Goddard baseball coach Tom Campa thought Derek Norris could become an all-star as early as 2006, when he moved the current Oakland Athletics standout from high school third baseman to catcher.
Norris had been known across the state as a power hitter, and once he strapped on a catcher’s mask he suddenly had the look of an all-around player major-league teams covet.
As a high school senior, Norris played so well that Campa had to split time between managing his team and managing scouts. Goddard had not experienced anything close to the hype surrounding Norris, and it hasn’t since. It was only a matter of time, Campa thought, until Norris made it big.
Still, he never imagined Norris heading to his first All-Star Game the way he will Tuesday in Minneapolis.
“We had rules in high school about being clean shaven. Now he has a huge beard,” Campa said with a laugh. “It’s funny, the people I talk to about him all say he has about the same body and about the same swing. He looks like the same man we all remember, he’s just covered with a lot of facial hair.”
That facial hair, extending inches lower than his chin and closing in on “Duck Dynasty” length, has become a calling card for Norris. Of course, people would notice the Goddard product regardless of appearance. Midway through his third major-league season, Norris is hitting .305 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs for the best team in baseball. The 25-year-old has become a staple on fantasy teams and he is now an all-star.
“This old iPhone of mine picked a really good time to act up,” Norris’ father, Russell, said. “I have had a lot of trouble getting back to all the text messages and all the phone calls and all the great people who have interest in our son. I will feel really horrible as I sit in the car with my wife and it’s my turn to ride on the way to Minneapolis. I won’t be talking. I will be returning five-day-old texts.”
Norris began his professional career in 2007, turning down a scholarship offer to play at Wichita State to sign with the Washington Nationals. They drafted him in the fourth round and offered him $210,000.
Attempts to reach Norris for this story were unsuccessful. The Athletics did not make him available for an interview. But he has previously said it was a tough decision to sign. Some around Wichita, including his parents, wondered if he made the right choice, especially after he hit .203 in the short-season Gulf Coast League as a rookie.
“As parents, we had some concerns,” Russell Norris said. “Wichita State was a powerhouse and here he was going off to a place we didn’t know. We weren’t sure about anything.”
An in-home visit from Nationals representative Bob Boone convinced Norris the time was right to turn pro. The former all-star catcher explained to Norris that he could devote his life to baseball as a member of the Nationals’ organization instead of splitting his time between classes and baseball in college.
His pro career got off to a slow start, but it has been on a meteoric rise since.
He made it to Double-A with the Nationals in 2011, before he was traded to Oakland during the offseason. He quickly made a mark with the Athletics’ Triple-A affiliate and played his first major-league game in 2012. He made it on the field for 60 games that season, then 98 games in 2013. He is on pace to top 100 games this season, despite sharing catching duties with John Jaso and Stephen Vogt.
“He’s been awesome,” teammate Sean Doolittle told the San Francisco Chronicle last month. “Not just the hitting, but the way he handles the pitching staff.”
“He has developed each season,” Campa added. “He has got the very similar stance to what he did in high school, but he has definitely gotten stronger. His swing is quicker and he is quick to the ball. I noticed a lot of his power source is now coming from his back side, where normally it never had. And can still manage a game flawlessly behind the plate.”
The most exciting part of Norris’ rise, for Campa, has been watching him go up against pitchers willing to throw him strikes.
That rarely happened at Goddard, where Norris won a Class 6A championship in 2004 and became a top recruit as a senior in 2007.
“He was so strong and such a good hitter that they pitched around him,” Campa said. “But he took advantage of the strikes he saw. I remember one trip to San Antonio, he was a senior going up against a freshman and he it a 350-foot home run. He cleared not only the 320 fence, but a dorm behind it. He hit it over the building. He could really hit the crap out of the ball.”
He could really grow a beard back then, too, but no one realized it until he was traded to the Athletics. Much like Goddard, the Nationals had a strict policy against facial hair.
There are no such rules in Oakland, where teammates have encouraged Norris to grow a mullet and film a “Forrest Gump“ parody with the new hairstyle. Coincidence or not, his batting average spiked.
“They don’t care about facial hair out there. They share a stadium with the Raiders,” Russell Norris said. “Derek started growing out his beard. It got all crazy and then he found some success. He looks like a caveman and a lumberjack, a guy out in the woods. But he won’t change anything while everything is working. He wants to win the World Series.”