Just weeks after 22-year-olds Daniel Norris and Dalton Pompey cracked their first Opening Day roster after impressive showings in spring training, the highly-touted Blue Jays prospects' rise towards major league stardom were dealt crushing blows. The two were sent down to Toronto's Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo and got a harsh lesson in the demands of the big leagues.
For Pompey, the quick-footed outfielder born in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, and Norris, a unique and gifted southpaw widely considered the team's top prospect, the demotion was less about their skills and more about gaining that necessary mental edge needed to compete in the majors.
Norris was told by management that his assignment to the minors was a blessing in disguise.
"At the time I didn't really want to hear anything, I was just pretty bummed," Norris told VICE before a recent game in Buffalo. "[But] I've been able to relax and be out of the spotlight in Toronto and just work on my game.
"When it first happened I thought they were giving up on me."
Although frustrated, the quirky and talented Norris, who catapulted through the team's farm system last season to make his major league debut in September, quickly bought into the plan.
"My whole career I've trusted every decision (the Blue Jays) have made for me. That trust was tested a few weeks ago, but I knew they have my best interests at heart," Norris said.
Both struggled to adapt to the major league way of life for different reasons.
Pompey, as close to a local-boy-done-good story as you're going to get in Toronto, admitted he was playing nervous and the results backed that up. He hit .193 with a .264 on-base percentage and six RBIs through 23 games before getting sent to Buffalo.
Slumps throughout the 162-game marathon baseball season are commonplace, but Pompey felt saddled with extra pressure being the hometown boy on the roster.
"I felt like I had to be that role model, that person who people saw and were proud of," he said. "When I let myself down, I also felt like I let a lot of people down, as well."
He admits he couldn't be himself at times but, after a few weeks in a Bisons uniform, he can already feel the tension subsiding—despite still struggling to find his stroke.
"I wasn't playing loose and playing like I had my whole life," said Pompey, the owner a .503 OPS through 16 games with the Bisons. "It was a big stage, but it was something I had to go through to learn from and to know that it's not the end of the world. It's the same game."
It is and it isn't in Buffalo. Foul balls land in unoccupied seats as those sitting nearby barely raise an arm.
The two spoke candidly before their contest, a game with a paid announced at 4,399—although a quick glance throughout the mostly unoccupied stadium told a different story. The sparse crowd was a far cry from the near-25,000 patrons the Blue Jays average each home game at Rogers Centre.
The road back to the Jays won't be an easy one. Coca-Cola Field in downtown Buffalo is a long way from the bright lights of Toronto, even if it's only two hours away.
Still, being out of the limelight sits just fine with Norris, who posted a 3.86 ERA over five starts with Toronto—only one of which he made out of the sixth inning.
"I don't want to say the word pressure, but there was a duty to go out there and do well every single time. I was doing very OK. I had one start when I felt like myself," he said.
"But every other start, even if the results were good, body wise and arm wise I didn't feel like I was really clicking. Being down here, I've been able to get in a solid routine. In the big leagues everything moves around so much. This has been good for me to get back into my old routine."
Norris goes on to detail the importance of his mornings to his pitching schedule. Getting up early and spending time reading, writing and listening to music is part of what makes him who he is—a man who can admit he spends time reading Jack Kerouac's seminal On The Road but also enjoys romantic comedies.
As the Jays kicked off their season, Norris was already pegged as an oddball. The sports world got an up-close and personal look into his life during spring training when he opened up about living out of a Volkswagen camper van he named Shaggy.
It was a rare glimpse into the life of a mould-breaking professional athlete who makes every effort to not get caught up in a stereotypical high-flying lifestyle.
"At first I was wary of it. The whole reason I do it is to seclude myself and get away from that kind of stuff," he said.
"It got to a point where it was too much—too many people wanting to do stories on it. I only did a couple but then it blew up. It made it look like I did a lot. After that I had to start turning them down."
Both Norris and Pompey believe they had strong enough numbers to stay with the big club and say they were assured so from the organization.
A quick peek at their numbers might insist otherwise but, at the end of the day, they believe in the process.
"I'm learning to enjoy myself," Pompey said.
While Norris' struggles with control have remained in Buffalo, he's striking out just shy of a batter per inning and posted a 3.18 ERA through five starts. The confident and unorthodox Tennessee native expects to wear the Blue Jays uniform again in 2015.
"With them sending me and Pompey down here I don't view it as them giving up on us," he said in a typically thoughtful manner. "They know what we need and how we need to regain our confidence.
"Once we start showing that we're back to spring form we can get a little more trust out of them to have us come in and compete and help win ball games."