“The sooner one side blinks, the better”

Chris Davis and the Orioles remain locked in an expensive dance.

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.

A cry from Chris Davis’s wilderness

2019-08-09 ChrisDavisBrandonHyde

Chris Davis (top right, hatless) had a meltdown with skipper Brandon Hyde (bearded, behind Davis’s shoulder) Wednesday.

Even a single taste of greatness produces a natural high equaled only by any subsequent, equivalent taste of failure producing a natural low that can sting far deeper than the high could elevate. Prolonged greatness shoved aside by prolonged failure lacerates deeper.

And as often as not the ache to reclaim former greatness becomes a burden, if not an addiction, whose lack of consummation harries men and women of all manner of character to the rack of their regrets in a manner as cruel as it can be enduring.

Today’s unexpected champion becomes thrown back tomorrow to the pool of the ordinary, just as readily as today’s unexpected failure or journeyman may be thrown unexpectedly into the pool of the giants. And it’s still rare enough that a man who’s tumbled from particular heights to particular nightmarish depths allows himself the stripping of his professional guard enough to cry out from his unique wilderness.

Chris Davis, the Orioles’ first baseman/designated hitter, became such a man late this week. Davis has fallen from being one of the American League’s marquee sluggers to a man about whom the term “journeyman” can’t begin to describe without injury the depth to which he has fallen so publicly.

He is the Orioles’ highest paid player, based on his former glories and with three years left on his mammoth deal. You would have to presume him inhuman if he didn’t believe to his soul that he wasn’t earning what he’s paid. Yet until this week Davis was also elevated in the minds of fans who appreciate the war within such a man and the courage required to refuse its consumption of his soul.

Earlier this season he ended an unconscionable hitless game streak with the eyes of a nation upon him for the grace he’d exhibited under such futility’s lash, whacking a two-run single that brought loud cheering even in the enemy ballpark in which he drilled the hit. And it was merely the first of three hits he’d collect, and the first two of four runs he’d drive in on the evening.

But Davis since that night has had yet another season in hell parallel to that of his team’s, apparently lost for resolving himself as a player. He’s long past being an everyday player; his season’s salary is a quarter of the Orioles’ season’s payroll; his pride is compromised even deeper than his play.

At long enough last his personal dam yielded to a flood Wednesday night, after he couldn’t perform a somewhat routine scoop of a low infield throw in the fifth inning, in the middle of the Orioles being blown out by the Yankees, 14-2.

When the teams changed sides, there was Davis in a furious verbal showdown with his manager Brandon Hyde, who may have ignited the flood with a remark to Davis and answered his battered first baseman in kind for one and all to see. It was caught on camera and only too widely discussed and disseminated.

Orioles fans knew Hyde in his first season of major league managing had all he could think about trying to foster accountability and navigate the roiled waters of a mediocre team. But if he intended to call Davis out over the error alone, or the full year’s shortfall, Hyde may have underestimated just how painfully self aware Davis must be of his own deflation.

And the day after, Davis was extensively apologetic for having let his season long frustration, interrupted only rarely, and perhaps an extension of two previous years’ unexpected and barely explainable futility, explode as on Wednesday.

I think it’s pretty obvious the offensive struggles I’ve had for quite some time. I feel like night in and night out, I’ve done a real good job of still being there on defense and trying to pick guys up, and at that spot in the game, at that point in the series, that was kind of where it all . . . like I said, I hit a breaking point.

. . . [W]hen you have that much frustration, when you’re constantly having to deal with failure, you’re gonna have episodes where you just have to let it out. Unfortunately, it was in the dugout. I wish it hadn’t been. I wish it had been underneath [in the clubhouse tunnel], but it happened, and I can’t go back and change that.

His temporary fortune was the Orioles having an off-day Thursday, enabling Davis to take succor from his wife and young children, the most immediate and mandatory place for a husband and father to regain comfort after a too-long-protracted bad year on the job.

That’s really the only way that I know kind of how to escape, is just to be a dad, and be a husband. I enjoyed the time with them, but I look forward to coming back in there and getting back to work with these guys.

And when he returned to his place of business Friday, rejoining the Orioles to open a weekend series against the American League West-owning Astros, against whom he won’t play Friday night, Davis approached the boss post haste.

We sat down today and talked, I don’t know, over an hour. That’s just kind of when it all went down, I guess. We both knew that we 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. When we’re not here and we’re not in uniform, we’re not working, we’re just regular human beings. I think he took a little time away from everything just to relax.

Hyde’s own short public remarks immediately after the Wednesday night dam burst offered no indication that he would hold it against Davis, which makes Davis fortunate enough when you allow that in non-public professions such explosions after such protracted internal anguish gain as much unemployment as empathy for the frustrated.

Davis specifies that Wednesday culminated “the last couple of weeks” worth of shortfall and its accompanying discomfort, but you could not blame him if it proved to culminate the last couple of seasons worth. You may consider him fortunate to have tasted greatness at all and remind yourself of those who’ve tasted far more brief such greatness without the prior and subsequent ordinariness or failure breaking them in half.

Stronger men than Davis get crushed beneath the wheel of failure that rolls upon them unexpectedly after they know even a fast flicker of greatness. Weaker men than him triumph on the job yet claim that their only and transient success in a mortal life that does not live by profession alone.

The Baltimore Sun‘s venerable baseball columnist Peter Schmuck suggests Davis’s frustration may prompt him to think of negotiating a buyout of the rest of his contract. It may not be an option to which either Davis or the Orioles are immune.