Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Dodgers greats remember Davis
By Tony Jackson
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Manny Mota was Willie Davis' Dodgers teammate for only four seasons -- a stretch during which Mota says he actually saw Davis score from second base on a sacrifice fly during a spring-training game -- but the first memory of Davis that popped into Mota's head on Tuesday came from a time when they played for opposing teams.
It was 1968, the Dodgers were playing a doubleheader at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, and Mota was playing for the Pirates. And so was Matty Alou, who took advantage of his superior speed to beat out a chopper back to the mound twice during those two games.
"Matty wasn't even hitting balls out of the infield, and he was getting hits,'' said Mota, now a special instructor for the Dodgers. "He used a really heavy bat and swung down on the ball. After seeing that, Willie starting using a heavier bat and doing the same thing, just to use his speed. The next year, Willie had a 31-game hitting streak.''
It remains the longest individual hitting streak in Dodgers history.
Davis, 69, was found dead at his home in Burbank on Tuesday morning. The news spread quickly through the Dodgers' spring-training complex, where the team was playing a Cactus League game with the Colorado Rockies at the time. Maury Wills, another special instructor who was Davis' Dodgers teammate, was about to walk from the team offices to the stadium next door when he heard.
"We had respect for one another, definitely,'' said Wills. "But during our playing days, so many people threw it in Willie's face that maybe he should have been using his speed the way I used mine, so that caused a little bit of friction between us. But only a little bit."
Wills and Davis had more in common than their running speed. Each was named to multiple All-Star teams and each won multiple Gold Gloves at their positions, Davis in center field and Wills at shortstop.
Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who often played against Davis in the 1960s and '70s, remembered an opponent who was dangerous on the basepaths. Torre, a catcher for much of that time, said Davis' long legs and long stride sometimes worked against him when it came to trying to steal second base but made him almost automatic in going from first to third on a single.
"It's very sad, and unfortunately, when you get to a certain age and that phone rings, it doesn't surprise you when people pass on,'' Torre said. "Willie has always been such a young man in my eyes because of the way he was able to move so easily. But time gets away from you quickly, and hopefully you appreciate every day that you have.
"I hope he is in a better place now.''
The night before Davis died, Jaime Jarrin, the team's Hall of Fame Spanish-language broadcaster, was having dinner with friends at a trendy restaurant not far from the Dodgers' complex. At some point in the conversation, Jarrin brought up Davis, virtually gushing over the way Davis had treated him when their careers were just getting off the ground in the early '60s.
"He was very, very nice to me,'' Jarrin said. "He knew I was very young, like him, and he took me under his wing. He used to take me out to dinner during road trips quite often. He was just a really special person to me.''
Less than 24 hours after Jarrin remembered Davis so fondly, word came to Camelback Ranch that Davis had died.
Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers' Hall of Fame manager, was sitting in the Miami airport on Tuesday, awaiting a flight back to Phoenix after being inducted into the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame. Only when a reporter called his cell phone for a reaction did Lasorda learn of Davis' passing, and upon being told, he sounded downcast.
"Willie was a tremendous baseball player for the Dodgers,'' Lasorda said. "From where he started, what he accomplished was a tremendous career. It's a sad, sad day for me from a personal standpoint and for the Dodgers that Willie has left us. He went to visit the big Dodger in the sky, I guess.''
Lasorda became the Dodgers' third-base coach in 1973, Davis' final season with the Dodgers.
"I knew him very well from when he played for the Dodgers,'' Lasorda said. "He was a heck of a player, no question about it. He had his tough times. Now, he is at peace.''
Bill DeLury, a longtime Dodgers employee who has been with the club since 1950, mostly as traveling secretary, was around for Davis' entire career with the team.
"When he came up, he was a pretty good prospect, and he made himself a pretty good player,'' DeLury said. "He was a good guy to be around, kind of a happy-go-lucky guy.''
Davis had been active in the Dodgers Alumni Association, but not since 2007.
Dodgers owner Frank McCourt released a statement in response to Davis' death.
"He was beloved by generations of Dodger fans and remains one of the most talented players ever to wear the Dodger uniform,'' the statement read. "Having spent time with him over the past six years, I know how proud he was to have been a Dodger. He will surely be missed, and our sincere thoughts are with his children during this difficult time.''
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.