Every spring brings its baseball phenoms. But Eric Davis is a phenom raised to a higher power. The familiar problem of how a gifted man turns potential into reality has redoubled urgency these days whenever the Cincinnati Reds come to town.
“Eric Davis has more raw talent than any player I have ever seen in my life, including Willie Mays,” says Reds Manager Pete Rose. “I wouldn’t be surprised at anything he does. Well, except hit .400. Too hard . . . The things he can do, it’s scary. And I get to write his name down every day.”
“There’s one like Eric Davis every 50 years,” says Reds’ veteran Dave Parker who, some thought, was that “one” 15 years ago. “It’s a thrill to watch him. They should make me pay. I just hope he stays healthy and hungry so he can reach his full potential--which is unlimited.”
While many leap to praise, some cover their eyes, recalling Cesar Cedeno and Bobby Bonds a generation ago.
“We’re jumping the gun on Eric Davis,” says New York Met Manager Davey Johnson. “It’s not fair to him. That kind of potential can be a kiss of death.
“When people lead you to believe you’re that good, before you really are that good, it’s an albatross around your neck. We give superstar accolades before the production comes--then the guy has to live with it. He can’t even enjoy the game.
“It scares me. In a way, I’m glad he’s on some other team. It is pressure. Hell, he’s still learning who Eric Davis is. . . . He reminds me of Bobby Bonds. Remember Bonds?”
In the midst of all this is a tall, slim, bow-legged wraith from Los Angeles who runs as fast and hits a ball as far as almost anybody who has ever played the game. In his last 508 at-bats--slightly less than a full season--he has 39 home runs, 93 stolen bases, 125 runs scored and 98 RBIs.
Yes, Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela, Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens, meet Eric Davis. What you were to pitching, he is to playing. We’ve had more than our share of media novae on the mound in recent baseball history--barely known pitchers who looked as though they might make the marks of Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax seem dusty and small. For a while, they made us hold our breath, conflicted, waiting for some reassurance of mortality, just as we wished for legend in our time.
However, it’s been many a long year since an everyday player stood this large, escaping definition for a few weeks or months as we wondered where his exploration of unknown territory might take us all while it lasted. Fred Lynn, simultaneously a rookie and Most Valuable Player in 1975, had no aura of the limitless. Maybe Reggie Jackson, when he hit 47 homers at age 23, and stayed ahead of the Ruth-Maris pace until August, was the last such creature back in 1969.
It’s one thing for baseball fans to pick up the paper every fourth day and find out that a Fidrych has pitched another shutout before 50,000 or that Valenzuela has a long scoreless-inning streak.
It’s an entirely different, and more intoxicating, experience to check the box scores every day and say, “My Lord, he did it again. Who is this guy?”
That’s how it is right now with Davis. When he hit three home runs last Sunday in Philadelphia, giving him five for the weekend (two grand slams) and 12 homers in the Reds’ first 25 games, his teammates almost ignored him.
“When I came back to the dugout, they told me, ‘We’re not impressed,’ ” said Davis. “ ‘We’ve seen you hit three in a game before. Show us four.’ ”
Yes, Eric, show us more.
Agog with word of his Philly show, the universal baseball media descended on Shea Stadium Tuesday night to watch Davis cope with Broadway, the Big Apple, the megamedia hoedown. Yeah, show us.
And he did.
The former Fremont High School star leaped above the center field fence to rob his old hometown buddy Darryl Strawberry of a home run. He stole three bases in the span of four pitches--one on a pitchout and another on a perfect ankle-high throw to third by Gary Carter. His routine three-hop grounder directly at second baseman Wally Backman was the shock of the night, however; Backman took two quick steps in, fielded the room-service bounce and fired fast and hard to first base. Davis beat it cleanly for what could only be scored as a hit.
On a night when he barely touched the ball with his bat, he dominated a 2-0 game between what may be the National League’s two best teams.
Last year, in 415 at-bats, he had 27 homers and 80 steals. That’s 40 home runs and 120 steals for a full year. You don’t have to be much of a fan to know that combo has never been done. This year, in 96 at-bats, he’s hitting .396 with those 12 homers, 27 RBIs and 14 steals. For a full year that projects to . . . well, it doesn’t project to anything. It’s nonsense. More than 70 home runs, 170 RBIs, 180 runs, 80 steals. Wayne Gretzky stats for baseball.
But these are the days for talking nonsense about Davis. Is this a man who will bend our statistical definitions of the game? Could this 24-year-old who was only a rumor last summer and an insider’s tip as recently as a month ago--combine speed and power, the two aphrodisiacs of the sport, at a level that has never been approached?
Say it slowly--50 homers and 100 steals. That’s the fantasy. Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb together, with Mays’ glove.
Davis doesn’t just hit home runs. He hits 500-foot home runs. To the opposite field. “The one he hit in Montreal, I still don’t believe,” says Rose, the primary authenticator and purveyor of Davis mythology at the moment. “Over the runway in the upper deck in right-center field.”
Davis doesn’t just steal bases. He takes them instantly, without even waiting for a pitch, almost as though he were collecting mail. Pitchouts and perfect throws to third by Gary Carter, they mean nothing to him. Career percentage: 90. That includes pickoffs.
In the outfield, he makes us beg for quantification--just how fast does he run and how high does he leap. He doesn’t know and won’t say. He was nip and tuck in some impromptu off-season dashes with the likes of Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and Bo Jackson. As for altitude, basketball was his first love; there he jackknifed his 6-foot 3-inch, 185-pound frame high enough for backwards, two-handed tomahawk dunks.
It’s in the seeing that Davis really tantalizes us. Look at such garden variety phenoms as Kirk Gibson and Bo Jackson and, though you see the obvious potential for an MVP-type season, you also see the holes and the limits. With Davis, there is still that glimmering promise of an almost frightening synthesis.
He stands at the plate as languidly, almost asleep as the pitch is delivered, as Hank Aaron. He holds his hands in close and slashes his wrists like Ernie Banks. His build, with that 29-inch waist and those huge forearms (“They’re corked,” says Rose) are pure George Foster from his year of 52 homers and 149 RBIs. The long legs and the gait that never seems to touch ground, evoke Willie Davis. His bat extension through the hitting zone--like a golfer trying for maximum arc for a long drive--is so pronounced that it may in time qualify as a signature; but Frank Robinson managed it nicely, too.
Quite a fancy pedigree of mannerisms. “Oh, it’s glaring. Written all over him. Hard to miss him,” says the Mets’ Johnson, even as he tries not to overstate. “Lean and lanky, a young George Foster with speed. Might hit one 600 feet. But he can jump start you, too. He’s electrifying.”
Already Rose says things like, “Oh, he’s going to put up big numbers. He can be as good as he wants to be. With a player like that, you just put the ball in his court. However much money he wants to make, however many home runs he wants to hit, that’s what he can do.”
So, Eric Davis, who struck out so much that it took him almost seven full seasons as a professional to hold onto a major league job, now has baseball’s Midas Touch.
Luckily for Davis, he seems enormously wary of the cult growing around him. Phenoms are common. Careers are rare. He says he wants a career.
“I want to become the best player and person I can be,” he says softly. “I see a lot of myself in Darryl (Strawberry). But he’s more vociferous than I am. I’m more laid back. I don’t predict what I’ll do.”
Davis has had the good fortune of failure in the minor leagues--at Eugene, Cedar Rapids, Waterbury, Indianapolis, Wichita and Denver. Where Bo Jackson, for example, must make his mistakes in the American League, Davis made his in near solitude.
“When you can deal with rejection, it makes you a better person,” he says, thinking of the two years he was shipped back to the minors and last spring when he lost a regular job that he’d won. “You have to learn to roll with the highs and lows. Like last month, when I struck out nine times in a row. I looked at it as oh for nine, not nine strikeouts. I hope that’s maturity. If I’d done that a couple of years ago, I don’t know if I’d have bounced back as well. . . . In baseball, you evaluate when the season is over.”
The Reds say Davis is a worker, a hungry player, a student. “You’re born with the ability to run, but you have to learn how to hit,” says Davis. “It’s all technique.”
Those, such as Davey Johnson, who like Davis’ easy manner, almost wish the world had not found him so fast. “Look how long it took people to catch on to Aaron and Mike Schmidt,” says Johnson. “Maybe it helped them.”
But anonymity is impossible for Davis now. Every day, Rose says something like, “Every time Eric sees a slow curve, it becomes a souvenir. I don’t know what these scouts are looking at. Nolan Ryan threw two fastballs past him, then he hit a slow curve into the third deck.”
If it’s true that modesty is the only sure bait when angling for praise, then Davis has mastered the trick. He has a natural nervousness when watched and just a hint of shyness when talking about himself. He has a 10-month-old daughter, and diapers can help humility. All around him in the Reds locker room are mammoth egos delighted to put him in his place. Parker calls him, “My son,” and has given him the heart-to-heart talk on the mistakes of his own career--plagued by poor work habits and high living. Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan come around to say the right word.
Maybe that’s why Davis sounds older than his years when he says, “Anybody can hit a home run. Home runs are mistakes. If I hit 40, that means 40 mistakes. What I like to do is get on base and steal. Runs scored is my most important stat.”
Most people invent themselves as they go along; Davis is in the midst of the process. “I have a lot to learn,” he says. But he’s also curious, wondering, like everybody else in baseball, just what this somewhat slow-to-blossom but oh-so-splendid center fielder can accomplish.
“I’d like to sit back and see what I do,” he says. “I don’t know exactly what it’ll be.”