Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
After a breakthrough 2009, Derek Norris is enjoying his first big-league camp.
Having just turned 21 two weeks ago, Norris is enjoying his first spring in major-league camp. And though he has no legitimate shot at making the Opening Day roster, his arrival may not be that far away, perhaps sometime in 2011.
In the meantime, the Kansas native is trying to soak in as much of the experience as possible, learning a few pointers from Ivan Rodriguez, developing a rapport with fellow prospect Stephen Strasburg and trying to leave a lasting impression on club officials before his inevitable demotion back to minor-league camp.
I caught up with Norris earlier today and asked him about life in big-league camp, life alongside a future Hall-of-Fame catcher and life after surgery to remove the hamate bone in his left hand in October...
MARK ZUCKERMAN: What's the experience been like being in big-league camp for the first time?
DEREK NORRIS: Well, I came over last year for one game, so I kind of got an idea what it was like. But I didn't really have a full grasp of it. Coming in at the start, it just feels a lot more like I belong than last year. They brought me along for a game, played a couple innings, didn't really get to grasp the whole situation. Here, ever since I've been here from the beginning, guys have pretty much taken me in, as I hoped they would, and not put me out there like an outcast. It's kind of been nice. Most of the guys have treated me pretty well. It's been a good experience.
MZ: You've only played at low-Class A. Obviously you're part of the organization's plan, but you probably know you're not coming out of this camp and going north to D.C. So what is the best thing you can get out of the time you're down here?
DN: Just experience, just knowing what it takes, how much you need in the offseason to get here. And hopefully in another year or so, I can be in a position where I can be in D.C.
MZ: You came down here for instructional league last fall. Things were going well, and then what happened with your hamate bone?
DN: I was just taking a regular at-bat, fouled a ball back. And just a freak deal, it just cut open right here [pointing to a spot on his left hand]. They took it out, and it healed up after about six weeks. I started my rehab and just tried to get stronger and gain the muscle back that I lost.
MZ: How disappointing was it that you couldn't go off to Arizona [for the Fall League], because that had to be something you were pretty excited about?
DN: You know, I was real excited about it. But I'm a firm believer in everything happens for a reason. And for some reason, somebody upstairs didn't want me going for some odd reason. No one will ever know what that reason is. But I'm a firm believer in that's what he has in plan, and whatever happens, happen. It's disappointing, yeah. But I'm here now and just trying to make the best of it while I'm here.
MZ: You're 100 percent healthy now?
DN: Oh, yeah. Every once in a while, it tweaks a little bit. But there's no pain at all. Sometimes I'll take a swing and it will be a little weak. But it's nothing that you can't live without.
MZ: You're in a camp here with Pudge Rodriguez, who is considered one of the greatest to ever play this position. How important can that experience be, however much or little time you do get to spend with him?
DN: I don't get much. He doesn't say a whole lot outside of [Jesus] Flores and [Wil] Nieves. But what I do get out of him is just a couple words a day, just here and there. Maybe every other day, he'll come up and say just a couple of pointers to help me out. He's not the type of guy that's going to say, "You're doing this and this and this." He's just going to say, "Try this." And he'll show you. And if you try it, it usually works. Funny how that works. But he's been really good. You can tell he's a good leader. He leads by example. He doesn't bitch and moan about drills or conditioning or anything like that. He just does it, gets it done. But it's nice.
MZ: He made his major-league debut in 1991. What were you doing in 1991?
DN: Hmm ... I was 2 years old. I have no recollection of what I was doing when I was 2. He's had a great career. Any type of awards he gets from the end of his career on, he deserves no matter what. There's always good catchers, but there's limited guys that are good catchers that can hit. That's what makes him so special. He can catch with the best of them in the league, and he can also put up numbers with the best hitters in the league. Which is miraculous, unbelievable.
MZ: You put up some big-time numbers last year, started getting some attention, in the organization and outside the organization. What's the next step for you? What do you need to accomplish this year?
DN: Well, as most of you guys probably know, I struggle a little bit behind the plate catching. Me and Bob Boone have really taken a lot of time in instructional league and through the second half of the season just working on a new stance, setting up correctly, learning how to receive softer, just things like that. What I hope to get out of it is to improve my catching. I think it has improved a lot. I just hope that I can show other people that I can catch and that I'm not going to have to transfer positions to first base or third base or outfield or whatever. I think my position, if I make it to the big leagues, is going to be catcher. I fully believe that. And I'm going to work my ass off just to get there. It's my favorite position. I love doing it. I think I'm going to be good at it. So I hope to prove to everybody else that I can catch at the best level.