Man in the Van: ESPN makes solid contact but fails to hit easy fastball out of the park

Time flies.

Five years and roughly 675 posts ago, I made my GetReligion debut on March 8, 2010.

In my introductory post, I wrote:

For a faithful GetReligion reader such as myself, joining the team of contributors is like a baseball fan invited to sit in the press box and share his opinions during the World Series. Although it's not quite in the same league as my beloved Texas Rangers, I'm a big fan of this weblog and its endeavor to pinpoint and expose the religion ghosts in the secular news media.

During GetReligion's 10th anniversary celebration last year, I shared my list of "Five things they didn't tell me."

But for my own GR-versary, the boss man Terry Mattingly — aka tmatt — suggested that I critique ESPN The Magazine's recent "Man in the Van" feature as a tribute to all 10 of our readers who care about religion and sports.

"Sure thing," I replied, welcoming any excuse to write about baseball.

Full disclosure: As a baseball fan and ordinary reader, I thoroughly enjoyed the ESPN profile of Daniel Norris, a highly touted pitching prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays. I may even have posted the link on my Facebook page and described the piece as "awesome." The story has been all over social media and made Elizabeth Tenety's "What inspired the Internet this week" feature for the Washington Post.

See if the colorful lede doesn't entice you to keep reading:

THE FUTURE of the Toronto Blue Jays wakes up in a 1978 Volkswagen camper behind the dumpsters at a Wal-Mart and wonders if he has anything to eat. He rummages through a half-empty cooler until he finds a dozen eggs. "I'm not sure about these," he says, removing three from the carton, studying them, smelling them and finally deciding it's safe to eat them. While the eggs cook on a portable stove, he begins the morning ritual of cleaning his van, pulling the contents of his life into the parking lot. Out comes a surfboard. Out comes a subzero sleeping bag. Out comes his only pair of jeans and his handwritten journals. A curious shopper stops to watch. "Hiya," Daniel Norris says, waving as the customer walks away into the store. Norris turns back to his eggs. "I've gotten used to people staring," he says.

This is where Norris has chosen to live while he tries to win a job in the Blue Jays' rotation: in a broken-down van parked under the blue fluorescent lights of a Wal-Mart in the Florida suburbs. There, every morning, is one of baseball's top-ranked prospects, doing pull-ups and resistance exercises on abandoned grocery carts. There he is each evening, making French press coffee and organic stir-fry on his portable stove. There he is at night, wearing a spelunking headlamp to go with his unkempt beard, writing in his "thought journal" or rereading Kerouac.

But several faithful GetReligion readers spotted holy ghosts in the story:

Go ahead and count all the ghosts in this section:

HE HAS ALWAYS lived by his own code, no matter what anyone thinks: a three-sport star athlete in high school who spent weekends camping alone; a hippie who has never tried drugs; a major league pitcher whose first corporate relationship was with an environmental organization called 1% for the Planet. He is 21 and says he has never tasted alcohol. He has had one serious relationship, with his high school girlfriend, and it ended in part because he wanted more time to travel by himself. He was baptized in his baseball uniform. His newest surfboard is made from recycled foam. His van is equipped with a solar panel. He reads hardcover books and never a Kindle. He avoids TV and studies photography journals instead.
"Nonconformist," reads one sign posted inside his VW.

Could being a nonconformist have something to do with his faith?

In an email, another reader said: 

I am not sure what his religious beliefs are, but he is wearing a cross in all of his photos, and there is a throwaway line about being baptized in his baseball uniform. Could religious conviction be animating his asceticism? It has to be possible, but this journalist does not seem interested in that angle.

Thought it might be worth some deeper investigation.

Actually, no deep investigation is needed. Half a second of Googling will turn up plenty of links concerning Norris' Christian faith. 

Norris is a member of the Central Church of Christ in Johnson City, Tenn., where the weekly bulletin last year noted that the staff would try to post clippings about his games on the bulletin board. I'm hoping to interview him sometime for The Christian Chronicle.

Last year, Canada's Sportsnet featured Norris, who received a $2 million signing bonus, in a piece that acknowledged the pitcher's faith:

“I prayed, ‘God, please don’t let the money change me,’” the soft-spoken Norris says. “I was 18 and I hadn’t seen a lot of the world but I’ve seen what money does to people. It makes them into something that they’re not.”
Though he eschewed going to Clemson University on a scholarship for a pro bonus, Norris didn’t take the money and run—he took it and gave. He gave money to the Central Church of Christ in his hometown. He gave money to travel teams he played for. He looked after his parents. He just couldn’t see spending it in any significant way on himself. There would be no bling. In place of gold and diamonds, he wears a thin leather necklace with two short nails in the form of a small pewter cross. No designer threads, just a trip to a Patagonia store where he bought a few items of clothing from the style-free brand that prides itself on durability. No real estate. No golf memberships. Instead of the fast lane, he sought out the soft shoulder.

Given how much Norris talks about his faith, there's no way ESPN missed the religion angle. The magazine obviously chose to ignore it, and that's a shame.

Granted, ESPN still produced a fascinating story — a solid double off the wall. 

But the magazine missed a chance to hit a straight-down-the-middle fastball out of the park.

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