Best swing was miss for Eric the Red


He was going to be the next Willie Mays.

"He could have done the things that Willie did," former teammate Dave Parker said. "The kid was amazing. He was a devastating player. Devastating."

He was going to be a Hall of Famer.

"This guy had that potential, no question in my mind," Cincinnati GM Jim Bowden said. "He was kind of the guy those of us in the evaluation business drool over, dream about."

He was going to stay retired.

"I didn't miss it at all," Eric Davis said. "I left the game on my own terms. I didn't leave because I couldn't perform. I left because I was tired of beating my body up."

Davis, 34, is that rarest of baseball stories -- a gifted All-Star who rediscovered his love for the game only after a self-imposed, 18-month exile.

He might not be the 40-home run, 40-stolen base threat he was at the start of his career, but Parker said the newest Orioles outfielder can get close next season -- "mid-to-high 30s in homers, 60 to 70 stolen bases."

Bowden wouldn't go that far, but he said that Davis should at least approach his 1996 totals with the Reds -- a .287 average, 26 homers, 83 RBIs and 23 steals.

"He had his knee 'scoped at the end of the year, and that will allow him to play even better than he did with us," Bowden said, referring to Davis' off-season knee surgery. "I'd have re-signed him if I had the money. He was a good sign."

The Orioles got Davis for $2.2 million, and it will indeed prove a bargain if he stays healthy. Bowden described him as a student of the game, a positive influence on young players, grateful for this second chance.

Fans, media and club officials frequently complain that players don't know how fortunate they are to play major-league baseball. Davis might not have cherished the opportunity before he retired, but he does now.

"I've said this numerous times in the past year -- at some point in time, every player should take a year off," he said. "What it did for me was put the game back in perspective.

"Sometimes, during the course of a career, when you do anything over and over, it becomes a job. The money aspect gets involved, the glamour and all that. But when you step away, you really appreciate the uniform.

"When you have the opportunity to put the uniform on, you should put it on with a lot of pride. A lot of people admire the things you do, and would love to trade places with you."

He's not just saying that; he means it. Davis describes last season as the most enjoyable of his career. Bowden said his demeanor barely resembled that of the superstar who led the Reds to the 1990 world championship.

"It was like two different people," he said. "He's a player who matured, really realized what he missed, really realized how lucky he was to do this for a living.

"He had such a different attitude this year, it was phenomenal. He came early to the ballpark and was the last one to leave. He was always talking baseball."

Which isn't to say that Davis didn't love the game before. It's just that everything came so easily, his former manager, Pete Rose, once said, "He can do anything he wants in a baseball uniform."

Then came the injuries, one after another, almost all the result of aggressive play in the outfield. The 6-foot-3 Davis was once NTC listed at 175 pounds, but now weighs 195. He's all muscle, with virtually no body fat.

The '90 World Series was sadly typical of Davis' career. He hit a two-run, first-inning homer in Game 1, helping trigger the Reds' upset of Oakland. But he suffered rib and kidney injuries diving for a ball in Game 4, and missed the Reds' celebration.

Other physical ailments limited him to a total of 165 games in '91 and '92, and he finally retired after the '94 season because of a herniated disk in his neck. His surgery that September was his seventh in nine years.

"That was the last straw for me," Davis said.

He returned home to Los Angeles and went 16 months without even picking up a bat. The next season, former Reds teammates Barry Larkin and Lenny Harris kept bugging him to come to a game. Davis resisted.

"I'll see you if you make it to the playoffs against the Dodgers," he said, figuring it would never happen.

Sure enough, the teams met in the first round. Davis wandered down to the field at Dodger Stadium, smelled the pine tar, gripped a bat. He talked to Bowden, talked to owner Marge Schott. Everyone kept asking about a comeback.

Davis said he needed time to work out -- "Before I made a commitment to them, I wanted to make a commitment to myself." Eight weeks later, he re-signed with the Reds.

It all happened so quickly, Davis said he agreed with the predictions by Parker and Bowden that he will play even better in Baltimore.

"I didn't have a lot of time to prepare last year," he said. "What I accomplished last year I accomplished just on ability, as well as desire for the game, that desire to succeed, having to prove a point.

"This year, I'm more physically able to withstand a grueling 162-game schedule. I kind of got tired in the second half of the season. I kind of forgot how long it was. Now I know. I'm in tremendous shape. I'm ready to go."

He was going to be the next Willie Mays. He was going to the Hall of Fame. He was going to stay retired. All of that is behind Davis now. What he wants is what he missed the first time. To celebrate a World Series title.

"I was in the hospital when that team was on the field being jubilant," Davis said. "If you look at a video from the 1990 World Series, I'm not in there jumping around the Oakland Coliseum. I was in Oakland Methodist Hospital.

"It's still a void that's missing. It's very important for me to go on to win another world championship."

Pub Date: 12/21/96

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