Tigers’ Daniel Norris recounts COVID-19 story: ‘The game changed in front of our eyes’

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press

It all happened so fast.

The Detroit Tigers were in the middle of a March 12 spring training game in Lakeland, Florida, when some players began to pack their bags.

This wasn’t unusual.

Spring training allows for added relaxation, unlike the regular season. The locker room culture is loose. Games don’t matter much unless you’re in the hunt for a roster spot. And players not in the lineup nor scheduled to pitch can leave the ballpark early.

Daniel Norris, a left-handed pitcher, was departing when general manager Al Avila stopped him. The COVID-19 pandemic had already introduced itself to the U.S., forcing the indefinite suspension of the NBA and NHL. What happened next seemed inevitable.

“Hey, everybody needs to stick around,” Avila said. “We’re going to have a meeting after the game.”

The room went silent. Not long after, MLB announced the remainder of spring training was suspended and the first two weeks of the regular season would be pushed back. Avila felt directionless.

“I don’t know right now,” Avila said about restarting baseball activities.

Nobody knew.

More: ‘We Lived It’: How Detroit Tigers’ Daniel Norris kept in shape and sane in a pandemic

So much for the two-week delay of the regular season. MLB didn’t come back until July 23. The Tigers returned to play the next day for Opening Day against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park.

“I didn’t think it would last as long as it did,” Norris, 27, told the Free Press in January, recounting his pandemic experience. “Just because there was so much unknown. We had no idea. It was interesting, just playing that waiting game.”

The season, axed to 60 games, was awkward. No fans. Phony crowd noise. Coronavirus tests. Face masks. And a closed clubhouse, with employees — nicknamed the “mask police” — monitoring the players and coaches to ensure social distancing.

Baseball is determined by options and adjustments. It’s comparable to life, as a single person makes tens of thousands of choices each day. For Norris, it’s often pitch selection. Or transitioning from the starting rotation to the bullpen. Or how strong to make his coffee in the morning.

Last year, simple choices were amplified for the entire country. As of Feb. 16, the coronavirus has infected more than 27 million people in the nation and resulted in over more than 480,000 deaths.

“We’re all just warriors,” Norris said. “This is unprecedented. The whole world is seemingly shut down. How are we going to get through this? Every human is different. And they all find their zones where they’re comfortable to get through the 24 hours of that day.

“It taught me a lot about myself, dating back to the day spring training got shut down. I was like, ‘All right, what now?’ You had to figure out what’s going to keep you sane, what’s going to keep you going, what’s going to wake you up in the morning. I’ve never had an issue being motivated. But this year definitely tested that.”

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So, what next?

The initial plan was for players to continue training in Lakeland. Gradually, they returned home. Six or seven of them, including Norris, stayed in Florida until summer camp began in early July at Comerica Park.

Pitchers stick to a strict and personalized throwing program to prepare their arms, hoping to avoid an injury. Now they were ad-libbing. Many only had their arms ready to complete three or four innings.

“Do I need to keep building up?” Norris, who kept throwing daily, recalls asking himself. “Do I need to get to six (innings)? A lot of us hovered around that four- or five-inning threshold.”

His life turned into a constant cycle of four priorities: working out, throwing, surfing and waiting for a call from the MLB Players Association. (The Tigers’ player representative is Matthew Boyd, but the alternates — Norris and Buck Farmer — joined phone discussions.)

Some nights, the calls lasted five hours.

“No exaggeration,” Norris said.

Norris filled half of a journal with notes from the meetings, from the logistics of trying to play games during the pandemic to how much players would get paid. After each conversation, Norris reached out to the younger players to keep them updated.

“It felt like things were changing every three hours,” Norris said. “I’ll look back on 20 years from now and be like, ‘Wow. That was kind of crazy.’ The game changed right in front of our eyes.”

The MLB and the players’ union reached an agreement March 26 to salvage the season. It included crucial information about the regular season, postseason, player salaries, service time, and much more.

But the details were far from clear, with the season’s length and pay cuts for players causing a standoff in negotiations.

On June 23, nearly three months later, the league and the union finally agreed on the health and safety protocols to return for a 60-game schedule. Players were told to report to training camp starting July 1.

Getting COVID-19

But Norris didn’t report to Comerica Park in early July.

On June 19, the Philadelphia Phillies had a COVID-19 outbreak within their spring training complex. As a result, MLB told teams to shut down their facilities to undergo deep cleaning and disinfecting. No one was permitted to return without a negative test.

Soon after that, Norris was tested for COVID-19.

“The day I had the test was the day I started feeling a lot better,” Norris said. “I was remaining hopeful the whole time, but then I found out I had it. At that point, the worst of it, as far as body and health-wise, was gone.”

The symptoms had begun about a week before his June 23 positive test. He drove to Cocoa Beach — about 100 miles east of Lakeland — for a sunset surf. He wore damp board shorts for the drive back to Tampa, where he rents a garage studio in the spring.

“I woke up one night and was sweating quite a bit,” Norris said. “Had the aches and all that deal, and I knew we had a test coming up through the team. … I just woke up dripping sweat off my fingertips. Other than that, I never lost my taste or smell, never really had a headache or fever.”

The positive test was the beginning of his problems.

With the Tigers gearing up for baseball’s return, Norris needed two consecutive negative tests to rejoin the team in Detroit. He wasn’t cleared until July 21, about a month after his positive test and over two weeks after the Tigers opened camp.

Those 27 days of waiting — without symptoms — were frustrating. One test wasn’t enough.

“I was sneaking out of the house to go throw against a chain-linked fence,” Norris said. “I’m glad I kind of challenged the protocols there. My days were pretty much the same for five weeks: Wake up, get my work in, make some food, sit on the couch and watch surf films. They were streaming the summer camp on Fox Sports, so I sat on the porch, had a coffee and watched it.”

And when Norris finally got to Comerica Park on July 23 for a simulated game, the Tigers were already headed to Cincinnati for two exhibition games ahead of Opening Day. The circumstances were challenging, mentally and physically.

Instead of rushing Norris’ return, the organization sent the left-hander to the alternate training site in Toledo, where he pitched intrasquad scrimmages to build up his arm.

“I would just show up, get my work in and drive over an hour back to Detroit,” he said. “The drive got old, but they were super good to me. … I thought they were doing a good job of keeping it loose.”

Returning to a different game

Finally, it was Aug. 2.

Norris was brought up to start Game 2 of a doubleheader. In years past, he hung out with his teammates in the clubhouse. They shared the same coffee pot. They had lunch together. And they pulled jokes on each other.

Not this time.

“Now we’ve got these TV trays in front of our locker,” Norris said. “You got the mask police coming around. Like, you’re in between bites of your meal, and they’re like, ‘Can you put your mask on?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m eating right now.’ That stuff took a little bit of getting used to.

“You’re walking around the clubhouse and looking over your shoulder, making sure you’re not about to get a yellow card. We made jokes about it, but we all understood this is what we got to do to get through this.”

Don’t mistake Norris’ frustration for a lack of gratitude. All he wanted to do was play in 2020, and he got his wish. Yet that doesn’t take away from the strangeness of the Tigers’ locker room.

As for the stands without fans, Norris gets asked that question a lot.

“As athletes, it’s really cool to have something inside of us that you can put the blinders on,” Norris said. “Whether there’s fans or not, when it’s game time, you’re dialed in, you’re locked in. Even if it’s a packed house, 40,000 people, you don’t hear anything.

“That was the cool thing about this year. Every player was able to tap back into that, even with no fans and the pumped-in crowd noise and the echoes. You’re able to hone in and do your job.”

‘My expectation’ for 2021

Norris did his job last season, just not in the role he expected. After that first start, he made 13 relief appearances across 26 innings, and posted a 2.77 ERA, 28 strikeouts and five walks.

The Tigers finished 23-35, putting them in the American League Central cellar for the third time in four years.

As pitchers and catchers report for spring training Wednesday — 342 days since last year’s spring training was abruptly shut down — Norris is searching for a defined calling. He has told new manager AJ Hinch and pitching coach Chris Fetter he wants to start.

But Norris jokingly said he will play center field if needed.

And the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t dissolved, meaning MLB should look eerily similar to 2020. The vaccine is available for some, but there’s a lengthy process to return to normal.

For now, Norris remains focused on improving daily — as a baseball player and as a person.

“My expectation is just to keep cruising,” Norris said. “Progress every day. … Every day is an opportunity to get better. I’m just taking that initiative. I want to be the best that I can be and prepare for the season. I’m also super excited to work with AJ and Chris, the new staff we have. We’re all really excited to get down there and get to work.

“I love where we’re at. I think we’re going to be a lot better this year.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

Listen for more

Daniel Norris’ battle with COVID-19 last year is chronicled in our “We Lived It” podcast series, produced by the Free Press in partnership with the Michigan History Center. It aims to bring people together, while still socially distanced, with stories of life during the pandemic.

Find the podcast on Spotify, on the Apple Podcasts app, through Google or Alexa devices and on freep.com.

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