Thursday, July 10, 2008

Eric Davis: "Like Having an Atomic Bomb Sitting Next to You in the Dugout"

Baseball has never thrilled or excited me the way that some other sports--particularly basketball--do but a handful of great baseball players have captivated me as much as any athletes in any sport and right at the top of that list is the wondrous Eric Davis. In 1986 and 1987 it seemed possible that he might become the greatest all-around baseball player ever. If that statement sounds absurd to you, then check out the words that the equally incomparable Ralph Wiley used to open his May 25, 1987 Sports Illustrated cover story about Davis:

Let's get it straight from the beginning. Eric Davis is not Willie Mays or Henry Aaron or Roberto Clemente. Eric Davis is E. That's it, just E, the single-letter nickname his friends know him by. E's friends are everywhere now, and many of them never saw Mays or Aaron or Clemente. Children who play on scarred inner-city blacktops, manicured suburban lawns and wide-open country fields join E's legions with every sweet, vicious swing of his 32-ounce bat. That's E, as in Everything—which is what the new Cincinnati Reds star has.

"Eric is the one guy who can lead our league in home runs and stolen bases," says Pete Rose, Davis' manager. "Name me another cleanup hitter who can steal 100 bases. Name one. It's like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout."

"Eric," says the Reds' six-time All-Star outfielder Dave Parker, "is blessed with world-class speed, great leaping ability, the body to play until he's 42, tremendous bat speed and power, and a throwing arm you wouldn't believe. There's an aura to everything he does. I tell you frankly that I'd pay to see him if I had to."

Everyone who has paid to see Eric Davis lately has gotten his money's worth. As most of America knows, E is off to one of the all-around best starts in National League history. His numbers: .358 average, 15 homers, 36 runs scored, 16 steals, 38 RBIs, and two weeks still remaining in the month of May. But it's the ease with which he has amassed these stats that has astonished older fans and enraptured younger ones. Meanwhile, baseball cognoscenti are left with an inescapable conclusion: To find an appropriate comparison for the soon-to-be 25-year-old outfielder, one must hark back to the '50s and '60s, to Mays and Aaron and Clemente.

Davis was the Swiss Army knife of five-tool players; he had more tools than Home Depot: Davis could hit for average, hit for power, run, field his position with amazing range/stunning grace and throw like he had a bazooka attached to his shoulder. He specialized in using whatever tool was necessary to win a particular game, delivering game winning RBI, game saving catches and game breaking steals with equal aplomb. Wiley noted that after a 2-0 Reds victory over the Mets during which Davis scored a run, stole three bases and robbed Darryl Strawberry of a home run with a catch of which Rose said, "I didn't think Superman could get to that ball," Mays commented, "It's an honor to be compared to Eric Davis. I hope Eric is honored." Aaron declared, "Eric Davis has unlimited ability—awesome ability. I don't think he'll be Willie Mays. That would take some doing. But, on the other hand, I don't think he has a weakness, either."

In that magical summer of 1987, Davis set NL records for grand slams in one month (three in May) and most home runs by the end of May (19). He won the NL Player of the Month Award in April and May. Although injuries limited him to 129 games, he still finished with 37 home runs (fourth in the NL), 100 RBI (eighth), 120 runs scored (third), 50 stolen bases (fourth), a .593 slugging percentage (second) and a .293 batting average. At that time he was just the seventh 30-30 player and he reached those numbers earlier in the season than anyone ever had. Davis was the first 30-50 player in MLB history, a feat later matched by Barry Bonds.

The previous season, Davis put up these gaudy numbers while playing in three more games but with 59 fewer at bats: 27 home runs (fifth in the NL), 71 RBI, 97 runs scored (third), 80 stolen bases (second) and a .523 slugging percentage (which would have ranked second if he had enough at bats to qualify). Davis and Rickey Henderson (who had 28 home runs and 87 stolen bases in 1986) remain the only 25-80 players in MLB history.

It may be hard for younger fans to believe but before Mark McGwire did whatever he does not want to talk about and Barry Bonds (allegedly) used various performance-enhancing drugs to become the not so jolly home run bashing Giant, a 30-plus home run season was quite an accomplishment, because 40 home run seasons were exceptional and 50 home run seasons were very rare. Only one player hit at least 50 home runs in a season between 1965 and 1976 (Willie Mays hit 52 in 1965), while between 1977 (George Foster, 52) and 1990 (Cecil Fielder, 51) no MLB player hit 50 or more home runs in a season; in many of the years between 1965 and 1990, 37 would have been good enough to be a league-leading total and Davis blasted that many home runs in 1987 despite missing a fifth of the season and being a premier base stealer.

Davis won three straight Gold Gloves (1987-89) and in both 1987 and 1989 he made the All-Star Team and won the Silver Slugger Award. He also won the 1989 Home Run Derby. Davis ranked in the top ten in the NL in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS (on base percentage plus slugging) each year from 1986-89. He was not only a prolific base stealer but also a very efficient one: Davis was never caught stealing in high school or in his first year of pro ball and his stolen base percentage of 84.1 ranks second in MLB history behind Tim Raines (84.7) ; Davis' 85.0 NL stolen base percentage is also second behind Raines (85.7).

In 1990, Davis had 24 home runs and 86 RBI for a Reds team that led the NL West wire to wire and then swept the powerful Oakland A's in the World Series. Davis hit a two-run home run in his first World Series at bat to give the Reds a 2-0 first inning lead in game one, setting the tone for a 7-0 victory over the defending World Champions. Davis was not able to celebrate the sweep with his teammates because he suffered a potentially life threatening kidney laceration while diving for a ball in the outfield during game four. He was hospitalized for 11 days. Reds' owner Marge Schott did not even pay for his plane ride back to Cincinnati and after Davis labored through an injury-riddled 1991 season the Reds traded him to the L.A. Dodgers.

Davis continued to struggle with his health and in 1993 the Dodgers traded him to the Detroit Tigers. A disc injury in his neck limited him to just 37 games in 1994 and he retired after that season. However, by 1996 Davis had recuperated sufficiently from his various ailments to attempt a comeback and he was literally a smashing success, blasting 26 home runs and 83 RBI in 129 games for the Reds. He even stole 23 bases. Davis won the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award but did not get along well with Manager Ray Knight and thus decided to sign with Baltimore as a free agent. Davis' Baltimore career hardly began before he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He vowed to return before the end of the season and was true to his word, overcoming surgery and chemotherapy to rejoin the team's lineup in September. Davis hit a ninth inning home run in the Orioles' 4-2 victory in game five of the ALCS but the Cleveland Indians won game six to advance to the World Series. Davis won the Roberto Clemente, Hutch and Tony Conigliaro Awards in 1997, honors that acknowledged his character, fighting spirit and ability to overcome adversity.

Although Davis was no longer a base stealing threat, in 1998 he proved that at 36 years of age he still had a lot of pop left in his bat, ranking fourth in the AL with a career high .327 average while hitting 28 home runs and notching 89 RBI. Davis ranked eighth in on base percentage (.388), ninth in slugging percentage (.582) and 10th in OPS (.970). He also had a 30 game hitting streak that season, setting an Orioles franchise record. Davis finished his career by playing two seasons in St. Louis and one in San Francisco.

We will never know for sure what Davis could have accomplished had he been healthier during his career but he hit at least 20 home runs in eight different seasons and he persevered long enough to amass 282 home runs and 349 stolen bases in 17 MLB seasons.


madnice said...

OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I am responding to this without even reading the rest of the post. I only read the first paragraph.

I grew up a Yankees fan but Eric Davis was my favorite player ever. The hitch in his swing, the waving of the bat, the bat speed, the quick wrist, the running speed...I thought he was going to be the best ever. I remember listening to a Cubs game and Harry Caray was saying right now I dont know who is the best in baseball. Is it Don Mattingly or Eric Davis (in his wavering tone)? Baseball in the 80s was a wonderful thing. Caray was calling Davis like every one else was the next Willie Mays. I wonder if Davis not getting along with Ray Knight had anything to do with the fight they had on 3rd base years ago when Knight played for the Mets. Knight actually got a punch in.

I remember this Sports Illustrated with my favorite writer ever Ralph Wiley.

When I found out Wiley passed it was on the end of PTI. I couldnt believe it. He looked like he was in such great health...I just sat there for like ten minutes not moving. I remember him being one of the first sports writers on NFL pregame shows when he was on NBC. A lot of writers can learn from him.

SI the vault is so beautiful.

Davis was poetry in motion and the most graceful baseball player Ive ever seen. Schott was such an (expletive)...I shouldnt speak ill of the dead....but you know the history.

The 80s in baseball was so good it was incredible. I mean you named Dave Parker and Tim Raines who were great great baseball players. Of course the Pittsburgh drug trials did them in and eradicated any chance of them being in Cooperstown. But they were unbelievable players. George Foster and Cecil Fielder were great sluggers that I enjoyed watching. Its amazing that there were actually black athletes who played baseball as supposed to the lack of them playing now. Some good times, David.

madnice said...

It seemed like he robbed a home run like once a week. He had no weaknesses then. Of course his batting stance and swing was like watching Jamaal Wilkes but his quick wrist and bat speed made up for it. I remember Davis tried to alter his hitch a little when he was slumping. Thank you for this post. You always seem to know what up.

David Friedman said...


Parker was an amazing player in his own right, particularly in his younger days. Before everyone started juicing he was considered to be huge (6-5, 235). Like you said, Foster and Raines were also a lot of fun to watch. Fielder was more of a one trick pony as opposed to being an all-around talent but when he became the first player in well over a decade to blast 50 home runs that was exciting.

Davis proved his toughness and his understanding of the game by putting together that great season with Baltimore despite his illness and after he had already lost a lot of his physical ability.

The Wilkes comparison is interesting. You would never teach a youngster to shoot like Wilkes or swing like Davis but their methods worked for them for whatever reason and they consistently used the same form, even though it looked unorthodox. The fact that Davis could hit for a high average and put together a long hitting streak late in his career shows that had he stayed healthy he would have been able to put up some monstrous all-around numbers.

madnice said...

Davis definitely was on track to be an all time great. I can still remember him getting hit in the 90 World Series. Once again thank you for highlighting his career. More people need to get on this blog too.

Anonymous said...

Davis was one of the 10 greatest baseball athletes to ever suit up. Anyone that laughs must shut up and look at the stats - Top 5 in HR's in his league and Top 3 in SB's for several seasons, and he had 8 seasons with at least 20 HR & 20 SB's, had he been healthier, those numbers would be better, as he topped 27 HR & 80 SB in under 130 games in 86, and 37 HR & 50 SB in '87 (missing 20 games due to injury as his fielding prowess and diving ability were un-paralleled in the game). Add to that - amazing CF defense that could run, dive, jump, throw with power from center!

Sure, players like Bonds (barf) and Griffey (yay, Jr!) had bigger numbers, but if you asked me what player I wanted on my team in their prime and healthy, I'd pick Eric over The Kid to play CF.

Unknown said...

miss watching the dude play the game. My favorite Davis moment was right after Dennis Martinez hit Eric on the elbow...then while Davis was on first he caught Martinez snoozing..took off for second..Martinez spun but couldnt catch the swift Davis. Always exciting to watch that guy. Good article

BigRedNastyBoy said...

Eric Davis in his prime belonged in a higher league. He could single-handedly turn a game around. One of my favorite Davis memories occurred in San Diego in '91 or '92. Reds were down 1 run in the 9th with Davis leading off. They pitched around him and put him on first. One out later he stole second. With 2 out, on a slow roller to short, Davis while running to third did a little stutter step right between the SS and the bounding ball. It distracted the SS just enough to prevent him from fielding the ball cleanly, resulting in a hurried throw to first into the dirt. The first base ump called "safe", and when the first baseman turned to argue, Davis, who had crept down the line, sprinted for home and slid in safely in a bang-bang play to tie the game. Never saw anything like it; may not ever again.