OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Chris Davis saunters into the home team dugout a couple of hours before the first pitch. No need for introductions. The pride of Longview, Davis is tall and muscled up, with blue eyes, gelled hair and Texas Rangers flip-flops.
He’s sipping a Rockstar energy drink. He grins like he knows you and raps his fist against his chest, then raises one finger to the heavens. He winks.
The rock star act is probably a joke, but it’s a telling display of confidence from the 23-year-old ball player. Davis has weathered the first season of frustration and disappointment in his young career. Following a demotion to the minor leagues a month and a half ago, he has emerged as driven and sure of himself as ever.
He has found his swing, and he’s found his swagger. “I’m having a lot more fun than I was two or three months ago,” Davis says. “Those were awful days.”
“It was bad. I know it was bad.”
A smash hit
Davis hits with power. He always has. He tore up the ball as a Longview Lobo in 2003 and 2004, and he has ripped through every level of baseball since. When the Rangers called him up on June 26, 2008, the good times kept rolling.
He hit a single in his first major league at-bat, and in his third plate appearance, he homered. Davis was the rookie of the month for July 2008, and in September, local state Rep. Tommy Merritt arranged the “first annual” Chris Davis Day at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Expectations couldn’t have been higher for his sophomore season. But suddenly, Davis’ bat stopped cooperating. He’s an aggressive hitter, and pitchers had learned to use his impatience against him.
“Throw something in the dirt, he’ll swing at it,” Davis said of the pitchers’ strategy. “Elevate the pitch late in the count, and he can’t catch up to it.”
His form was off, too. He began the season in a hitting slump that he couldn’t break free from, and as the slump wore on month after month, it clearly rattled his confidence.
“I’ve proved I can hit at the big-league level, but after a while it got to the point of ‘What the hell is going on? I’ve been hitting. Why can’t I hit now?'” he said. “I was really getting frustrated. There were times I wanted to give up and say I don’t know what to do.”
Davis’ defensive play at first base remained top rate, and there were glimpses of his promise as a hitter, including a 4-for-5 outing against Arizona on June 25. He also was on pace to hit a better-than-average 30 home runs for the season.
But he also wason pace to strike out more times than any other player in majorleague history. Strangers took to heckling him in restaurants and at the ballpark.
“The fans started getting after me during the game. They were frustrated, and they had a right to be,” he said. “Everybody has bad days at work and in their life, and my bad days were in front of a national audience.”
“Once I started going into the slump I started isolating myself and didn’t want to talk to anybody,” he said. “I really did turn to God for strength to keep going. I knew it was out of my hands, and I needed someone to pick me up. I put more of my struggle in the hands of God, and it really helped me.”
Finally, on July 6, the Rangers ended the misery. They reassigned Davis to a minor league team in Oklahoma City, where he could escape the big-league spotlight and focus on his fundamentals.
“It felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” he said.
Davis didn’t bring many changes of clothes with him when he left for Oklahoma City. He expected to be called back to the Rangers after a couple of weeks in the minors, especially when he got off to a torrid start. But it’s been 39 games since his return to the RedHawks. He’s hitting well, even if he’s showing up before some games in dirty clothes.
Davis said he’s flattened his batting path and shortened his swing, and Oklahoma City batting coach Scott Coolbaugh said he also is working with Davis to re-establish the drills and pre-game routine the young player developed earlier in his career.
“He got away from (his routine) a little bit this year,” Coolbaugh said. “When you go back to your set routine, it gives you something to build on. It gets you what we call right in the mind, and your comfort level goes up.”
Throughout the ups and downs, former Lobos baseball coach Joey Kalmus said he has followed his former player in the newspapers and online.
“I think everything came very easy for Chris,” Kalmus said. “Ever since he signed, he went through the minor league system as quickly as anybody possibly could. He had several awards and all-stars, and the Rangers … moved him up the ladder as quickly as possible. … The second year in the big leagues is the toughest year – you’ve got to bunker down and work at it and make your weakness your strength, or you won’t be around for long.”
It’s disappointing to be demoted, Kalmus said, but it was time for Davis to work on his game without the pressure of national exposure.
“I can’t imagine how big the strain would be, but I would guess it would be a terrible thing,” he said. “That would just wear you down mentally. People were talking about the record pace for strikeouts. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, and I felt bad that Chris was under that kind of pressure.
“I think knowing Chris the way I’ve been around him, I think he’s gonna be OK,” he said. “I know his work ethic is outstanding. He’s always worked hard at playing baseball throughout the years and did extra work necessary to be one of the best.
“There’s no question he’s working as hard as he can. He’s had a taste of the big leagues, and he wants to get back. And I know he’ll get back. I have confidence in him.”
Davis is enjoying himself in the minor-league clubhouse. Before Sunday afternoon’s game in Oklahoma City, his teammates laughed over video clips on the Internet and argued whether the TV channel should be turned to NASCAR, golf or the Rangers game. One player sprawled on the floor of the clubhouse as he filled out the roster of his fantasy league football team.
But Davis, a notorious goofball, has taken a more serious approach to his time with the RedHawks. He wants to get back to the Rangers – and badly.
On Saturday night, Davis played in front of 9,777 fans in Oklahoma City. The RedHawks play in the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, a nice, new miniature version of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the major league stadium a few hours to the south.
The same night, an audience of 48,201 people watched Davis’ major-league counterparts defeat the Boston Red Sox, 7-2, in Arlington.
Big-league teams expand their rosters Sept. 1, and Davis’ imminent return to Arlington is the subject of much speculation. Biding his time in Oklahoma City, he said he hopes to be called up to the majors before the end of the season.
“I haven’t heard anything, but I would like to think so. If not, I’ll take an early vacation,” he said.
“I’ve fixed what I needed to fix, and I feel like my old self. What happens now is out of my control. Whatever happens, happens.”
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WHAT THEY SAY
“(Davis) got away from (his routine) a little bit this year. When you go back to your set routine, it gives you something to build on. It gets you what we call right in the mind, and your comfort level goes up.”
– Scott Coolbaugh, Oklahoma City batting coach
“I know his work ethic is outstanding. He’s always worked hard at playing baseball throughout the years … He’s had a taste of the big leagues, and he wants to get back. And I know he’ll get back. I have confidence in him.”
– Joey Kalmus, Former Lobo baseball coach