Chris Davis: Baltimore's strongman
As the first baseman's monstrous home runs continue to soar, so do the Orioles
The tankini says it all. A couple of hours before an early May home game with the visiting Royals, Chris Davis roams the halls of the Orioles clubhouse, his massive upper body sardined into a gray Nike tank top. This is not one of those athletic tank tops, the kind with the wide shoulders that you might see on an asphalt blacktop in West Baltimore. No sir. This one is straight out of a cheesy 1987 spring break flick -- at least two sizes too small and complete with navy piping and a Day-Glo mango swoosh right in the middle. As he chops the air with his monstrous black bat, forearms looking for all the world like they're on loan from Popeye, it's hard to tell what's stronger: Davis or his faith in himself.
General manager Dan Duquette stands just outside the O's clubhouse, surveying the scene and chatting with a reporter. His young club has just returned from a grueling West Coast road trip in which it played 11 games in 11 days (and won seven of them). Near the end of the odyssey, Davis was named the AL Player of the Month for an eye-popping April in which he tied the league lead in home runs and RBIs, finished first in slugging percentage, and fourth in batting average. Just then, the Great Tankini, his character as outsized as his biceps, saunters by Baltimore's bespectacled GM, prompting the reporter to ask, "Who does he remind you of?" A notoriously slow talker, Duquette mulls over the query with a furrowed brow, seemingly stumped. After a long silence, the answer comes to him in the form of a question: "Paul Bunyan?"
The comparison should stick. After all, the 27-year-old Davis might be the single strongest man in what's become a strong man's game. He swings a bat that's big enough to make others look like pencils. He benches nearly twice his weight. And, most impressive of all, he's hoisting a moribund franchise up on his broad shoulders and delivering it from the depths of the American League East.
The last time Baltimore was good -- like, really good -- Chris Davis was not yet born. And five years after winning the 1983 World Series, the O's set a major league record for the start of a season by losing their first 21 games in 1988 season, and then stank for most of the next quarter-century, including enduring losing seasons for 14 straight from 1998 to 2011. But since 2012, its first year in the postseason since the days when Cal Ripken started losing his hair, Baltimore's 125 wins are eighth-most in baseball, and at the heart of its ascent is a wall-banging offense that, a third of the way into the 2013 season, led the majors with a .795 OPS and had posted 10-plus hits in half its games. Powering the team is the hulking first baseman whom fans have taken to calling Crush Davis (a play on Kevin Costner's "Bull Durham" character, Crash Davis). As of June 3, Crush was leading the majors in homers (20) and OPS (1.194), and the Birds were leading the majors in runs, slugging percentage and defied expectations.
Thanks to the long-baller from Longview, Texas, the charm has returned to Charm City.
Back in spring training, manager Buck Showalter was very clear about what he expected of Crush's behavior, along with that of his teammates. "He basically told us that he wanted us to screw off," says reliever Darren O'Day. Then the O's manager proceeded to aid and abet his charges by holding a talent show that featured, among other things, second baseman Ryan Flaherty bringing in two monkeys that threw batting practice and Chicago-area native and rookie reliever T.J. McFarland doing an uncanny Harry Caray impression. But the one that brought down the house was a parody of the O's coaching staff that featured pitcher Chris Tillman as Showalter and Davis as hitting coach Jim Presley, complete with fake potbellies and extra-tight pants. Halfway through the five-minute skit, "Harlem Shake" came on, and Tillman and Davis -- along with pitchers Tommy Hunter (playing the role of bench coach John Russell) and Pedro Strop (first-base coach Wayne Kirby) -- got down with it. "I nearly pissed my pants," says Showalter, now in his third full season with Baltimore. The skipper is a far cry from the 35-year-old my-way-or-the-highway guy who took over the Yankees in the early '90s. "It'd be a pretty boring game if you had a bunch of robots out there," he says. "I want them to be themselves. Bring your personality."
Nobody brings it like Davis. "He's hilarious," says O'Day, who earlier this season in Seattle accompanied Davis to Niketown, where the tankini purchase took place. "He was so proud of his outfit that he wore it out on the field at Safeco, just tank top and underwear." Davis, an admitted muscle head (he claims to bench 395), has been known to pump iron within minutes of game time wearing no shirt and no shoes -- only spandex shorts. Says catcher Taylor Teagarden. "You can't help but die laughing." Fashion accents aren't the only kind Davis specializes in: "He's very good with impressions," says pitcher Jason Hammel. A Scottish brogue is his go-to. Sometimes he'll do movie characters (Fat Bastard and William Wallace always kill), other times he'll just apply the tongue in random situations, like he did on a recent team flight when he grabbed the label from a bottle of Oban scotch that Hammel had and started reading aloud. Says Hammel: "He just knows how to keep it light."
When you're as young as Davis & Co. -- before Freddy Garcia and Chris Snyder were called up in early May, Baltimore's oldest player was 31-year-old Nate McLouth -- your locker room is bound to feel less like an office and more like a frat house. While nobody would ever confuse them with the crazy '93 Phillies or '04 Red Sox, "our clubhouse personality is kind of like how we play," says O'Day -- high-spirited in a low-key way, with contributions from everyone. On a pool table donated by Nick Markakis, veteran closer Jim Johnson shoots stick with McFarland, who is sporting a 'stache that's clearly a product of rookie hazing that no one will cop to. Reserve outfielder/first baseman Steve Pearce engages in a heated pingpong match with second-year sensation Manny Machado, who wears an orange T-shirt that reads, "Hakuna Machado." O'Day rides around on his Solowheel (think unicycle meets Segway) and pretends that he and bullpen mate Hunter had nothing to do with McFarland's unfortunate facial hair. According to Davis, that off-field chemistry helps fuel the team on the field. "One of the reasons we've been so successful," he says, "is because we have so much fun with each other."
"Christopher's always been a clown," says his mom, Karen Davis, who would regularly get notes from her son's elementary school teachers about the kid who talked too much and couldn't sit still. He entertained his family by recreating Will Ferrell SNL skits in the living room of their three-bedroom home. As a teenager, he once bought a pair of pink fuzzy slippers for a pajama party, then had the cojones to wear them regularly for the next couple of months -- in East Texas. "I've always been real comfortable in my own skin," says Davis.
He's been strong from the start, too. At birth, Davis tipped the scales at 9 pounds and measured nearly 22 inches long. "Frame-wise," Karen Davis says, "he's always been big." As a child, he would squeeze tennis balls at bedtime to strengthen his forearms. One spring when he was 11, he broke his ankle rollerblading, got off crutches just in time for Little League season, and in his first game back proceeded to hit a game-winning home run that cleared the fence at McWhorter Field and landed halfway across Toler Road.
At Longview High, the legend continued to grow, and so did Davis. When he wasn't busy throwing 94 mile-an-hour cheese as the Lobos' No. 1 pitcher, he was the team's starting shortstop. By the time he was a senior, he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 225 pounds and was so muscular coach Joey Kalmus once told him, "Son, you're about one biscuit away from outgrowing shortstop." From that moment on, he was known to teammates as Biscuit. As fate would have it, an arm injury later that season forced him to move to first base.
Despite playing on a field with major league dimensions -- Longview's park measures 390 feet to center field and 335 down the line -- Davis clubbed a school-record 13 home runs as a senior in just 30 games. In batting practice, the lefty would routinely hit balls into the lights or onto the middle of the soccer field, some hundred feet beyond the right-field fence. "I coached high school baseball for 30 years," says Kalmus in a slow Southern drawl befitting a narrator of a Bunyan-esque yarn, "and I've never seen power like that. The boy could hit."
After two years at Navarro College, Davis was selected in the fifth round of the 2006 draft by the Texas Rangers and tore through the minors, making his major league debut in June 2008 at age 22. In half a season with Texas, he hit .285 and clubbed 17 homers, enough to win the starting first-base job heading into the following year. He had weaknesses, though -- particularly, high heat and off-speed stuff out of the strike zone -- and before long, big league pitchers were exploiting them. "I was trying to hit every single pitch," he says. As a result, he seldom hit any. In 2009, Davis struck out 150 times -- seventh-most in the American League -- in just 391 at-bats. He spent that season and the next shuttling back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, trying to become something he wasn't. "I changed a lot of stuff to try and please people in Texas," he says. He moved his hands all over the place. He widened his stance. He took more pitches. None of it felt right, and none of it worked.
In 2010, with the Rangers giving increasingly regular at-bats to fellow first basemen Mitch Moreland and Justin Smoak, Davis appeared in only 45 games. He batted a career-low. 192, hit just one home run and had zero fun. "I was trying to make it look a lot more enjoyable than it was," says Davis. "Every day, I left the field thinking I sucked. Not just at baseball, but at life. I took it home with me. I couldn't separate the two."
Then came the bottom. On Oct. 27, 2010, the Rangers, about to play in the World Series for the first time in franchise history, announced their 25-man roster. Davis wasn't on it. "It's everyone's dream to play in the World Series," he says, "and there I was sitting on the sidelines feeling sorry for myself." Instead of taking it personally, he took it as an omen from above. "It took me 18 years to realize that I wasn't really walking with God," says Davis, a southern Baptist who was saved when he was six years old. "I wasn't living the way I should've been living, and I think God used baseball to pull me back to him."
The following April, even though he hit .362 with four homers during spring training, Davis failed to make the big club, instead getting assigned to Triple-A Round Rock. It was the first time in three years that he was starting the season in the minors, and the first time in forever he thought about a plan B. He told Jill that maybe he should get over the whole baseball thing. That if things didn't change soon -- if the Rangers didn't give him a real shot or trade him -- he was going back to school. Not for business, like he'd done in junior college.
Instead, he would go to seminary and become a minister or a youth pastor. Jill told him that she'd support whatever decision he made. The two of them prayed. The very next day, Davis hit three home runs. "It was a sign," he says. The signs kept coming. "It was the stupidest thing I've ever seen in my life," says Orioles reliever Tommy Hunter, a former Ranger who spent time at Round Rock that season. "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, Davis went deep 24 times. Emphasis on the word deep. "There's this groundskeeping shed in center field 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." Apparently, people took notice.
On July 30, 2011, a day before the trade deadline, the Rangers -- who had a glut of corner infielders -- dealt Davis to the Orioles along with Hunter, in exchange for reliever Koji Uehara and $2 million. It was the best thing that could've happened to Davis. "With a guy like Chris," says Teagarden, "all you need to do is just put him in the lineup and leave him alone." And that's exactly what Showalter did. Well, sort of. After spending the 2012 season splitting time between first base, right field, left field, DH, and even pitcher -- in a 17-inning game against Boston, he threw two scoreless innings to join Babe Ruth and Jim Tobin as the only players since 1900 to record a win and have a three-homer game in the same season -- Davis has finally settled in as Baltimore's everyday first baseman, a key cog on a young but talented team that's proving last year's playoff run was no fluke.
After homering in six of Baltimore's final seven contests last year, and finishing the season with 33 jacks, Davis kicked off 2013 by going yard in each of his team's first four games, the first lefty ever to do so. His 16 RBIs over that span set a major league record. In a lineup loaded with offense -- through the first two months of the season, the O's were leading the majors in home runs and doubles, and even second in steals (the Orioles!) -- Davis is the Birds' biggest bat. Literally.
According to Louisville Slugger, the average big-league stick is 34 inches long and weighs 32 ounces. The bat Chris Davis uses is 35 inches long and weighs 33 ounces. That might not seem like much, but there are apparently only three other major leaguers currently wielding a 35/33: Josh Hamilton, Alfonso Soriano, and Brandon Phillips. With that kind of lever, says hitting coach Presley, "all he's gotta do is get the barrel to the ball and the thing just travels." And travel and travels and travels.
Around the Orioles clubhouse, Chris Davis home run stories are like belly buttons: everybody's got one. Like the time last June when he shattered his bat on a 1-2 slider from Pirates' southpaw Tony Watson. The barrel went flying and Davis was left standing there, holding nothing more than the handle, as he watched the ball sail over the wall in right-center. "That's just stupid pop," says Adam Jones, who witnessed the feat from the on-deck circle. Then there was the bomb Davis hit off Roberto Hernandez in the 2013 season-opening series at Tropicana Field, the one that was last seen heading in the direction of center field and was officially measured at 422 feet but looked more like 522. "I thought it was going to go through the roof," says Hammel. As Davis' dongs continue to soar, so do the Birds.
On a sweltering late May night at Camden Yards, the Orioles enter the seventh inning trailing 6-3 to the Nationals. On the mound for Washington is early-season Cy Young candidate Jordan Zimmermann, who cruised through the first six frames in just 75 pitches. A day earlier in D.C., the Nats trounced the O's 9-3, pushing the Birds 3½ games behind the division-leading Red Sox. In the seventh, Flaherty leads off with a single up the middle, and Pearce follows with a homer to left. Six-five Nats. McLouth reaches on an infield single, then scores on a Machado double. Now the game is tied. Out goes Zimmermann, in comes Tyler Clippard, one of the game's best middle relievers. Markakis knocks in Machado with a sharp single to center. After an Adam Jones fly out, Chris Davis steps to the plate with the Orioles ahead by one and looking for some much-needed insurance on an 86-degree night when the Nationals have already left the yard four times.
In his first three at bats, Davis had gone single, homer, single. Ho-hum. Another day at the office. On Clippard's third pitch, a changeup away that has Davis out on his front foot, the lefty makes a one-handed flick of the bat and sends the pitch over the wall in right-center, 406 feet away. Another 35/33 strongman special. The yard job -- his 19th in just 53 games -- gives the O's a 9-6 lead, and that's how it ends. It also gives Davis a 4-for-4 night, making him the first player in franchise history to go 4-for-4 with a homer (or more) three times in the same season. With 109 games still to go.
As it happened, this was Crush Davis T-Shirt Night at Camden Yards. Because, well, Crush Davis Tankini Night might've been a little weird -- for everyone except Crush Davis.
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