Norris brings an intense competitive fire to Orioles
Newly acquired right-hander 'elated' to finally be in the thick of a playoff race
BOSTON -- When Bud Norris was in Pop Warner, he played in his team's football playoff game with a sponge taped to the back of his knee, homemade protection that allowed him -- against doctor's orders -- to play with stitches.
Norris, who spent the last two years at San Marin High School (Novato, Calif.) after going to private school, ascended from the third-string to first-string quarterback on the freshmen squad, no small feat when you're 5-foot-3. It would've been enough for most people to seek another sport, or at least another position, but Norris -- who was so short his coach had specially designed plays just so he could see over his linemen -- has never been one to shy away from any kind of competition.
Football, basketball, swimming, golf, water polo, baseball -- you name it, Norris played it, baseball all four years of high school and the rest mixed in when he had time. Norris was in second grade when his physical education teacher told him not everything was a game that had to be won; this was merely getting some exercise. The sentiment -- similar to what his mother, Suzi, tried to explain to her son at the infancy stages of Little League -- couldn't deter Bud, who earned the moniker -- his real name is David -- after trying to order a beer at a Mexican restaurant when he was 3 years old.
"It's part of who he is, and you can't take it out," Suzi said of her son's spirited nature. "Everything is a competition to Bud, not in a bad way, but that's who he is."
And these days, Norris is in a place that welcomes that. Norris -- acquired from the Astros in a Trade Deadline deal -- is part of an Orioles team in the thick of the American League playoff race, eager to follow up on the organization's first postseason win in 15 years.
"Every day, these guys come to the ballpark with their minds wrapped on winning ballgames, getting to the postseason and making a postseason run," Norris said of his new club, which lost in the AL Division Series to the Yankees after winning the AL Wild Card Game over the Rangers in 2012. "Watching them as a fan of baseball last year was truly remarkable. Now to say that I'm part of it, it's still kind of setting in."
Norris had spent his entire career -- spanning parts of five Major League seasons -- with Houston, a club on pace for its third consecutive season of 100 or more losses. He can rattle off the changes like a rendition of the "12 Days of Christmas": double-digit trades involving prominent players, five managers, one change in ownership.
"[The losing] weighs on you so bad, you can't even explain it to a certain degree," said Norris, who was acquired for outfielder L.J. Hoes and pitching prospect Josh Hader. "It's a game and we all love it, but you play the game to win. You don't go out there to lose it, and understanding, going through a rebuilding process and not having all the pieces, the focus wasn't really winning. It was the process."
With a career record of 34-46 with the Astros, Norris admits he let the losing get the best of him in previous years -- a mental state he worked hard to change this spring. The goal had to be to compete when he was in the game and cede control over what happened when he was not, easier said than done for the 28-year-old, a veteran in a youth-infused clubhouse.
"He was our No. 1," said Doug Brocail, who was a teammate of Norris' before being named Houston's pitching coach. "He tried to be that No. 1, and that No. 1 for Bud held a lot of responsibilities that I don't think he was ready to take on.
"When you're named ace of the staff, I think he tried to speak both verbally and with what he was doing on the mound, and I think sometimes when he didn't get it done, he felt he let himself down and his teammates down. And that's something he's going to to have to deal with and get better at. I know one thing, I don't have any complaints about it. He knows that, leaving here, we all wished him the best."
As Norris sat in his Baltimore hotel room in the Inner Harbor last month, awaiting word from Houston as to where his final landing spot would be, he found out he didn't need to pack his bags after all. In town with the Astros, Norris was scratched from his scheduled start on July 30, traded on July 31 and donned the Orioles' orange against his former club in his Aug. 1 debut.
"To see his first reaction when [O's infielder] Manny Machado made the play at third, Bud literally clapped his hands and was like, 'Oh my [gosh], this is what it's like to have five Gold Gloves behind you!'" said Suzi, who woke up at 3 a.m., along with her husband, David, to get to the East Coast in time to watch Norris win his first start with Baltimore. "He's just elated."
At this point, the biggest issue might be slowing Norris down. The right-hander, 3-1 with a 5.53 ERA in six games (five starts) for the Orioles, does everything at a quick pace, whether it's giving postgame quotes or navigating through the fourth inning. Norris, who starts every outing by tracing the initials of his late grandparents -- grandfather Ken spent a Spring Training with the Yankees -- can get into trouble when he speeds up his delivery.
"He's aggressive, has to slow himself down at times. He gets too excited," O's pitching coach Billy Castro said of Norris, who is under team control for another two seasons. "I know coming from Houston, it's a bunch of young guys. Here we've got some more experienced guys on the team. He's got to be a little more low-key here than he was over there in Houston."
The Orioles have won all five games Norris has started, a fact not lost on the newest member of the rotation. Still, Norris knows there is room for improvement and is excited for what the future holds as part of a postseason race that, by all indications, will go down to the wire. Coming off his worst start for the O's, Norris spoke first of the offense rallying back for a win before vowing to look at the game tape and get better.
"I wish everybody was as receptive as he was," said Rays bullpen coach Stan Boroski, who helped Norris establish a slider grip in Double-A. "The thing that Bud did was he was willing to take changes into a game. Some guys, if they are trying something new in side work, they are hesitant, but Bud doesn't have those fears. He went out there and he tried it, and if it didn't work, he kept working on it.
"He's a little bit [under the radar], but I know in the inner circles [of baseball], he's very highly thought of. I actually think his best successes are still in front of him."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.