Instead, Norwood suffered a season-ending ankle injury while attempting to break up a double play during an exhibition game against Bradley University – just hours before the Class-A Chiefs' regular season opener.
We recently caught up with Norwood and got his thoughts on that injury, his road to recovery, the season he had in 2006, and more.
In your own words, take us back to the injury and how it all came about.
We were out in Peoria and had flown in from Mesa on Monday to play an exhibition game. I was in the middle of trying to break up a double play. I was going into second and it just so happened that the third baseman made a bad throw to the second baseman, who came off the bag and came toward me. In an effort to get around him, I planted with my left foot and then we just happened to collide. He knocked my foot underneath my body, so when I hit the ground and slid on it, my foot was up underneath my back.
It was the worst sprain you could get. The doctors essentially told me I did everything I could have done without breaking it. That was actually the worst thing. Apparently, a break is better because then they can actually cast it. You can walk on it and crutch on it, so it's not as restrictive. We had some setbacks during the year. They kept telling me all I had to do was run the bases and I couldn't do it. There was too much pain. I played Instructs (in 2005) and it was still hurting. It probably wasn't until a third of the way into this season where I could go out and not even think about it. (Cubs Farm Director) Oneri Fleita came to town and asked how the ankle was. That was when I realized I hadn't even thought of it in who knows when.
You hit well this season by most standards and totaled 15 home runs. Do you see yourself as a "power hitter?"
I had some power in college, but not as much as I have now. I've learned so much in pro ball. That first year in Boise, they kind of let you do your thing. In Instructs that first year in 2004, they started breaking me down. They wanted me to go again this year, but I told them ahead of time that I had some commitments going on and they were completely supportive of that. My college coach told me I was too big a boy (6'4", 220) not to hit home runs, so I started working on it. I was a very average hitter, and they wanted me to be a power guy in college. That was different because instead of taking these pitches and trying to get your hits, it turns into a mentality that if you get this pitch or that pitch, you can't miss it. In college, I couldn't hit the ball to the opposite field very well. In pro ball, they've taught me how to drive the ball and put doubles into that right-center gap.
You had some strikeouts this season (106 in 505 at-bats), but maintained a good overall average and got on base at a .354 clip. What is your take on the strikeouts? Is it something that comes with the territory for a guy like yourself?
I don't believe so. Maybe it does, but I don't see it like that. I'm not frustrated, but I am disappointed with my strikeout numbers. My walk count (27) was low, and that's something I tried to take more pride in during the second half of the year. I sat down with Barbaro Garbey, our hitting coach, and our hitting coordinator (Dave Keller), and they both said it's something I have to improve on; you know, laying off that curveball that looks good on the way to the plate, but once it's there, it's not a good pitch to hit.
Is it fair to say the curveball is the pitch you have the most difficulty with when it comes to striking out? Is there any one pitch that really gets you?
I guess I would say that I don't enjoy sliders and I still think the best pitch in baseball is probably the changeup. I guess right-handers throwing changeups or good sinking fastballs on a right-handed batter are tough pitches to get a hold of.
When you were talking to Coach Garbey and Coach Keller, what advice did they give you to help reduce the strikeouts?
The biggest thing that we worked on was having a consistent approach and a consistent swing; trying to go up there and have consistent at-bats. When you're in a flaw, it's frustrating and it feels like your strikeout numbers are up. Then you go two weeks and you're hot, and it's like you couldn't remember the last time you struck out. That's one of my biggest goals: trying to be consistent. You get in a little slump or funk and you just have to go back to basics. We're all young and baseball is a tough game, but at the same time, you can't give up on it. You just have to go out there and work.
Now to the other side of the coin: defense. You led the Midwest League in fielding percentage among all first basemen (nine errors, .991 percentage).
Baseball America named me Defensive Player of the Year, and that was nice because I'd like to think I'm out there to pick my team up. When someone throws the ball away, I always take it as my job to save those guys the errors. That's definitely something I take pride in.
Do you ever put one before the other – defense over offense or vice versa?
How it works is when you get out, or are having a bad day at the plate, all you can do then is play well in the field. You have to help your team out some way. When you're in a slump, it is frustrating and some times guys carry their at-bats over into their defense. It's one of those things where if I'm 0-for-4, I'll try to make a pick to save a run or save someone an error. The Cubs want all of their players to hit and play defense. You don't want to be that weak link. You don't want to be the guy who people say, "Well, he can't play first base. All he can do is DH."
Have you ever played any other positions besides first base?
Not since I got here. I used to be an outfielder, but with the Cubs, it's been first base only. It's one of those things where I wish I was a little more versatile and had a little more speed. They have a ton of prospects at first and if I had the speed, maybe they'd stick me in the outfield just to try to move guys along. But I enjoy first base.
Everything we've heard about you from the coaches and so forth speaks very highly of your work ethic. How much pride do you take in having that reputation?
You only get this chance once and you don't want to let it pass you by. It's frustrating because there's a time in the season when you shouldn't work so much. Some times, you just need to back off a little and not put so much pressure on yourself and go out and enjoy the ride.
I always ask this question – is there anyone you'd like to model yourself after at the major league level that's already gone through the things you're going through now in your career?
There are a few. I've always loved Albert Pujols. I love the guys that hit for average and power: Pujols, Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. It's just fun to watch those guys hit these crazy pitches out of the park and put up these huge numbers.