Two seasons ago, Chris Davis finally cried out from the wilderness of his ionosphere-salaried decline. A few months after the eyes of the nation fell upon the grace with which he handled and finally ended an unconscionable hitless-game streak, Davis finally boiled over following a low throw across the infield that he couldn’t handle at first base.
He had words with his Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, after Hyde apparently made a remark about the errant scoop attempt. Hyde may have been as painfully unaware of Davis’s own internal estimation of his own self-deflation as Davis was in the moment that the skipper had enough trying to stir accountability within a mediocre team.
The Orioles had the next day off. Davis spent it the best way he knew, regrouping with his wife and children. “That’s really the only way that I know kind of how to escape, is just to be a dad, and be a husband,” he said. “I enjoyed the time with them, but I look forward to coming back in there and getting back to work with these guys.”
When he returned to work the first thing Davis did was report to Hyde to apologise and talk frankly. He told reporters he thought both himself and his skipper “had an off day. I think it was probably best that we did, just to kind of give us a little bit of time. I didn’t think about it a whole lot. I tried not to. I think he was kind of in the same boat.” Hyde for his part said nothing suggesting he’d hold the meltdown against Davis.
Davis spoke of “a couple of weeks” worth of frustration, but the suspicion was that he really meant more than a couple of seasons. His collapse after signing a lucrative seven-year deal has been nothing short of surrealistic.
Bravery when you lead your league in home runs two out of three seasons running is simple. Leading the league in striking out two consecutive seasons makes bravery a lot less simple. Then, when your OPS (.539, 2018) is lower than the lowest team OPS in the league (the 2018 Tigers: .697), bravery isn’t even a topic. Not when you might be tempted to say, as a button given Frank Robinson while he managed a murderous Oriole losing steak decades earlier, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”
Barring either Davis or the Orioles or both deciding at long enough last that the proverbial jig is up, they’re stuck with each other until the end of the 2022 season. “Davis and the Orioles,” Baltimore Sun writer Jon Meoli wrote last month, “are in a staring contest over the remainder of his career that neither seems to be willing to blink in.”
On pure baseball terms, things look simpler. Trey Mancini is recovered from cancer and looking to be the regular Oriole first baseman; they have a little juggling to think about in the designated hitter slot with Renato Nunez absent for the time being, but bank on it. That won’t be Davis’s full-time job, either.
What does it do to a man who has tasted greatness at one point in his professional career only to taste harder-sustained failure elsewhere during the same career? From 2013-2016 Davis was a no questions asked great hitter who looked like a classic late bloomer. (He was 27 in 2013.) His past four seasons have made that spell resemble a protracted flash in the proverbial pan.
Enough players have had such long enough terms of greatness followed by far longer terms of invisibility. Baseball is more crowded than the busiest airport or railroad station by those players whose careers were nondescript but who had blinks when they resembled men who stepped forth from the lands of the giants.
For every Dick Radatz (three years: the nastiest reliever in baseball; five injury-pushed years of low-fi pitching later: career over) there’s a Moe Drabowsky. (Game One, 1966 World Series; nothing much otherwise but beloved pranksterism—and surrendering Stan Musial’s 3,000th career hit.) For every Roger Maris (busting ruthsrecord in the middle of three Hall of Fame-like seasons; injury-abetted fall over six years to follow), there’s a Pablo Sandoval. (Game One, 2012 World Series; nothing much otherwise beyond his roly-poly Kung Fu Panda image.)
Former Orioles infielder Mike Bordick, once a Davis teammate and now an Orioles broadcaster, thinks Davis has people rooting for him to re-emerge from his protracted collapse even if such re-emergence may never happen. He’d had a good spring training before baseball shut down over the coronavirus pan-damn-ic last year, but he had less than a stellar “summer camp” before an injury curtailed a mediocre enough irregular season for him.
A Davis comeback is “never going to happen because of his work habits,” Bordick told NBC Sports Washington in December.
He proved that after he left spring training [last year] because when he came back he wasn’t the same. He didn’t have the same explosive bat speed. He didn’t even have the same mental attitude. He thought he could repeat that without the repetition of the work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in baseball. Period. I don’t care what age you are, but as you age in this game, you actually have to work harder, not less.
One of the most human of impulses is the belief that, because you did it and sustained it once before, you can do it again, at will. Davis isn’t the only ballplayer to learn the hard way how that can veer between difficult and impossible. Even for those who work harder as elders than they did as live youth.
Just ask Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols, who may yet retire after this season after a decade worth of his feet and legs betraying him to the point where he looked a sad impersonation of his once off-the-charts-formidable self. And Pujols, one of the proudest of men ever to play the game, never stopped working hard.
“The sooner one side blinks,” Meoli concluded of Davis and the Orioles, “the better for all involved.” Whichever side does blink at last, it’ll take a glandular swallow of pride.