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Saturday, August 10, 2013
Innocence lost

By Eddie Matz
ESPN The Magazine

chris davis
Chris Davis has always been known to crush the ball -- if and when he connects.

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ON A RECENT road trip, Chris Davis sat in the visitors' clubhouse in Kansas City and started talking about PEDs again. His 37 jacks at the All-Star break had tied an American League record and were already four more than he'd ever hit in an entire season. In this so-called post-steroids era, the media and fans had, you might say, taken notice. On June 30, a Michigan teenager had the stones to send Davis a tweet asking whether he was on steroids. ("No," Davis tweeted back; he has since shut down his Twitter account, saying it wasn't for him.) That same weekend, during a three-game home set against the Yankees in which Davis launched three bombs, a New York reporter asked the Orioles slugger, face-to-face: Have you been tested for performance-enhancing drugs? That was followed by pieces from ESPN's Rick Reilly and the Chicago Sun-Times' Rick Telander that didn't pronounce the slugger guilty but didn't exactly trumpet his innocence either. As Baltimore's 6'3", 230-pound mauler claimed to be pure, suspicion only mounted, moving from the elephant in the room to the T. rex in the crawl space.

I'd first met Davis in the Camden Yards clubhouse almost three months earlier, after his startling nine-homer April, and found him as frenetic (bordering on ADHD) and as open as any athlete I've interviewed. In between wisecracks -- he kills with his Fat Bastard impression and has been known to take batting practice in nothing but spandex shorts -- he talked about how he went from hotshot Rangers prospect to almost quitting the game; how, when Texas finally made the World Series in 2010 and he wasn't on the roster, it damn near killed him, but it also helped him rediscover Jesus Christ; how being traded to Baltimore the next July was the best thing that's happened to him. Now in Kansas City, a heap of homers and innuendos later, I expect to find a much more wary Davis.

Instead, he appears unafraid of the T. rex. "Step into my office," he says with a wide grin as he rises from a black leather couch, turns his attention from a movie that he and several teammates are watching and directs me to a clubhouse card table where we can talk. There I discover that while being the 2013 version of 2010 Jose Bautista isn't very fun for Davis -- he's forced to take the stand inside his locker room cubicle every day for no other reason than, well, he's having a really good year -- it hasn't made him any less open.

"It's extremely frustrating that people would just assume I was on something because I'm having success," Davis says. As he reclines in an all-black Orioles tee and shorts, his body language is just as loose as it was in May, his East Texas twang just as slow and easy, his eye contact just as constant. All that's changed is that he looks drained. "I'm tired," he admits. "I was tired after the All-Star break, and I'm tired right now." Part of Davis' fatigue is physical, being an everyday position player for the first time in his big league career -- last year 60 of his 137 starts came at designated hitter. But part of it is mental, a byproduct of having to deal with the attention, wanted and unwanted, that comes with transforming into a human launching pad at the same moment the game collapses on itself from the latest PED scandal.

"I understand why people would wonder," Orioles skipper Buck Showalter says later. "I would too." (Not for nothing; Showalter once managed A-Rod in Texas.) "But once you get to know Chris, once you meet his family and see his work ethic, you realize that this is a special kid."

chris davis
Davis says that being traded to Baltimore was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Like anyone who piles up homers these days, Davis is facing a situation in which he can't prove a negative. But it helps his case that he has always crushed the ball. As an 11-year-old in Longview, Texas, in his first Little League game after returning from a broken ankle he suffered while in-line skating, Davis clubbed a game-winning homer that cleared the fence at McWhorter Field and landed halfway across Toler Road. At Longview High, the shortstop they called Biscuit -- because his coach once joked, "Son, you're about one biscuit away from outgrowing shortstop" (by then he was 6'3", 225) -- played on a field that featured major league dimensions: 390 feet to centerfield and 335 down the line. Nevertheless, he clubbed a school-record 13 home runs as a senior in just 30 games. In BP, the lefty would routinely hit balls into the lights or onto the middle of the soccer field, about a hundred feet beyond the rightfield fence. "I coached high school baseball for 30 years," says Joey Kalmus, his coach at Longview, in a deliberate Southern drawl befitting a tall-tale narrator, "and I've never seen power like that."

After being selected in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by the Rangers, Davis tore through the minors and made his major league debut in June 2008 at age 22. In half a season, letting it rip, he hit 17 homers and earned the starting first base gig heading into the following year. But big league pitchers found his weakness. "I tried to hit every single pitch," he says. As a result, he seldom hit any. In 2009 he whiffed 150 times in just 391 at-bats and was shuttled back and forth to Triple-A, caught in a loop of failed adjustments. After hitting .192 with one homer in 2010 and being the target of zero steroid accusations, he didn't make the Rangers' World Series roster that fall.

That offseason, spurred by the sting, he recommitted to religion and started making contact again in spring training, but he was relegated to Triple-A Round Rock. He thought that if things didn't change soon -- if the Rangers didn't give him a real shot or trade him -- he was going to become a minister. He prayed on it. The very next day, Davis hit three home runs. Maybe this is a sign, he thought.

Over the next couple of months, the signs kept coming. "It was the stupidest thing I've ever seen in my life," says Tommy Hunter, a former Ranger and current Oriole who spent time at Round Rock in 2011 with Davis. "It was literally Nintendo numbers. He was hitting a home run every game." Well, almost. Davis was hitting a home run every other game: In 48 Triple-A contests that season, he went deep 24 times. Emphasis on the word "deep." "There's this groundskeeping shed in centerfield that's 410 feet from home plate," says Round Rock hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh. "Most guys are lucky if they just hit the facing. Chris was hitting balls clear over the roof on a regular basis."

Somehow the Rangers missed the signs, which sent Davis on a two-year journey from trade bait to the Orioles' franchise face to PED purgatory. "I never imagined it would snowball into what it has," he says, reflexively stroking the cursive J that's tattooed on his left ring finger (for his wife, Jill). Last season, when he led the Birds to their first playoff appearance since 1997 by hitting 33 jacks, nobody blinked because, well, 33 long balls was well within the limits of normal. After all, Davis, Josh Hamilton, Brandon Phillips and Alfonso Soriano are the only big leaguers who swing a 35-inch, 33-ounce bat. Davis averaged a bomb every 15.3 at-bats in the minors. He can bench 395. But 37 homers before the All-Star break? Not so normal.

chris davis
Stuck in the minors, Davis regained his 17-homer rookie-year stroke to go deep 24 times in 48 games -- and was dealt.

The list of factors that likely conspired to explain Davis' seemingly inexplicable first half is as long as one of his more majestic taters. He's now 27, widely accepted in baseball circles as the magical age when sluggers enter their prime. He swings at fewer bad pitches and is therefore making better contact. He's a workout junkie who spent the offseason in North Dallas waking up before sunrise and trudging to the neighborhood track to do three hours of speed and explosiveness training. And he's finally getting the chance to play every day, half the time in one of baseball's most homer-friendly parks.

It's also entirely possible that, as a notorious hot-and-cold hitter, he just got hotter than he'll ever be again and will peter out and finish with an earthly home run total in the 45 to 50 range. Whether it's the physical wear and tear of playing every day, the mental beatdown of dealing with the incessant whispers or simply the law of averages, Davis has already started to falter. His average home run distance has decreased each month, from 413 feet in April to 383 feet in July, according to ESPN Stats & Information. As of July 31, he'd struck out in 24 consecutive games, a franchise record, was hitting just .211 for the month and had only one bomb since the break, an opposite-field 357-foot wall scraper on July 30 that snapped a 10-game homerless skid. (Afterward, he quipped to reporters, "I'm so happy … I don't have to wake up every three hours and cry.")

So this slump is its own defense of the clean-lived life. But back in the visitors' clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, Davis feels compelled to say more, mentioning how he's already been tested roughly four times this year -- he doesn't remember exactly -- and that each time, the results have come back negative. Just as they always have; just, he says, as they always will. "There's nothing in my mind or body that would ever allow me to do something like that," he adds, before growing a bit testier. "The people who just assume you're on steroids aren't there in the weight room after a game when you've played four hours in the sweltering heat and you have zero energy and you know you need to get a workout in. It's just disrespectful."

The mood lifts, though, when moments later, Davis is out on the field at Kauffman, ready for BP. Dip in one cheek, tongue in the other, he slips me a hillbilly one-liner: "Lemme show ya how it's done aw natch-er-al."

Then, cut after cut, he proceeds to hit exactly zero home runs.

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