NEW YORK – Chris Davis has 37 home runs, and it is mid-July, which means what? Not that long ago he was wondering if this was even his game. He feared he might have to return to Texas, finish his degree, do some coaching, maybe become a youth pastor. If not that, he said, “Move to Africa, live off the land, hunt and fish.” He grinned.
Not so funny, back then few would have missed him had he packed up his mitt and bats and called it a career. Just another swing-and-miss guy who never learned the difference between a ball and a strike, who never got the hang of going with the pitch. He’d have been gone with the rest. A pity, but it happens. If large men who could swing hard were sure things, then the NFL would be running out of linebackers, and it’s not.
The Texas Rangers traded Davis to the Baltimore Orioles in 2011. He increased his bat size by an ounce and an inch, he narrowed his hitting approach, he got married (“It was time to start growing up, honestly,” he said), and at 26 he suddenly began to live on his bat barrel. They call it pitch recognition. They call it letting the ball travel. They call it opportunity that comes in the form of daily at-bats.
“It just took me a little longer,” he said.
At 27, he arrived at the All-Star game at Citi Field with 37 home runs — more than anyone in history but Barry Bonds had hit by the break. And even if this break arrived later than most, it remains notable that only Bonds sat on more. In a single calendar year, Davis — who was going to become a pastor or coach or African woodsman — had hit 56 home runs, driven in 137 runs and batted .298, .345 against right-handed pitching.
While he smiled, joked, and restated that the true single-season home run record is held by Roger Maris — and in doing so wiped out 73 by Bonds, 70 by Mark McGwire, 66 by Sammy Sosa, 65 by McGwire, 64 by Sosa and 63 by Sosa — Davis was unflinchingly pleasant and rational. Pounded by questions about how often he has been tested, how he can be trusted, how the American public might allow itself the opportunity to be duped again, Davis was positive and understanding. And not the least bit defensive.
In fact, in an open-air room where the temperature might have pushed three digits, Davis seemed to hardly sweat. Not like all the fat sportswriters, anyway, who left puddles. Davis glowed and dabbed. His forearms were shaved smooth, along with his chest. He’d let the hair on his face grow, however.
He looks like a home run champion. He always did, which you suppose was part of the frustration of watching Chris Davis, of employing Chris Davis, and certainly of being Chris Davis.
So you stood nearby and wondered. If you shoved him off his chair, would he stand up and — with reason — punch you in the forehead? Or would he hit the floor and shatter in a million pieces?
The Biogenesis investigation is reaching a state of critical mass. Some of the most prolific power hitters of the past generation have been left outside the Hall of Fame. Nobody trusts anyone anymore. And along comes this guy who could barely hold a big-league job and now, as St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig said, “It seems like he’s hit a home run before I even get up and eat breakfast. He’s unbelievable.”
This is the world in which Davis operates. The door he kicked down. It’s the legacy of the players who came immediately before him, who sacrificed their own dignity and that of the game for their paycheck. We’ve learned to live with that. Some even excuse it as a byproduct of the era.
Chris Davis stands in that muck and patiently explains that he’d never do that, that he worked hard, that he understands the hesitation to stand up and cheer. So a sweet story of perseverance by a nice, God-fearing, Ken Griffey Jr.-idolizing young man becomes specked with suspicion and caked in innuendo, because after decades of believing everything we saw, we’ve had a solid decade of believing nothing. Hell, sitting across the room from Davis at that moment was Bartolo Colon, whose career renaissance came with a 50-game drug suspension.
So, Chris Davis, why should anyone believe in you?
“I think there’s no reason not to believe in me,” he said.
He answers like that’s a fair enough question.
But as Jose Bautista recently told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, “They’re not fair questions in my eyes.”
Bautista faced the same in 2010, when the journeyman, going on 30, hit 54 home runs. He’d never hit more than 16 before.
“I said it when they were being asked to me,” he said. “Just because somebody is doing well doesn’t mean they’re accomplishing it by cheating. He’s done a terrific job handling that, and he’s having a great year.”
Davis’ teammate Adam Jones said, “His whole game is more of, ‘I told you I could do this. I could do this the whole time. But you didn’t listen to me.’”
“It doesn’t bother me to talk about it,” he said. “It’s just one of those things, you just wear it and go with it. Time will tell. That’s what I have on my side right now.”
You wonder if he can enjoy it. If he can chase 50, 60 home runs — maybe 62 — and keep his swing together. If he can shut out the noise, and rise above the suspicions. If he can love the game, and care deeply, and not give a damn all at the same time.
“I celebrate it all the time,” he said. “I’m proud of it. If you have nothing to hide, you should celebrate it.”
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