The power? That blunt-force ability to lay wood to a baseball and propel it 400, 420, 450 feet? He had it even when he was a boy. Came from God, as far as he's concerned.
Harnessing it? Well, that's the work of Chris Davis' life.
There’s a paradoxical quality to the Orioles’ first baseman, who has emerged this season as one of baseball’s most fearsome sluggers, a likely All-Star starter who leads the majors with 22 home runs.
Growing up in East Texas, Davis was like a puppy with big paws, bowling over everything. But even as he climbed the ranks of the game he loved, he could not find the deeper fulfillment he coveted.
Before he could put all that strength to use, he had to stop trying to overpower everything in his life. He had to tone down the perfectionist streak he inherited from his dad, Lyn, who gave him his work ethic but could also be an overbearing presence. Both men acknowledge their competitive drive created friction in their relationship. That stress, which friends and teammates watched unfold as the younger Davis was blossoming into a star athlete in Texas, is what Chris Davis says helped set the course for his success today.
He had to believe that his faith, his marriage and his team could prop him up during bad times.
“With my strength, I also have an extremely short temper,” Davis said before a recent game at Camden Yards. “It doesn’t take a lot to make me tick, and I’ve learned to kind of control that, through the grace of God, over the years. It’s just growing up and realizing that you can’t control everything.”
Davis, 27, looks like the first guy you'd cast as a sports star — angular jaw, gleaming teeth, sky blue eyes, biceps that bulge from the sleeveless shirts he favors in the Orioles clubhouse. He appears comfortable in his own skin, eager to laugh and game to chat with anyone who approaches his locker. He even married a cheerleader.
Yet his story is not one of ease, not exactly.
For years, Baltimore fans lamented their club's inability — or unwillingness — to pay for a middle-of-the-order slugger. When the Orioles finally acquired the long-awaited power hitter, no one realized it.
That's because Davis was trapped in an equally vicious cycle of frustration. Even his Texas nickname, “Crush,” hinted at it. A clever play on words, sure, but Crash Davis, the hero of the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” was a minor league home run king who never made it in The Show. That narrative hit a little close to home for Davis as he ping-ponged between dominating Triple-A and struggling with the Texas Rangers.
When he was traded to the Orioles in 2011, he finally received the everyday chance for which he’d prayed. And with an approach that blends the old work ethic with a newer calm, he has emerged as a folk hero — the slugger who won a game as a pitcher, the guy whose T-shirt sold for $100 on eBay and the star who inspires young fans to bring “Hit it Here” signs to the bleachers at Camden Yards.
“It has worked out as well as anyone could possibly have hoped,” said Andy MacPhail, the man who traded for Davis.
Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said Davis is as powerful as any player he’s been around in 35 years, including Mark McGwire. But that’s only part of his current story.
“I think now he knows, ‘I’m comfortable with what I’m doing, I have a routine, I’m going to be in there every day,’” said Presley. “It gave him a peace of mind. And it has paid off.”
Even his pop-ups drew ahhhs
Around Longview, a football-obsessed town of 80,455, folks still talk about the home runs Davis hit as a kid. Like the one he launched in high school that soared over the lights and landed 460 feet away on Longview’s soccer field. They found the ball buried in mud, as if it had plummeted from space.
Or the walk-off grand slam that Davis, then 15, hit for the Texas all-stars to beat Mississippi in an extra-inning tournament game that had dragged past midnight.
“We heard it hit the roof of a metal outhouse — bam! — and everyone went crazy,” recalled teammate Sammy Hardwick.
Even Davis’ pop-ups drew aahs.
“Against Lufkin, our big rival, he hit the highest pop fly I’ve ever seen,” said his high school coach, Joey Kalmus. “He hit it so dad-gummed high that everyone lost it. All of the infielders were shouting, ‘Where the heck is it?’ When the ball finally came down, just on the outfield grass, nobody was around it, two runs had scored and Chris was on second base.”
At the Mr. Kwik convenience store on High Street, there’s a photo of Davis and his Longview teammates from 2004, when they captured their only district title in the last 43 years. The slugger they called Diesel hit 13 home runs and pitched the Lobos to three victories before his arm gave out. At a tournament in Shreveport, La., officials gave trophies for best pitcher and hitter. Davis won both.
“Chris was just awesome with that purty lefthanded swing, the same then as now,” store owner Jim Hardwick said. “He struck out a bunch of times too, but when he got hot, he did some crazy things. That home run that beat Mississippi? It looked like a BB sailing off into the night.”
Davis grew as fast as did the stories about him. He was nine pounds at birth and quickly made himself bigger gorging on Mexican food at Carlito’s. High school coaches dubbed him “Biscuit” because at 230 pounds, he was one biscuit away from having to move off shortstop.
His bed barely fit into his room at the Davis family’s modest rancher. Posters of Nolan Ryan and Ken Griffey Jr. dotted the walls. Window ledges were crammed with the trophies and home run balls that Davis had hit. His mother did her best to retrieve every one.
It wasn’t easy, Karen Davis said.
“Once, during a night game in Kilgore, I went searching for the ball in the woods while a friend shone her car lights through the trees,” she said.
At 3-1/2, Lyn Davis said, his son “would be out in the back yard, with his Fisher Price bat, hitting a plastic ball over the fence into my vegetable garden. It wasn’t good for the tomatoes, but I couldn’t get too upset with him.”
Davis fed on competition soon enough.
Hardy Elkins, a longtime friend, met Davis at 9 when they competed against each other in a punt, pass and kick football competition.
“I’d beaten everyone at my school and I figured I’d win in a cakewalk," Elkins said. "But here comes this enormous kid, punting and throwing the ball further than anybody had ever seen.
“Even then, Chris was the kid in little league that nobody wanted to face, the one in church basketball that nobody wanted to guard.”
But nothing held his interest like baseball. If Davis wasn’t on a diamond, he was taking swings in a batting cage. Or playing the Griffey Jr. video game for hours. Or playing stickball with friends in Nick McJimsey’s back yard with a plastic bat, a Wiffle ball wrapped in Duct tape and the paper plates they used for bases.
“The games got rough at times,” said Gordon Freeman, who grew up with Davis. “There were rock gardens and bushes back there. Plus, Chris was always competitive, whether we were playing ball or deciding who would date a particular girl.”
Success never went to Davis’ head, those who know him said. Thank his father for that. No one worked harder than Lyn Davis to make his son a star — and no one was a harsher critic.
“Chris could have a game where he hit three home runs and struck out once, and his dad would harp on him about the strikeout,” Sammy Hardwick said.
There was no room for error when Davis suited up.
“From our pee wee days, his dad was on top of Chris’ game,” Freeman said. “His father rode him really hard, and it put a lot of pressure on Chris as a child. His dad’s attitude was, ‘I’m going to show you the tough love because I see the potential in you.’ “
Friends said that if Davis had an off game, like going 1-for-3, his father would promise, “We’re going to fix this tomorrow.”
Sundays often found them in the batting cages at Longview High — dad throwing pitch after pitch and his son banging away — at 7:30 a.m.
“I didn’t have a book to go by,” Lyn Davis said. “I saw talent in Chris at an early age and said, ‘Lord, help me do the right thing with this child.’
“Yes, I could be very direct with him. I didn’t go too far, yet he did get his toes stepped on sometimes. But it never turned his flame down. Chris is intensely driven himself.”
Looking back, Davis credits his father with honing his work ethic but doesn’t pretend their kinship was easy.
“There was some resentment between my dad and I,” he said. “There were times when he was a little too critical, times when I didn’t understand why we were working on something when I’d had so much success.”
Once, in high school, during a 100-hour baseball fund-raiser, Davis snapped at his dad for carping at him.
“I’d taken about 30 swings when I popped one up, and then dad popped off to me,” he said. “So I absolutely murdered the next pitch, then turned to him and said, ‘Hey dad, when was the last time you hit a baseball that far?’
“We had a very competitive relationship. But he was a perfectionist, and that’s one of the reasons that I’m where I’m at.”
Lyn Davis still texts his son after every game. “In a lot of ways, what has happened to Chris still seems surreal,” he said. “I was just a tool in his life. I basically tried to teach him what I was taught.”
For all of that seriousness, Davis also loved to throw his body around in fun.
“Chris was known for breaking almost everything he came in contact with,” Elkins said. “Telephones. Wicker furniture. Ceilings.”
“We were playing PlayStation on the top bunk bed in Nick McJimsey’s house, and I got fired up, raised my head and just busted through the ceiling,” Davis recalled. “Another time, I broke their couch while wrestling with Nick.
“I was a bull in a china closet.”
Often, by accident.
“Chris was one of those guys who wound up testing the durability of everything, whether he meant to or not,” said Ty Davis, a high school friend. “When he got hold of something, it would somehow fall apart in his hands, but no one else’s.”
Once, while clowning in a friend’s swimming pool, Davis destroyed the diving board. He sprang off the end and the board just broke.
“He and the board both went up into the air before it hit him on the backside and they hit the water together,” Elkins said. “All Chris said was ‘Oops.’ “
Dream scenario gone astray
Davis grew up a Rangers fan, cheering for Ivan Rodriguez and Will Clark. His spine tingled the first time he went to the ballpark in Arlington and the theme from “The Natural” blared after a homer by Mickey Tettleton. So it was a dream scenario for him to be drafted by Texas in the fifth round in 2006 after he played two years at Navarro Junior College.
The dream continued as he battered minor league pitching and emerged as one of the organization’s top prospects.
“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.”
He didn’t set the world on fire in his first months with the Orioles. But his life was on the upswing. He married Jill, a former University of Oklahoma cheerleader and registered nurse, in Nov. 2011. He has a J tattooed on his ring finger so she’s with him, even mid-game.
He finally played a full season in the majors last year, batting .270 and leading a surprise playoff team with 33 home runs. He also earned a permanent place in Orioles lore with that two-inning stint as an emergency pitcher in Boston. Davis, who hadn't pitched since junior college, went to the mound after the Orioles used eight regular pitchers and earned a win in one of team's signature victories of the 2012 season.
“What do you guys want to talk about?” Davis deadpanned after the 17-inning victory. “Hitting?”
That has, in fact, been the subject this year, as Davis has posted league-leading slugging numbers and achieved a whole new level of stardom. He’s fooled less often by off-speed pitches, and his home runs have flown to all sections of the park. The stands pulse with anticipation when he comes to the plate during one of his hot stretches.
But observers say it’s just as instructive to watch Davis -- who is making $3.3 million this year and isn't eligible for free agency until after the 2015 season -- when he’s struggling, as he has in recent games.
Instead of trying to hit balls harder and harder, he’ll go to the batting tee hours before a game and spray line drives every which way — more Tony Gwynn than Babe Ruth. He was on the field before batting practice Tuesday, with Presley pitching to him from the third-base side so the left-handed Davis would keep his front foot straight instead of jerking it right in a vain attempt to pull the ball.
“Do you think he’s gonna hit .350 all year?” Presley said. “There’s no way. And I’ve told him that. I tell him you can’t have your A swing every day. You just got to get some hits when you have your B or C swing.”
If he keeps his form and his calm, Davis believes his strength — he now bench presses more than 400 pounds — will do the rest.
It’s a hard-earned faith, in God and the people around him, yes, but also in himself.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun