ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Chris Davis walked up the left field line at Tropicana Field before batting practice this week, found a box seat in the second row and joked about becoming the guy whose name was etched in a tiny gold plate.
If only it were that simple for Davis to escape his own skin.
He isn’t looking for pity, which rarely comes to a man who’s being paid $161 million to play a sport. But the chance to duck the spotlight and the steady flow of criticism was embraced beneath the dome.
Davis started at first base again last night and went 1-for-3 with an infield hit and two strikeouts in the Orioles’ 5-4 loss to the Rays that closed out their three-city road trip. He’s batting .159 with a .539 OPS.
“Mechanically this year I’ve gone back so many times to things I’ve done in the past that have proven to work and I don’t know if it’s age, I don’t know if it’s just a combination of things, but it has been a long year,” Davis said. “I mean, that’s kind of an understatement.”
The Orioles re-signed Davis to a seven-year, $161 million contract in January 2016, with managing partner Peter Angelos dealing directly with agent Scott Boras to hammer out the final details. Davis receives $17 million in each of the next four seasons with $42 million in deferred money to be paid in 10 installments of $3.5 million annually from July 1, 2023-32 and five installments of $1.4 million from July 1, 2033-37, according to Cot’s Contracts.
Fans waited through the final out of the last home game in 2015 to chant Davis’ name after he homered twice against the Yankees, raising his total to 47. He conducted an on-field interview with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, expressing his gratitude and the hope that he’d return. But the soundtrack of his baseball life has been spliced with boos and vicious insults as his average stays below .200, the power disappears and the strikeouts flow at an alarming rate - 1,340 of them breaking Cal Ripken Jr.’s club record that the Hall of Famer amassed over 21 seasons.
The superhero status that Davis built before 2016 has eroded.
“It’s tough,” he said. “We all want to be loved, there’s no doubt about that. You want to be accepted by your fan base. Nobody wants to be ridiculed or criticized, but that’s not the world we live in, especially in this game. When there’s such emphasis put on winning and being successful and getting a leg up on the competition, people, they want to see results and I understand that. But I always think about this as kind of a way to keep me grounded.
“My dad was extremely tough on me growing up and taught me a lot of lessons through what we referred to as ‘tough love.’ And one of the things he told me when I was younger and it stuck with me even to now is you can’t always control the way the ball comes off the bat, if somebody steps in front of a throw and it hits a runner, you can’t always control what’s going to happen. But you can always control your preparation and you can always control your effort and you can always control your attitude, and those three things are something that each and every day before I come into the clubhouse I try to check myself.
“‘Am I in a mindset where I can pick guys up and be positive and encourage guys? Am I in a mindset where I’m ready to prepare myself for whatever the game has for me tonight? Am I ready and willing to work as hard as I can?’ And I feel like that has been, if nothing else, has been consistent for me this season, those three things.”
What’s changed for Davis, who placed 14th in Most Valuable Player voting in the American League in 2015?
“I don’t know honestly if there’s a whole lot of change other than I really feel like this year early on, the first couple of months, I was squaring balls up and they were getting caught,” he said.
“I understand that with the shifts and everything they’re doing defensively to discourage hitting, you’re going to have a little bit more of that and it’s going to be refined over the years, the more information they get back from you. But there was a game in Chicago, the first night, I barreled three balls. One was a line drive my first at-bat right at the left fielder and he caught it. The second at-bat was a line drive to shallow right field that (Yoan) Moncada jumped up and made a great catch. And my third at-bat was off (Luis) Avilan, another lefty, and I squared a ball up.
“When you square a ball up so good that it knuckles, that’s as true as you can hit a baseball. I hit a low lining knuckleball to the center fielder. Those are three hits right there and to me it’s like, ‘Man, that’s the way it’s gone this year.’
“Obviously, strikeouts are detrimental to my average, but there have been so many balls that I’ve hit this year that I’m like, ‘I can’t believe that didn’t fall.’”
Bunting to beat the shift makes sense on paper. It’s more of a challenge for Davis on grass and turf.
“My first three bunt attempts this year were all three really good bunts, but all three times the pitcher made really good plays,” he said. “There was one where I had done it a couple series in a row and I thought, ‘I’m going to try to pull one right where the second baseman is playing.’ Obviously, he’s way back and there’s so much room there. It was a terrible pitch to bunt, but it was such a good bunt, and (the pitcher) dove and laid out and picked it up. I was busting it down the line, but he had plenty of time. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’
“This offseason, a big part of my routine was working on my bunting because I was determined to have that be a tool that I could use. And while you can practice it all you want, it’s so different in a game setting for me because I don’t do it enough. I’ve talked to guys who bunt - B-Rob (Brian Roberts) who had great bat control, (Craig) Gentry, who I’ve played with for 12 years. And they all said the same thing. You can practice it all you want. It’s like hitting BP. I can drive the ball out of the ballpark at any point in time, but once the game starts it’s just a different animal. And I think that while that was underutilized, I was just discouraged early on.
“It’s really difficult for me to lay a good, firm bunt down the third base line and be able to get out of the box and get going, just because of my size and my lack of footspeed my first couple of steps.”
Every failed at-bat seems to be accompanied by more references to his franchise-record contract. Can’t talk about one without the other. The dollars don’t make sense.
Has the contract become more of a burden than a blessing?
“I think the first couple of years it was on my mind more than I really let on,” he said. “I don’t try to hide anything. I’m pretty open with what’s going on as far as guys asking me what’s going through my head. I think the first couple of years it was on my mind. Not necessarily a burden but a responsibility that I felt, not only to my teammates, coaching staff, my friends and family, but our fans to uphold my end of the bargain. And it was and still is important to me to honor that commitment to the fullest out of respect for Peter Angelos.
“I didn’t know what free agency was going to look like. I had never been through it before. I knew that I wanted to stay in Baltimore. I didn’t know if it was going to be an option at the end of the season and when it was all said and done I was so excited and almost relieved that I got to stay here. And looking back now, it’s crazy to think what I assumed it was going to be and what it really is. I mean, it’s been tough.
“The one thing that I think really kind of keeps me going is the attitude and the response that I’ve gotten from people around town. And when I say that I mean the overwhelming encouragement of people understanding that it may not be what I want it to be as far as results are concerned, but every night I’m going to go out there and give it whatever I have. And I think overall the people of Baltimore appreciate that and that’s what I’ve gotten back from them.
“That’s kind of a saving grace to me each and every day is you’re not always going to be dealt the best hand, but what are you willing to do with the hand that you’re dealt? For me it’s always just go out there and give it everything I have. But I’d be lying if I said the frustration and the negativity and just the overall lack of performance wasn’t weighing on me. I think it’s definitely taken a toll on me this year more than ever.”
Manager Buck Showalter has been pressing the reset button for Davis, giving him eight consecutive days off in June and the last two games of the Rangers series last weekend. Showalter implied that Davis was a little banged up physically, protecting his player, but Davis said it was more of a mental break.
“We had played a few back-to-back games that were just long,” he said. “I think there was a day game in New York where we were on defense for a good while and the first night in Texas. I think that’s something Buck does a really good job of as a manager, kind of knowing when to give guys a little bit of a blow without making a big deal about it. Because especially in our clubhouse, we have so many guys who don’t want the day off and that’s something I always admired about J.J. (Hardy) because I saw a lot of him in myself.
“If you ask me if I want the day off I’m going to say ‘no’ because that might be the day I hit three home runs. And it’s funny because I got here (Tuesday) and started hitting BP and I was like, ‘Man, I feel so good,’ just from two days off. Just those two games. And obviously the results didn’t favor me.”
Davis struck out three times while going 0-for-4 in a 4-3 loss to the Rays.
“I can’t figure this game out,” Davis said. “But yeah, that was just a little reset button. Which unfortunately this year we’ve had to hit a few too many times.”
A .242 on-base percentage would be the lowest of Davis’ career and he’s again on pace to exceed 200 strikeouts. He homered twice on July 29 and has gone 4-for-27 with 13 strikeouts since that night.
“I’ve looked a lot at mechanics this year,” he said. “There are definitely areas where I can improve, whether it’s better contact or being less aggressive. Going into this season I wanted to be more aggressive because last year I took way too many called strikes, and I think I’ve stayed true to that for the most part. But if you’re not careful the opposition will use that against you and it’s a game of adjustments. Yeah, it’s been difficult this year, to say the least.
“It’s tough when you have so much success so quick after having so many years of really struggling and grinding to really stay true to who you are when things start to go south again.”
The solutions presented by fans, usually via the media, have become a source of amusement to Davis, though he tends to stay off social media these days. He doesn’t need the personal attacks to also come to him in written form.
Davis also doesn’t need glasses, which shatters one theory.
“Believe it or not, every year in spring training my eyes check out at 20/10, which is two tiers better than what 20/20 is considered perfect. My eyesight is pretty damn good,” Davis said.
“Guys don’t pitch anymore. Guys throw everything max effort and they try to make it move as late as possible. This is the best of the best up here. This is the best the world has to offer. They’re pretty good at doing that. And I think it’s too easy to say, ‘Well, he just needs to have his eyes checked.’ If it was an easy fix, I would have already fixed it. I think there’s a lot more to go into it.
“I look back at the years when I was successful, that I was contributing early on, and I was coming up in situations with runners in scoring position where I could do damage. And if I did hit a fly ball there was still a positive result on our end and that hasn’t been the case this year in particular just because of the way the games have played out. At the beginning of the season we struggled kind of collectively as an offense just to get guys on base and get into scoring position. But those are all circumstantial.
“As far as eyesight is concerned, if I needed to wear glasses I would have opted to rock the Chris Sabo look a long time ago.”
Davis was suspended for 25 games in September 2014, covering the Orioles’ final 17 regular-season games, seven postseason games and opening day 2015, for failure to obtain a therapeutic-use exemption from Major League Baseball to take Adderall, prescribed to him after being diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Three years ago he switched to Vyvanse, a different form of stimulant medication that lasts longer in the system.
Are his issues at the plate, including the called third strikes that led the majors last season, somehow related to his medication, though he was taking it during the 2015 season? Davis refers back to his suspension before dousing another theory.
“I understand that was a mistake I may never stop paying for in the eyes of some people, not going through the steps to get reapproved for those couple of years,” he said. “I understand that. But the medication that I take doesn’t make me a great baseball player. The entire reason I started taking this was because life away from baseball was just kind of spiraling out of control and I had never really explored any avenues as far as being diagnosed.
“There was some pretty good certainty in a few of my school teachers when I was younger that I had ADHD, just because, I mean, I’m the poster child for it. But my whole life I had been able to go out and play baseball with no problem because it was almost like an escape. It was almost place where I felt so in my skin that I didn’t have to worry about forgetting to do something earlier that day. So, the medication gets in my opinion a little too much power in some people’s eyes. And yeah, it’s the same thing I’ve been taking for years. It’s the same thing, it’s made by the same guy. It’s just under a different name.
“I’ve had success years I didn’t take anything, I’ve had success years I was on medication. That’s an easy fix to me if that was the case. If I thought that was the reason I was struggling, I’d do whatever I could to not have to worry about it. I just think that’s too much of an easy fix.”
So here he is, planted in a box seat at The Trop while the Rays get ready for batting practice, amused by the volume of the music playing over the public address system that nearly drowns out his conversation and uncertain how he can get back to the years when he was one of the most feared sluggers in baseball and adored by the Camden Yards fan base.
“I don’t really know right now,” said Davis, who is three games away from becoming the 18th player in team history to reach 1,000. “I had an interesting conversation with Ben McDonald a few weeks ago and we talked a little bit about the contract and the responsibility and the expectations and he said something I knew to be true but I don’t think it gets a whole lot of light shed on it.
“It’s almost like you’re paid backward in this game. You go through arbitration. As a player that’s your first opportunity to really, I say ‘earn’ money. We make an astronomical amount of money in this game. There’s no doubt about it. That’s the first time as a player you feel like you have some leverage. But ultimately when you hit free agency you’re paid off your past performance and what you’ve now set the bar to be for the next however many years.
“I never looked at free agency as anything but an opportunity to stay in one place for more than one year and I thought that was something that I never experienced, it was something I was really looking forward to. But at the end of the day, no matter if you’re playing professional baseball, if you’re teaching school, if you’re a doctor, if you are a mailman, you want to be the best at what you’re doing. And in my mind, no amount of money makes that any easier.
“I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions is, a lot of times I don’t show emotion and it comes across as me not caring and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I care deeply about this team, the city, the people of Baltimore. Maybe even a little too much at times. I want to enjoy coming to work every day and there have been several times this year where at the end of the day there wasn’t much to look at. That’s tough. And it’s tough to try to find the positive in it.”
The thought of quitting has crossed Davis’ mind. Walking away from his career, the money, in the most drastic of resets. Only he can reach for that button.
“Yeah, several days, but that’s not who I am,” he said. “And I made a commitment not only to the Baltimore Orioles but to our fans, to my family, to my teammates for seven years and I’m going to be here as long as they’ll keep letting me walk through the door before those seven years are up.
“In a perfect world we turn this thing around in a year and I can be a part of a team that brings a world championship back to Baltimore. That’s what I’m holding out for. I’m no fool, I know that we have a lot of work ahead of us, I know that there may be some ugly times ahead of us, but in the back of my mind and in my heart I believe that we are a better team than what we have showed definitely this year and even in the last couple years and I still believe that we can win. So, hopefully we’ll Al Davis it.
“Just win, baby.”