Davis' major hopes ride on minors stay

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT MILL, S.C. -- This is where Glenn Davis has come to begin what he hopes will be the reconstruction, if not the salvation, of his career. It is an unlikely setting for someone who only three years ago was one of the most feared home run hitters in baseball.

The ballpark is home to the Charlotte Knights, but it is not even in the same state, let alone the home city, of the International League team that it houses. Knights Stadium is tucked away in the northwestern corner of South Carolina, about 20 miles from downtown Charlotte, N.C.

The facility, nicknamed The Castle, is as impressive as it is remote. Sitting on a 32-acre tract just east of Interstate 77, it was built to major-league specifications. The seating capacity can be expanded from 10,000 to 45,000.

But for now, the park has a distinctly minor-league atmosphere, just what the Orioles hope can help their struggling slugger.

At 32, with eight years of major-league service and a contract that guarantees him almost $4 million per year, Davis had to agree to return to the minors with the Rochester Red Wings. He is here, ostensibly, to retune the mechanics of his swing.

But in reality, he is here to escape the wrath of fans in Baltimore, who remember only that the Orioles traded three young players for him and have grown impatient waiting for Davis' bat to explode. He is on a baseball reassignment that is a mental, rather than physical, rehabilitation program.

Davis could have refused to join the Red Wings, the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate, and forced the club to keep him on its roster or let him go. After two years of being tormented by neck and rib cage injuries, he chose to take a backward step in the hopes of going forward.

The idea is to restore Davis' confidence by putting his mind at ease and letting him work out his problems in a relaxed atmosphere.

"I think he'll come back," said Frank Robinson, Orioles assistant general manager. "I don't know how far -- but I feel he can come back to be a productive player.

"He's just fouled up mentally right now. Maybe if he can go concentrate on hitting in that environment, he can come back. All slumps start physically, but the longer you are in them, the more they become mental things."

Davis arrived here yesterday afternoon, long before Red Wings manager Bob Miscik or any of his new, and temporary, teammates.

It had been nine days since Davis last played in a game, and, though he continued his conditioning program, he needed to work on his timing. He spent about an hour working out in The Castle's indoor hitting cage before joining the Red Wings on the field for pre-game drills, including live batting practice.

He politely avoided pre-game contact with the media, other than to be the focal point for photographers. His first official act was to attend a team

meeting while Miscik briefed the Red Wings on baseball's new anti-tobacco policy, which takes effect in the minor leagues June 15.

Then he went about his work just like anybody else in the minor leagues, where hopes can run as high as the sky, but the equipment consists of hand-me-downs.

That Davis has had to retreat to this level is astounding to those who know him best. That he came for the reason he did is not surprising.

When he walked into the clubhouse here yesterday, Davis knew most of the names and faces from spring training. And on the field, wearing the home team uniform, was a former teammate who knew him only from the good times.

Mark Davidson hadn't seen Davis since 1990, when the two were teammates with the Houston Astros. Davidson, also 32, played parts of two seasons with Davis and is trying to extend his career with his hometown team, hoping for one more chance in the big leagues.

The last place he expected to see Davis was in a minor-league park.

"Everybody goes through it [a slump] at one time or another," Davidson said, "but it is hard for me to comprehend a healthy Glenn Davis not being a productive hitter.

"When he was healthy, Glenn was as good a power hitter as there was in the game," said Davidson.

"It has been surprising to me that he hasn't hit for the Orioles," said Davidson. "I know that he's had some injuries, but if he's healthy, I would put all my money on Glenn Davis.

"He's a good person, he's a hard worker and he knows what he has to do to succeed. He's got a lot going for him, and I still think it's only a matter of time. The Orioles will be surprised at what he can do once he starts doing it. It'll be worth the wait."

Fans in Baltimore think they've waited long enough, that almost 2 1/2 years is enough time, even with the element of injuries. Davis was batting .177 with one homer when he was sent down. But Davidson was resolute in saying that a healthy Davis is capable of giving the Orioles everything they expected.

He didn't even flinch when reminded that some National League observers, mindful of the more favorable parks in the American League, predicted Davis might hit as many as 50 home runs.

"That's not a dangerous thing to say," said Davidson. "And who's to say he still won't do it?"

The agreement Davis has with the Orioles is that he'll play no more than 20 games with the Red Wings and then be recalled to the big leagues. The hope is that he'll regain his confidence and his stroke and return in time to help the Orioles.

Whether there's enough time left to salvage this season is questionable. But Storm Davis, an ex-Oriole with whom Glenn Davis lived during some of his teen-age years, says he knows what has driven his friend and former teammate back to the minor leagues.

"When we talk about baseball, the only thing he talks about is winning," said Storm Davis, now with the Oakland Athletics. "He's never been on a championship team, and that's what he wants.

"He has a lot of pride. He wants to get his act together, go back and help out. I wouldn't be surprised if it worked out, to tell you the truth."

At 7:54 last night, Davis stepped into the batter's box. The reaction of the crowd of 3,588 was hardly any different from that for any other visiting player -- either before or after he fouled out on a 3-and-2 pitch.

It was the same two innings later, except this time he lined a single to left field that enabled the Red Wings to score their second run of the game in a 2-1 win. His last two times up, he struck out.

For Glenn Davis, the silence no doubt was like a medley of happy songs -- and the sound of a base hit, also music to his ears.

His attempt to reconstruct a career that painfully and mysteriously has gone astray was under way.

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