Chris Davis hit his 41st home run of the season against the Padres. (USA Today Sports)
Quietly – or as quietly as a 6-foot-3, 240-pound, heavy-lumber-swinging ox of a human being can – Chris Davis passed the 40-home run mark this week. He's at 41, actually, the last one as Chris Davis a shot as there can be, towering and resplendent and a reminder of the majesty that still exists with home runs, especially ones he hits.
Baseball spent a lot of time this week in introspective mode. From the dissection of Alex Rodriguez's 647 home runs to the lesson in hypocrisy of how hyper-vigilant baseball once rode steroids to its homer-fueled resurgence, one does not come up in conversation without the other, even if most performance-enhancing drug users partake of their particular drug more to speed up injury recovery than whack balls over fences.
Home runs are still the casualty anyway. That might be the saddest piece of damage done by PEDs: not the obliteration of records as much as turning such a vital piece of the game into a curse. Home runs are still exciting as hell. They just come with a caveat, especially when they come in bunches, as they have off the bat of Davis all season.
There is a stigma on home run hitters. The guy who owns the all-time and single-season records looked like Bane. There were as many 40-home run hitters in 1996 alone as there were over the last five seasons. The home run was bastardized, so much that this is the twisted reality of today: Because Davis has hit so many, the suspicion shifts toward him, no matter how unwarranted it may be. Such is the result of Alex Rodriguez serially doping for three years and beating every test.
"I hope people can start to think this is real again," Davis said recently, and it was a plea for both baseball and himself. All year long, in interviews and even Twitter responses, Davis has deemed himself the clean home run hitter. In a sport where Rafael Palmeiro wagged his finger and Ryan Braun insisted his innocence and Jhonny Peralta lied by accusing others of lying and countless other instances, Chris Davis, 27, of Longview, Texas, has asked for our trust.
He did this over All-Star weekend, when he was the story not just because of his incredible first half but his insistence that he believes the real single-season home run record is Roger Maris' 61. And he continues to be the story because when he doesn't hit home runs it's an anomaly and when he does hit home runs it is rocket fuel for the cynics.
To be a home run hitter today is to be a Catch-22. Davis tries to explain this surge in any number of ways. He's got a better eye. (Sort of true: His walk rate is up almost 3 percent, though unintentional walks are up just 1.7 percent.) He's more patient. (Eh. After early-season statistics showed drastic improvement, his post-All-Star break regression has him within 2 percent of his career averages in pretty much every plate-discipline category, from swings on pitches outside the strike zone to contact in the zone.) He has grown up. (This may well be true. Considering all of the measurables are at least in the vicinity of where they were, perhaps there is something to that, to swallowing failures with a measure of maturity and recognizing that this game cannibalizes even the most talented.)
Davis nearly became another victim of the mental vagaries. Before the 2011 season, he told his wife, Jill, that if he finished the season at Triple-A he would give serious thought to quitting.
Maybe it was an idle threat. The yo-yoing between the Texas Rangers and the minor leagues got frustrating. Jill was working 12-hour shifts as a nurse and then driving four hours to see Davis. No matter how many home runs he hit in the minor leagues, it wasn't enough to guarantee himself a spot in Texas, not when his swing-and-miss flaws were so pronounced. Chris Davis, in fact, was the perfect stereotype of a guy who might use: the one who toiled between the majors and minors, needed a little extra something, just wanted to stick around.
"I don't think there was ever a point where it came to that," Davis said. "When I sat down, I thought there was going to be a day when I run out of options and they're gonna have to trade me. If I came here and bombed, I don't think I would've chosen to do something illegal. I would've just hung 'em up. There's other things to do, man. There are better things in life."
Go back to college. Be a pastor. Have a family. Something.
"I'll speak for everyone," Orioles third baseman Manny Machado said, "and say we're all glad he didn't."
The deal to Baltimore in July 2011 yielded to a breakout season in 2012 and a full-time job in 2013. It has exposed America to Chris Davis' swing, in all of its primal glory, which truly is something to behold. His wrists waggle the bat like a nervous Sergio Garcia. His legs look lifeless, just stumps holding him upright. Suddenly they bend into action, spring-loaded mechanisms ready to unleash fury, and hips start to turn, bringing his arms along with it. They loop upward, a Tyson uppercut of a swing, just like they don't teach you, only Davis never could figure out the swing-on-a-plane thing, so whatever. Because when it connects, as it did off Colt Hynes for No. 41, as it had done 40 times earlier this season and 77 more before this year, it is like a balloon with helium, seemingly never coming down, heading somewhere we didn't think a ball could head.
That is why the home run still should matter. It can take you to a place where skepticism doesn't exist, or at least has no place. There are certain things that certain human beings can do at which everyone should marvel; juiced or not, hitting a home run is one of those. And right now, Davis hits homers better than anybody.
There's an outside chance nobody else reaches 40 this year, while Davis shoots for that ultra-exclusive pantheon, 50. Miguel Cabrera should hit his 40th by early to mid-September. Edwin Encarnacion is the only other player with 30. At this point last year he had 29, and he finished with 42, so there's a shot.
Otherwise, it's Davis, Davis and more Davis, even if he's no longer on pace to surpass Maris. At this rate, he'll hit 55, the most since Ryan Howard smashed 58 in 2006. And for each of those 14, or six, or 20, or however many Chris Davis does crush, there will be the commensurate tax on his achievement: more questions, more doubts, more disbelief, more unfair burdens. The blessing that's a curse.
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