Cali kid Norris finds a home in Houston
Right-hander a favorite to win a job in Astros' rotation
HOUSTON -- Bud Norris strolls into a bustling restaurant in a popular part of town on a chilly February day, oozing California cool. He has eschewed long sleeves in favor of a printed shirt, and he has name-brand surfer sunglasses perched atop his head.
Born and raised in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, the 24-year-old has taken his panache and his powerful right arm across the country in search of his dream of playing in the Major Leagues -- a goal he fulfilled last year, when he appeared in 11 late-season games with the Astros.
Norris doesn't figure to be wearing a cowboy hat anytime soon, but he's purchased a townhouse in Houston and hopes to make Texas his home for a long time. He'll report to Spring Training in two weeks as one of the favorites to win a job in the Astros' starting rotation.
Not too bad for a fast-talking Cali kid who grew up snowboarding and playing golf.
"As far as Houston goes, I love the city," Norris said while pushing aside an order of chicken strips. "The people are very nice and very friendly, and it's big. There's a lot to do, and you're not going to get bored. There's always a new restaurant to try, which is nice, or always new steakhouses.
"The only thing is the weather. That's the biggest difference coming from the San Francisco area. You feel the humidity, but it's nice to know our office is air conditioned."
Norris could have wound up doing anything, and in any place, other than playing baseball in Houston. He was raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Novato, Calif., and grew up tinkering with golf, soccer, baseball and just about anything else that required a score to be kept.
His father, Dave, is a financial adviser who began taking Bud to play golf at a tender age, and the pitcher is a scratch golfer as a result. He went on annual snowboarding trips to Lake Tahoe, and he fell in love with the open water after going with his parents and sister on a couple of Caribbean cruises.
"Some of the best days of my life were when I was snowboarding," he said.
Norris attended a Catholic high school for two years before moving to public school for his junior and senior years. As a third baseman-outfielder-pitcher, he landed a scholarship at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and showed up at freshman orientation with a cast on his left wrist -- the result of a skimboarding accident in Florida.
"The first two months of college, I had a cast on, and it smelled all the time because I was working out and running with the team," Norris said. "I had to spray Febreze on it all the time."
Norris was born "David" but was forever nicknamed "Bud" after he followed the adults and ordered a beer at a restaurant when he was three years old. Perhaps that was appropriate, as he was always able to handle himself around those who were bigger than he was. Though he was usually the smallest kid off the field, his ability to throw his fastball near 100 mph prompted the Astros to select him in the sixth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.
"The first time I realized I had a chance [to reach the Major Leagues] was in high school, when I got a Division I scholarship to be a two-way player and made the team as a freshman with a cast on my wrist," Norris said. "I kept growing and getting better, and when I got drafted by the Astros, I was extremely excited. I knew I only had one shot at this."
Norris moved swiftly through the system, but he admitted that his first season at short-season Tri-City in 2006 was hard at times. His missed his home, his friends and his family. Before a game in his first pro season, he noticed as he warmed up that his parents had flown in from California, and he wound up striking out 13 batters in five innings.
"It was nice to see some friendly faces," he said.
Still, there were times when Norris had to get away from everything, which was difficult in Tri-City because he didn't have a car. The next year, at Class A Lexington, possessing his own transportation, he was able to escape baseball and his roommates by going to the driving range or simply driving around and watching people.
"There are definitely times it gets long and frustrating, but you need to find a place you can get away," he said.
At the end of the 2007 season, Norris was ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the system by Baseball America and rose to No. 2 prior to last year following a strong showing at Double-A Corpus Christi. The fact that he lost 16 of his first 24 Minor League decisions didn't matter. People had noticed his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio, his stuff and his bravado.
"I thought if they were willing to write about me at this point that maybe I've got this," he said.
Norris made his Major League debut on a sunny day in Wrigley Field last July with his parents in the stands. They followed him to St. Louis four days later for his first start -- in which he threw seven scoreless innings -- and down to Houston for his first home start five days after that. The family has always been close.
"I really think that helped me get off to a good start," said Norris, who won his first three starts. "I talk to my dad often, but it doesn't center around baseball. I love the game of baseball, and I love doing it for myself. Neither my mom nor my dad forced me to play. When I talk to him, it's two minutes on baseball and 20 minutes on everything else. 'How's the job? The house? The neighbors?' "
Norris finished last year 6-3 with a 4.53 ERA, and he hopes that his days of sleeping on the floor of the bus during long rides in the Minor Leagues are over. Just to make sure, he's been working out in the offseason at Minute Maid Park with several teammates, including Minor League prospect Evan Englebrook, a 6-foot-8 pitcher who's bunking at Norris' townhouse.
And, of course, being 24 years old, there's plenty time for video games. Norris and Englebrook, not wanting to immerse themselves in baseball, bought a soccer game for Xbox 360 and have been spending hours trying to win the World Cup. Competition knows no offseason.
"It gets intense at times," Norris said.
All in all, life is good for Bud Norris in his new hometown. He's gotten acquainted with the Galleria, has attended a Houston Rockets game and enjoys hanging out with friends. And earlier this week he was even recognized in a restaurant by some Astros fans, who yelled his name and gave him a wave.
Perhaps the California kid has found a home, after all.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.