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A portrait of a pitcher: Daniel Norris' journey to find perspective

Ben Moon had come very close to selling it on Craigslist. The renowned adventure photographer and filmmaker was switching over to Sony as a brand ambassador and had found a potential buyer for his Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II portrait lens, even though the guy didn't immediately have the cash. Still, the idea of parting with the lens like that just didn't sit well. It left Moon with a sinking feeling in his stomach, thinking of a collector's item, potentially going unused. He had shot his own mentors and heroes with that lens, along with surf legends, musicians, activists and yogis. The lens had sentimental meaning beyond just financial value.

So he texted Daniel Norris instead.

The two had previously struck up a friendship on Instagram through their mutual love of photography. And although Moon has a bevy of experience -- his work has appeared in National Geographic, GQ, People Magazine and The New York Times -- and Norris was still a relative novice in the domain, Moon saw some photos that really intrigued him on the young pitcher's social media page.

One day, he commented on one of Norris' photos and Norris subsequently "fanned out," Moon recalls. Norris direct messaged him to let Moon know he was one of Norris' icons. The two began talking and found out they had a ton in common. So, when Moon had to part with this instrumental piece of his photography equipment, he felt better knowing it would be in good hands.

He asked Norris if he wanted it. And Norris did.

Norris told Moon he would be honored to have it, that it would forever be a sacred piece.

What Norris ended up doing with that lens blew Moon away. The 22-year-old, left-handed pitcher for the Detroit Tigers -- who first made headlines with his unconventional offseason routine of living in an old Volkswagen van and later revealed he had been diagnosed with cancer during his rookie season -- showed a real gift with that lens. Sometimes he would practice on his friends within the clubhouse, while at other times he'd seek out complete strangers. When the team made road trips to Kansas City and Cleveland in September, he ventured out to local homeless communities, where he sought out interesting people, learned their names, and -- with their permission -- tried to tell a bit of their stories.

His work was stunning.

"I sell you this lens and you go out and capture humanity on a level most people don't see," Moon recalled, thinking of Norris in a recent telephone conversation with ESPN.com. "It just made me all the sudden [think], 'Who is this guy?' There's something more there, something beyond his years."

Their friendship continued throughout the 2015 season, and Moon eventually approached Norris with the idea of doing a road trip together during the offseason. Moon wanted to spend time with Norris and shoot the whole experience to turn it into a film.

Norris was immediately "geeked."

"He just freaked out. He was all for it," Moon said.

The two planned a trek from Norris' hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee, to coastal Oregon, where Moon spends a lot of his time. In between, the expedition would take them through Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

They would stop and crash with friends along the way. They would take photos and practice their craft. They would make time to surf once they reached the coast.

Naturally, things didn't always go as planned in their Nov. 15-Dec. 4 road trip.

They broke down -- twice. Any attempt to fix the van themselves was feeble. "Shaggy" had no heat, which meant they both had to layer all the clothes they had brought, simply to stay warm, especially during the chillier parts of the trip, including western Kansas and eastern Colorado.

But they had plenty to talk about.

Both found inspiration in nature and photography. Both came from humble roots. Both felt being on the road helped alleviate some of the craziness of daily life.

And both, Moon said, had "a ticket to a club you don't want to be a part of."


Moon, who is now 40, began having symptoms at age 27. He didn't seek treatment until age 29, at which point the doctors told him that the stage of his colorectal cancer was akin to holding a match to a piece of paper in the middle of a forest. Had he waited even weeks longer, it would have spread everywhere.

Thus began a year of chemotherapy and radiation, a difficult journey that took Moon more than a decade to come to terms with, culminating with his production of the short film "Denali," which details his enduring companionship with his beloved dog, Denali, during that battle.

Norris was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the spring of 2015 while still a member of the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He had the option of shutting himself down immediately or putting off the surgery he required until the offseason. Norris chose the latter.

He would shuttle to doctor's appointments for testing after his starts. Some of his teammates noticed. Some had no idea he was diagnosed. Norris felt no need to broadcast the information.

"I felt, for the most part, it wasn't necessary for me to put it out there," he said.

Still, those who knew him well could tell it was taking a toll.

"Whether he would ever admit it or not, it definitely affected him," former teammate Randy Wolf told ESPN.com in a recent phone conversation. "He seemed really torn when he was pitching."

Norris, who was in Triple-A Buffalo at the time, was putting an immense amount of pressure on himself to get back to the big leagues, meanwhile going through the added stress of the diagnosis.

"For anybody, I don't care how old or mature you are, that's a lot to handle," Wolf said.

And that was before Norris was traded, Wolf pointed out.

"I felt like he wanted to keep this private. And actually, I don't think I spoke to him until he brought it up. He seemed to be fine going about his business, so I didn't want to -- if he had pushed it to the back of his mind, I didn't want to bring it to the forefront."

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus on Daniel Norris' cancer diagnosis

Even his family did not find out immediately. His older sister, Amanda, was having a baby. He didn't want her or other family members to become preoccupied with worrying.

"I kind of kept it to myself for a while. That was kind of my thing," Norris said. "For me, I wanted to take care of it myself."

The Tigers did know about Norris' diagnosis when they acquired him as part of the deal that sent starting pitcher David Price to the Blue Jays at the trade deadline. The Tigers did their due diligence, however, and were assured Norris' cancer could be easily treated. He would need to undergo surgery during the offseason, after which he would be expected to be fully ready for spring training. And even though he had an up-and-down 2015 season, the Tigers knew he had talent and could instantly add depth to the club's pitching prospects.

Norris left behind no enemies in Toronto and showed promise, according to his former manager, Gary Allenson, in Triple-A Buffalo. "It's only a matter of time before this kid is going to be really good," Allenson told ESPN.com last week in a telephone conversation. "He's a hard worker, and he's an athlete."

And while Norris had difficulty at the start of the 2015 season in Triple-A Buffalo with the Blue Jays -- part of which might be attributed to the dead-arm stint he experienced after going, at his own admission, a bit too hard in spring training -- he made an immediate impact on the Tigers' injury-ravaged staff.

He gave up just one run in 7.1 innings in his first start for Detroit, collecting a win against the Baltimore Orioles on Aug. 2. A few weeks later, he stunned the crowd at Wrigley Field when he smacked a home run to deep center in his first career plate appearance.

Manager Brad Ausmus was privy to Norris' cancer diagnosis but never spoke about it with Norris until after the season was over.

At first, teammates were struck by how shy Norris was. This may have been the same guy who spent his offseason in a van and spurned many of the conventional luxuries of big league life, but he wasn't the type to trumpet those facts. Only when Wolf, Norris' teammate in Buffalo, arrived in a late-season trade, did the Tigers witness him coming out of his shell and showing more of his personality.

By the time a trip to the disabled list in August sidelined him for almost a month, Norris seemed to be feeling more at ease and comfortable in the new clubhouse, Wolf noticed. Norris always wanted to be around his teammates. He even asked the Tigers if he could continue to be around the team and travel on road trips.

But few, even then, knew that he was dealing with cancer in addition to the abdominal strain that landed him on the DL.

"I felt like he wanted to keep this private," Ausmus said. "And actually, I don't think I spoke to him until he brought it up. He seemed to be fine going about his business, so I didn't want to -- if he had pushed it to the back of his mind, I didn't want to bring it to the forefront."

It wasn't so much that Norris had deliberately tried to bury the idea. Instead, he was just so consumed with the desire to help his new club that it distracted him from worrying.

"I never had any symptoms, really. It was just mental," Norris said. "It was more or less just like trying to focus on baseball. That really kept me going, just focusing on pitching.

"I think for me, honestly, wanting to pitch was about wanting to win ballgames," Norris continued. "I was going to be fine. I knew I was going to be fine. You could just feel people doubting us as a team, and I wanted to do everything I could to go out there and win ballgames. Obviously, being on the disabled list, you can't do that. So that's what kept me going, getting me back on the field to be a part of the team ... just being relevant at the end of the year, that was my drive to get back on the ball field."

And you can bet that made a significant impression on the Tigers.

"Strong mental fortitude," Ausmus said of Norris.


Norris eventually revealed his diagnosis after the Tigers' season was over in October, telling his fans and followers on Instagram that he wanted to share this because of his firm belief in the power of prayer. He told thousands that baseball kept him sane, that he forgot about his illness when he was on the mound.

Two weeks later, he posted a smiling photo of himself, revealing that his surgery was successful and that he was cancer-free, hashtag #Justkeeplivin

And soon enough, that's what he was doing.

First, there was a quick jaunt to Nicaragua for a surf trip. Apparently, he easily made friends there, because after he came back, fellow Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez told Norris he had run into a few of his surf cohorts when he went down there himself for a vacation.

Following his surfing sojourn, Norris and Moon embarked on their ambitious journey. Moon met Norris' extended family and began to understand why a person who had seemingly reached the pinnacle of success at his sport as a professional athlete had remained so humble.

Moon found Norris' family to be warm, "real down-home folks" with big hearts. They welcomed Moon into their home and around their dinner table with open arms. They could not have cared less about any sense of celebrity -- either Norris' or Moon's. It was so neat for Moon to see Norris' roots, in part because they reminded him of his own.

After Moon's brief stay with Norris and his extended family in Tennessee, the two set to packing up Norris' van and embarking upon the big trip.

Moon immediately got a glimpse of Norris' traveling style. When Moon was busy loading up the van with his gear, Norris simply threw together a bag of clothes, hoisted his surfboard into the back and jumped in. Just like that.

Unlike other professional athletes, some of whom can become quickly accustomed to chartered flights and five-star hotels, Norris was decidedly low maintenance. When they would crash at a friend's place, he would be the first to bundle up on the floor, offering the bed to someone else.

"Just no sense of ego or pretentious nature, like, 'Hey, I'm somebody,'" Moon said.

The topic of cancer would come up occasionally, but not often. Moon found that Norris was largely still processing what he had been through. A brush with mortality can change your perspective -- Moon said he could even sense a shift in his own work after his diagnosis -- but everyone deals with it differently. "Honestly, we didn't talk much about it," Norris said. "One of those things that's in the past."

Mostly, they would talk about people they admired -- they consider Yvon Chouinard (founder of the Patagonia clothing company) and Jeff Johnson (Patagonia photographer and star of the film "180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless") mutual heroes -- and their passion for photography. Norris tried to soak up as much as he could from Moon, someone he considers a mentor and now counts as a friend.

"Seeing the way this guy can do his craft is just incredible. It was just really cool to watch him sit back and do his thing," Norris said. "I definitely learned from that."

And through imparting his techniques, his experience and his advice, Moon learned quite a bit from his protégé.

"I feel he has an innate gift, an intuitive eye that comes from who he is and how he sees," Moon told ESPN.com via text. "A level of connectedness to his subjects that is very difficult to achieve."

Granted, the trip was not all lush landscapes and levity. There were some brief moments of anxiety -- like when Shaggy broke down or when the layers of clothing did little to mitigate the biting cold -- but even those were short-lived.

Through photography, and some shared life experiences, both men have something else in common: perspective.

"Obviously, [Moon] is an awesome guy, but it was just really cool going through that adventure with him and going through the ups and downs of it," Norris said. "We would both get frustrated and think, we're going to look back at this and laugh."

And they did.

"Sure enough, he'd text: 'Hey, remember that time we went from Stratton, Kansas, to Boulder, Colorado, in third gear with one cylinder missing, going 35 miles an hour for 8½ hours?'" Norris recalled, laughing. "And I was like, yeah, I remember that."