top one was left-handed starting pitcher and 2011 Science Hill graduate Daniel Norris, one of Price’s former students and players.
“He texted me and said, ‘Did you have something to do with this?’ Price, who speaks frequently with Norris, said Friday.
Price’s weekend kept getting better. Having learned the Tigers would immediately insert Norris, 22, into their starting rotation, he procured tickets for Sunday’s game in Baltimore. There, Norris would mark his return to the majors, where he started the year for the Blue Jays before being shipped to the Triple A Buffalo Bisons after posting a decent 3.86 earned run average but experiencing control issues in his first five starts.
The road trip to Camden Yards was well worth it. Norris had averaged almost 19 pitches per inning in his five starts with Toronto. After the Tigers spotted him three runs in the top of the first Sunday, Norris was nearly dominant for seven and a third innings. He needed just 84 pitches and left after allowing just four hits, one walk and one earned run while striking out five.
The bullpen held the 6-1 lead and Norris got the win in the longest outing of his young major league career, lowering his season ERA to 3.23 in the process and making a highlight reel, diving catch of a J.J. Hardy bunt with two on and none out in the second. That was followed by a double-play groundout, and Norris’s only blemish was a Chris Davis home run in the fourth.
Price was succinct in his summation of Norris’s first outing in a Tiger uniform: “A thing of beauty.”
Price grew up in Abingdon and became a Tigers fan when the team’s rookie league affiliate played in Bristol. He purchased his first road bike after moving to Johnson City from David Norris, Daniel’s dad and until a few months ago the owner of Norris Schwinn.
He had taught Norris’s older sister in English at Science Hill and heard about Norris’s athletic prowess long before the lefty joined Science Hill’s JV team as a freshman. “Everybody knew in Little League he was going to be good,” Price said. He looked forward to the chance to coach Norris, but that didn’t last long. In an early-season game, “he got three outs for us as a freshman.” After that, it was on to varsity, where Norris started and won the first game of the state tournament that year.
“He threw 120 pitches in that game and then moved to center, where he ran down a ball and made a great throw to keep a runner from taking another base.”
The pair also bonded in the classroom. Price, known for using T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” in his sophomore classes, taught Norris as a sophomore. “Whenever we worked on poetry we always tried to find baseball-related poetry for him to work on,” Price said.
Norris, he added, has become the kind of young man who epitomizes the values Merlin was trying to instill in Arthur in White’s Arthurian novel.
“Kids so often latch onto something they think is cool and just follow it,” Price said. “Daniel thinks for himself, and any time anybody thinks for themselves it’s one of those Once and Future King things – Merlin’s main thing is trying to teach Arthur to think for himself.”
Price said Norris’s faith and independent thinking have served him well during a season that has had its ups and downs to date. He continued to struggle with walks at Buffalo, and also got terrible run support, leading to a 3-10 record.
“You go through stretches in baseball where you’re great, and you go through stretches in baseball where you’re not so great,” Price said. “You’ve just got to keep doing what you’re doing. There’s obviously a lot of people who believe in what he can do, and he’s shown what he can do.”
After Norris dismantled the Orioles Sunday, Baltimore Manager Buck Showalter put it this way: “These are the guys you get for David Price, OK? He’s got a chance to be a good pitcher for them.”
Price certainly hopes that Norris becomes a good major league pitcher, and that he does it with the Tigers. Writing in an early Friday, lengthy post for the Tiger site “Bless You Boys,” titled ‘A stat-free introduction to Daniel Norris,’ Price had this to say: “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.”
Price added that seeing Norris win his first major league game against the Yankees, “won’t come near the joy of watching him toe the slab for what I hope will be a thousand starts for our team …”
One good one down, 999 to go, coach.