NEW YORK – The Home Run Derby news conference was about to begin and Chris Davis’ chair on the dais was empty. This season’s biggest slugger was missing.
When Baltimore’s first baseman finally strode into the room, only one question seemed appropriate: “You were busy hitting more home runs, Chris?” the emcee asked, only half joking.
It’s no joke what Crush Davis has done with that behemoth of a 35-inch, 33-ounce bat.
In less than two years, Davis has gone from nearly swinging-and-missing his way out of baseball to matching Reggie Jackson for most home runs by an American League player before the All-Star break with 37.
The leading vote-getter in All-Star balloting joins Detroit’s Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera as the first two players ever to hit at least 30 homers and drive in 90 runs before the break.
“I mean, both of those guys had incredible first halves,” Washington outfielder Bryce Harper said. “I mean, first players to ever have 30-90. I mean, that’s stupid. That’s just like, video game, and let’s just go out and have some fun and smile and laugh when we strike out.”
There was a time when Davis wasn’t laughing, when “Crush” Davis, a play on Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davis, who sets the minor league record for homer in “Bull Durham,” was worried that was all he would be: a bush-league bopper.
Davis hit 118 home runs in 1,807 minor league at-bats overall. When he was called up by the Rangers in 2008, he homered in his first start. The Texas boy earned his nickname in his home state.
But he also struck out a lot.
In 2009, he fanned 150 times in 391 at-bats and his on-base percentage fell below .300. A year later, his batting average dipped to .192 and he homered just once in 120 at-bats.
He sure did think about becoming a real-life Crash Davis while riding the Triple-A express in his last three years with the Rangers.
But near the trade deadline in 2011, he was acquired by the Orioles. That’s when things started to change.
Davis switched to the bigger bat in 2012, got consistent playing time and produced. He hit 33 homers and drove in 85 runs last season. By the way, he also earned a win pitching two innings in a 17-inning game at Boston.
And while he still struck out plenty, Davis swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone. He hit seven homers in the final seven games of 2012, helping Baltimore to its first postseason series since 1997.
That was only the start.
Davis set a record with 16 RBI in the first four games of the season and has been locked in since.
The sustained success has led to difficult questions that Davis has confronted. When asked on Twitter if he used steroids, he responded with a no. He considers the single-season homer record to be Roger Maris’ 61.
“I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said.
Enjoying his first trip to the All-Star game, Davis knows other young players will look to his story.
“I think it’ll be an inspiration for anybody who’s tried, succeeded and failed and then had to come back and learn how to succeed again,” he said.