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During record hitless streak, Orioles' Chris Davis heard boos turn to cheers: 'I wasn't going to run from it'

It was the fewest tickets sold for a game in Camden Yards history, 6,585, so sound wasn't emanating from Baltimore's jewel of a ballpark early in the Oakland Athletics' April 8 visit.

That wasn't what made the cheers to open the second inning improbable. Ear-splitting, no, but certainly more soul-touching than a lifeless April baseball game warrants.

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They were for Chris Davis. The Orioles' pariah of a first baseman had spent the weekend getting booed by home fans during a sweep by the New York Yankees, and was on his way to accumulating the most at-bats and plate appearances without a hit in major league history.

The cheers continued the rest of the week, and again when Davis returned for the second homestand with five hits to his name. And they raise the question: how did Davis go from being a lightning rod for fans’ frustrations with the Orioles' roster and resource mismanagement to a sympathetic figure, with a hitless streak that only served to draw more attention to his status as a burden on this rebuilding franchise?

"I think that people started to recognize that I wasn't going to run from it," Davis said. "I wasn't trying to run from it. I wasn't trying to hide or not address it. I understood what was going on. I understood.

"The only reality was to continue to work and continue to keep a positive mindset, and people appreciated that. I think it got to the point where they got tired of seeing me scuffle and struggle, and some of the boos turned to cheers because they admired the perseverance."

Whatever it was, it reversed — or at least temporarily halted — a swell of negativity toward the Orioles' once-feared slugger. He signed a seven-year, $161 million contract in January 2016, with heavy ownership involvement to keep him in the fold, after leading the majors in home runs twice in three seasons. No other one-note slugger has received a contract like that since, and Davis' production since signing that deal illustrates why.

The Orioles' Chris Davis looks on after reaching second base on a throwing error against the White Sox during the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 23, 2019.
The Orioles' Chris Davis looks on after reaching second base on a throwing error against the White Sox during the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 23, 2019. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

I definitely think it tested my character to a level that I never expected to be tested, but I feel like I passed.


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He hit 38 home runs but struck out a major league-high 219 times in 2016, batting .221 with an OPS+ of 110 that showed how little damage he did outside of those home runs.

The following season was a little worse, and things cratered for Davis in 2018. He played just 128 games and hit .168/.243/.296 with 16 home runs. His minus-3.1 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs, was among the lowest in baseball history.

In his last 21 at-bats before he was shut down for the final week of the 2018 season, he went hitless. So when the Orioles’ successful road trip through New York and Toronto to begin the 2019 season ended without a hit for Davis, something unprecedented was unfolding.

Davis received mixed reactions on Opening Day at Camden Yards and was booed throughout a hitless weekend as the Yankees pounded the Orioles, but that Oakland series was far less of a cauldron than the visit from the hated American League East rivals.

The crowds were smaller, and Davis said he was "a little bit" surprised when they stood to cheer him on as he walked to the plate, and again as he walked back to the dugout hitless. They did it for the whole series.

"I think a lot of it was just being so early in the season, but still knowing what went on last year and having to fight those demons early on — just the reminder of that constant failure, over and over," Davis said. "But continuing to remind myself that it was a new year, and wipe the slate clean, so to speak. Just tried not to think about the 0-for-whatever it was at the time, but really trying to focus on what I was trying to accomplish, what I was working on, and trying to be as positive as possible.

“The people that were cheering, the people that were encouraging me, were only helping. And I felt different this year. I felt, mentally, I was in a better place. I just felt different. I don't really know any other way to describe it."

Unprompted before one of those games against Oakland, new manager Brandon Hyde — who at that point was through being asked about Davis, because what else was there left to say? — ended his media session by commending the fans who cheered Davis that week.

“I just thought the fan reaction to Chris last night was phenomenal,” Hyde said last month, “and I just thought it was so cool and shows a lot about our fan base, how they were really cheering him on.”

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The support from the fans at Camden Yards came as Davis’ hitless streak took on a life of its own. Several Baltimore-area bars copied the Canton watering hole Bartenders' idea from last season promising drink specials when Davis got a hit. His every at-bat warranted mention as he broke the previous record of 46 at-bats and 51 plate appearances without a hit.

Multiple fans sent letters to The Baltimore Sun wondering why it was getting such attention. One fan got a tattoo with Davis' No. 19 in response to the negative attention.

By the time it ended after hitless at-bat No. 54 and plate appearance No. 62 — both major league records for non-pitchers — the tide had almost completely turned. Davis referred to the streak as the elephant in the room once it was over, but in truth, he was far more of a consideration to the veteran, underachieving Orioles teams of the recent past than to this rebuilding club. Hardly anyone in this Orioles clubhouse can reasonably think about whether Davis' free-agent payday will affect their future gains.

Instead, Davis is a lot like the team itself — largely dismissed and more than occasionally mocked, with nothing to do but simply go out every night and try to win in the face of it all.

Try as he did to ignore it, Davis carried his on-field regression and the off-field pressure of his contract, which was blamed for the eventual departures of beloved players such as Adam Jones, Manny Machado and several others. In the darkest season imaginable last year, he was the darkest figure.

The collective lowering of expectations this season — to the point that his .178 batting average entering Friday is considered progress, thanks to his .325 average beginning with his first hit April 13 — has helped lighten that weight on his shoulders. Davis raised his average to .186 with a hit in his second at-bat of Wednesday’s doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox. It was never higher at any point in 2018, and at .178 entering Friday's game, it's still nothing special.

But the cheers signified that all the negative feelings directed at him have, at least temporarily, been muted. The Orioles haven't built a roster designed to win this year, focusing more on building a model player development system through the draft and international free agency, which won't produce fruit for years.

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With managing partner Peter G. Angelos, who was heavily involved in Davis' contract, receding from day-to-day operations and passing responsibilities to his sons, John and Louis, plus executive vice president Dan Duquette replaced after last season, there's little value in litigating Davis' presence on the roster anymore. The Orioles' finances almost wholly depend on the outcome of their litigation with the Washington Nationals over Mid-Atlantic Sports Network television rights money; there is no money to pay Davis to go away.

So, he plays on. He plays primarily in favorable matchups at this point, but when he plays at Camden Yards, it's to cheers.

Hyde has often called this season a development deal for the Orioles. But if the relative positivity surrounding Davis, which has come after years of frustration, plays any small part in turning his season or career around beyond these few weeks, it might count as one of the more unlikely developments of all.

"I think we'll see," Davis said. "I definitely think it tested my character to a level that I never expected to be tested, but I feel like I passed. We'll see what the next chapter holds, what's in store for us."

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