The new starter in town, a square-built, fast-talking right-hander from the clean streets of Marin County, Calif., compares favorably with some of the most epic performers in Braves history.
Yes, Bud Norris acknowledge, he is Smoltz-good. And on most days better than Glavine or Maddux.
With one proviso: “As long as I make my putts I’m all right,” Norris said.
Yeah, the new guy can golf his ball, and is mad for the game — that much he has in common with those other Braves greats of yore. He’s a 2-handicap when he has the time to work on his short game and the funny tan lines. Has a best-round 66 in his bag. As for his work with the larger ball, the one which the Braves intend to hand him every five days of summer, the comparisons fall off a bit. Norris the pitcher is far more of a puzzle.
We will get off the hobby talk and onto matters that most concern the Braves community in a moment, after one more golf-themed observation.
“Last year, I hope, was my mulligan,” Norris said last week.
Following a 2014 season that was the best of his career with a 2015 season in which he put up career-worst numbers in almost every column, Norris is in need of a do-over. The Braves signed the 31-year-old to a one-year deal to supplement their largely unproven rotation in the hopes that he indeed could erase the memories of one wayward year.
The omens of spring have been fair. Following his second start of March on Thursday, Norris had allowed one run in five innings, struck out three and walked one.
Fighting now for dominance are a couple of wildly different versions of Norris.
There’s the Norris who Braves coach Bo Porter sent out to be his opening-day starter when he managed the Houston Astros in 2013 — Norris was the winner, giving up two runs in 5 2/3 innings. The one Porter compliments today with terms such as “consummate professional,” “durable,” “student of the game.”
Traded to Baltimore later that year with the Astros in re-structuring mode, Norris took off in 2014, going 15-8 with a 3.65 ERA. Having left behind an Astros organization that had lost an average of 108 games the previous three seasons, he even got to whet his appetite with a couple of postseason starts.
The table was set. He would take that success into 2015, the final year of his contract, and ride into free agency in an empty Brinks truck with dreams of filling it with green.
Then there emerged the alternative version of Norris. The one who struggled with his health and then his pitching sanity in Baltimore. The Orioles first stripped him of his starting duties, and then just released him. He finished up a 3-11 season (6.72 ERA) in San Diego.
What happened? First, there was a particularly stubborn form of bronchitis that cost him 15 pounds that Norris could scarcely afford to lose. “Pitching at the big league level is hard enough, never mind not having your legs under you,” he said.
The theory took root that he also came down with a bad case of contract poisoning. The distraction of playing for the next big deal was toxic.
Norris doesn’t argue with certain assumptions of his new general manager. “It’s not uncommon,” John Coppolella said. “Bud Norris was poised for a really big contract. If he had a big year in 2015 he might have been right there with guys like Jeff Samardzija and Mike Leake (two starters who pulled down five-year free-agent deals in excess of $80 million). He had a tough year — maybe put a little pressure on himself. Maybe it was that illness. Could be a lot of different things.”
Instead of a multi-year contract, Norris was had for a one-year trial at the relatively reasonable rate of $2.5 million. He’ll still be playing for his next contract, so what might be the difference now?
A wiser Norris put forth his revised philosophy: “Go play this for now, enjoy it for what it is, leave it on the field and what’s meant to be will be.”
Upon reporting to the Braves, Norris showed his satisfaction to the world in the usual way, by taking to Twitter. “Was like a 10 year old waking up today. I’m so excited and honored to start the next chapter…,” he wrote.
He took slipping into a Braves uniform as a sign to re-connect with the joy of playing with a game. For what was the name of his Little League team for three years back in California? Yeah, the Novato Braves.
“When they were going through such a storied history it was fun to watch,” Norris said, remembering his first connection to his new team.
“I never knew where my big league career was going to take me, but this offseason to get that call in November from John Hart and company — to be wanted again — was amazing.
“I finally got to put the Braves jersey on again. It kind of gave me a jolt. It gave me some goosebumps, gave me that kid feeling we always have but can fade away. To have it rekindled meant a lot and really excited me.”
The young Norris was a precocious lad. The given name is David, but he acquired the name Bud at 3 years old when, after hearing the adults all ordering a beer of a certain brand, he chimed in and ordered one of his own. To this day, everyone is grateful that the Norris clan did not prefer Stella or Yuengling.
The young Norris was a confident and competitive cuss, too. He turned everything into a contest, his parents say. And there wasn’t a game he wouldn’t try, even if that meant being a quarterback who had trouble seeing over the line or a guard who was never going to get recruited by Krzyzewski. He even did water polo for a couple of years to get fit for baseball.
Summoning those former joys and those old flames can’t be a bad move after a season that tried to extinguish it all.
One of his old acquaintances believes the change in scenery is going to do great things for Norris.
“I think this guy is going to have a bounce-back year,” Porter said. “I think our ballpark is very conducive to his skill sets. I think getting back into the National League is going to help him as well.
“I think he has come here revived.”
His genes might have made conflicting plans for Norris. His grandfather played baseball at Cal, and his father played golf at the school. But there is only one trait needs to be dominant this year, and it’s not the one that wears plaid.
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