“I don’t know where his power came from but it was like, jaw-dropping,” said Bob Jones, who managed Davis in Oklahoma City and Round Rock, Texas. “He hit one up on the roof in center field, and we all looked around at each other and said, ‘Holy mackerel!’”
Success came just as easily in the big leagues, where a 22-year-old Davis hit .285 with 17 homers in half a season in 2008. So he could not have been less prepared for 2009 and 2010, when his strikeouts piled up faster than his hits and he gradually lost his spot to other rising prospects.
Every time he returned to the minors, he’d go right back to killing the ball. And his outward attitude never faltered. “He was the same old Chris Davis,” Jones said. “He didn’t come down and mope. He was one of my all-time favorites.”
That buoyant spirit would prove key to the Orioles’ eventual interest. They had scouts monitoring the Rangers closely for possible trade targets, and the reports on Davis’ character were glowing.
That didn’t much help his inner confidence at the time. Davis got one last shot at a regular role when the Rangers traded their other top first-base prospect, Justin Smoak, for pitcher Cliff Lee. He responded by batting .192 in 45 games, effectively burning his last bridge in Texas. His lowest point came when the Rangers left him off their roster for the 2010 World Series.
What few knew was that Davis had already begun a reckoning with his spiritual side. He had always been a Christian, raised in the Baptist church from the time he was little. When he decided to get tattoos, he opted for a cross and the word salvation on the right side of his back and a Bible passage from Hebrews, chapter 12 on the left.
But faith remained an abstraction for him, off to the side of a ballplayer’s life that included late-night drinking and carousing.
“I basically had everything I wanted,” he said. “Had money, my own place in Dallas, was playing in the big leagues as the next great thing for the Rangers. And I just had this overwhelming sense of loneliness, this emptiness. And I didn’t understand it.”
The night before the first game of the 2010 World Series, he awoke in his San Francisco hotel room, drenched in sweat and sure that he needed to pick up his Bible. Since then, he said, he has begun every day by giving thanks and reading scripture. He had to put in all the work, he decided, but the result would be in God’s hands.
“That’s kind of where I was able to let go,” he said. “I was hanging on to baseball so much. It was everything to me. If I was failing at baseball, I was failing at life.”
Whatever the reason, Davis mauled Triple-A pitching in 2011 as he waited for another shot in the majors. The Orioles, meanwhile, had an attractive asset in reliever Koji Uehara. MacPhail saw Texas as his best trade partner, and the sides quickly agreed on pitcher Tommy Hunter as one piece in a deal for Uehara. But for several days, Rangers general manager Jon Daniels wouldn’t budge on Davis.
MacPhail broke the impasse by offering Daniels $2 million in payroll cash that he’d saved by shipping Derrek Lee to Pittsburgh. Hunter and Davis were Baltimore-bound.
The Orioles liked the deal, but Davis was really just one in a series of bets MacPhail had laid on young talent. “Anybody who tells you they know that kind of success is certain is a fool or a fraud,” the former Orioles executive said. “Surely, he could do it. All you had to do was look at the minor league numbers. But that doesn’t assure you of success.”
Davis, who had prayed with his future wife Jill for a trade, felt instantly liberated.
He called Jill as she was wrapping up her bridal shower to inform her they were moving. “He was about to start jumping on his bed, he was so excited,” she recalled.
Davis and those close to him say he needed to get away from Texas, not only to play regularly but to escape all the attention from his hometown, which had come to feel less like support than like an albatross.
“That was the only thing that could happen,” his dad said. “He exploded onto the scene, and the first time he got a nosebleed, it was like a runaway downhill train. It was kind of an all-or-nothing thing, him and Texas.”
Davis remembers a game when thousands of people bused the two hours from Longview to watch him with the Rangers. “This is too much for me,” he thought. “I don’t want to be this hometown hero.”
Looking back, he said, “There were times when I couldn’t breathe.”