Crushing It

Fall 2013_Spreads (dragged) 1It sounds preposterous now—kind of like an era when carbs weren’t counted, phones weren’t smart and people didn’t tweet—but there was a time when Chris Davis considered quitting baseball.

Davis, the Baltimore Orioles’ newly minted superstar, was fed up with the game by 2011. His promising major league debut with the Texas Rangers three years earlier at age 22 was a distant memory. A logjam of talent within the organization and his own inconsistencies at the plate conspired to keep him bouncing between the majors and minors at a dizzying rate.

“I had talked about walking away from the game after the season was over if I didn’t get traded,” Davis recalls.

Feel free to chuckle. The notion seems ridiculous now. Davis, a hulking 6-foot-3, 230-pound slugger and MLB’s leading All-Star Game vote-getter, is suddenly one of baseball’s premier power hitters at age 27 and spearheading a startling renaissance in Charm City. At the All-Star break, he was on pace to shatter a bevy of Orioles records, including Brady Anderson’s 1996 single-season home run mark of 50, and was a legitimate American League MVP candidate as he attempts to lead Baltimore to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 1996-97.

Davis’ sudden blastoff to stardom is an inspiring narrative of faith and perseverance. It’s a story of a prodigiously talented, soft-spoken man whose spiritual and professional awakenings are sovereignly intertwined. It’s a tale of a gospel-believing player who draws true power from the Word.

It’s also a story of legends. Yes, let’s not forget the legends.

Longballs from Longview

Baseball’s history is littered with fascinating folklore and intriguing questions. Did Babe Ruth really call his shot against Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series? Was Bobby Thompson tipped off to Ralph Branca’s pitch before Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard ’Round the World” propelled the New York Giants to the 1951 National League pennant? And how far, exactly, would Mickey Mantle’s homer at Yankee Stadium on May 22, 1963, have traveled if not for the upper-deck façade in right field? Each is a colorful stitch in the fabric of baseball’s fascinating mythology.

Time to sew in some Christopher Lyn Davis yarns. Even now, years after he finished his amateur career, the good folks of Longview and Corsicana, Texas—where he grew up and played college ball, respectively—are still telling tales of the big left-hander’s tape-measure prowess.

There’s his blast at Longview High School that landed on the roof of the soccer field press box behind the baseball stadium—an estimated 450 feet, according to his former head coach, Joey Kalmus. There’s the bomb he hit as a Baseball America JUCO All-American sophomore at Navarro College that cleared the 380-foot sign in right-center field and struck a retail building some 100 feet past the fence. And there’s the rocket he launched during a 2006 NJCAA Region XIV tournament game that ricocheted high off a light pole in right-center at Northeast Texas Community College. Skip Johnson, then Navarro’s head coach, estimates the latter at “430, 450 feet.” Or was it 500 feet, as Whoa Dill, Navarro’s assistant coach at the time, believes?

“People still talk about it today,” Dill says.

Davis chuckles when told of his former coaches’ recollections.

“That’s good,” he says. “That means I’ll be hitting 600-foot home runs soon.”

But there’s no debating Davis’ talent. Drafted three times by age 20, he signed a professional contract in 2006 when the Rangers selected him in the fifth round. For 2½ seasons, he battered minor league pitching, earning the Rangers’ 2007 minor league player of the year award before making his major league debut in June 2008.

As a rookie, he socked 17 home runs and drove in 55 runs in 80 games and picked up the nickname “Crush” Davis, a play on Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, from the 1988 hit baseball movie, Bull Durham. Of course, the unintended dual meaning of the moniker struck an ominous tone: Costner’s character was a career minor leaguer.

Davis slumped badly the next year with 150 strikeouts in 113 games, triggering a maddening carousel of demotions and call-ups that lasted through parts of three seasons. In 2010 and 2011—the greatest two seasons in Rangers’ history, featuring consecutive World Series appearances—he endured five different trips to Triple-A and was left off the 2010 postseason roster. It was an exasperating time.

“I wanted answers. I was angry. I was frustrated,” he says.

At the time, Davis’ faith was still in its nascent stages even though church was as familiar to him as a leather mitt. His family’s Christian roots spanned at least two generations, and his parents faithfully took Chris and his older sister, Jennifer, to First Baptist Church of Longview each week. But to Davis, the truth of the gospel hadn’t sunk in yet. Christianity was little more than a humanistic attempt to earn God’s love. So Davis began drifting as a teenager. His parents’ divorce didn’t help matters.

Without a firm spiritual foundation, Davis could feel the waves of tribulation washing away sand underneath his feet when his career crisis hit.

“I was living and dying by how I was doing in baseball,” Davis says. “I couldn’t separate the two.”

But God’s Spirit was faithfully at work. The seeds of biblical truth planted long ago in Davis’ heart began to bear fruit. Texas teammates Josh Hamilton and David Murphy, both fellow believers, sharpened him spiritually. Getting engaged to his wife, Jill, whom he met in college and married in November 2011, broadened his overall perspective. Life, he learned, wasn’t all about the next at-bat.

He finally grasped true faith.

“Growing up, I was so young in my faith, I didn’t understand what it meant to walk with Christ every day,” Davis says. “As I got older, I realized it wasn’t about going to church or managing your sin, but about daily dying to myself and surrendering my life to Christ.”

Seasons to Remember

Ironically, a bit of historic futility changed Davis’ career.

On July 30, 2011, the Orioles suffered a humiliating doubleheader sweep to the New York Yankees, dropping their record to 42-62. They were 22½ games out of first place and limping toward a franchise-record 14th consecutive losing season—the very definition of trade-deadline sellers.

That day, in what might go down as one of the best trades in Orioles’ history, Baltimore shipped pitcher Koji Uehara and $2 million to Texas for right-hander Tommy Hunter and a slugger looking for a second chance.

Uehara enjoyed a stellar season for Boston, saving 21 games and posting a 1.09 ERA, but there’s no comparison in value between a 38-year-old middle reliever and a 27-year-old middle-of-the-order monster, who hit 53 homers and had 138 RBIs.

Davis’ arrival helped spark a transformation in Baltimore, a once-proud baseball town that hadn’t been relevant since the days of Cal Ripken, Jr., Mike Mussina and Roberto Alomar. In 2012, Davis busted out with a team-high 33 home runs and 85 RBIs in only 139 games, helping power the Orioles to a 93-69 record and their first playoff appearance since 1997.

The whole season was magical. Baltimore won an astounding 29 of 38 one-run games in the regular season (third-best mark in MLB history) and almost broke a 63-year-old major league record with 16 consecutive extra-inning wins. Davis, a pitcher in high school and college with a low-90s fastball, even earned a win on the mound by throwing two scoreless innings during a 17-inning victory against Boston on May 6.

In the final month of the regular season, he hit .320 with 10 home runs and 20 RBIs, including a 445-foot blast off Tampa Bay starter James Shields (who otherwise threw a two-hit, 15-strikeout gem) in Baltimore’s penultimate game that gave the Orioles a 1-0, playoff-clinching win. It marked Davis’ sixth straight game with a homer, tying the 1976 franchise record set by Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (in Jackson’s only season with the Orioles).

Baltimore beat Texas in the wild-card play-in game and then lost to the Yankees in five games in the AL Division Series.

“As a team, we really trusted each other,” Davis says. “We weren’t trying to do it by ourselves. One guy wasn’t trying to carry the team. We had this chemistry and this trust that really gives you a pretty good product on the field.”

Davis—a steal at his $3.3 million salary and under team control through 2015—has upped his own ante this year. In April, he became the fourth player in major league history to homer four times in the first four games of a season and set a new record with 16 RBIs in that span. Incredibly, he reached his 2012 home run and RBI totals by July 6, prompting fans to make him MLB’s leading All-Star Game vote-getter, edging 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera of Detroit. At the All-Star break, when he made his first Midsummer Classic appearance, he was hitting .315 with 37 homers, 93 RBIs and a .708 slugging percentage for the Orioles, who were once again in the playoff picture. His 37 home runs before the break tied Jackson’s American League mark from 1969.

“He’s not afraid of anything that’s going to happen on the baseball field,” says Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. “He’s going to take on all the challenges, and really, that’s how this team has been made up. Whoever they turn to for the job, they’re going to do it, and Chris has been a huge part of that the last two years.”

Of course, thanks to baseball’s recent “Steroids Era,” Davis’ sudden spike in power has prompted some media scrutiny. It’s inevitable, these days, when a player dwarfs his previous career power numbers like Davis has.

Davis, who has never tested positive or been linked to any banned substance, even received a tweet on June 30 (he closed his Twitter account in early July, telling The Baltimore Sun, “It wasn’t my cup of tea”) from a random Michigan teenager, Michael Tran (@MichiganMagic1), that read bluntly: “Are you on steroids?” Surprisingly, Davis responded that day with a simple, “No.” ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly picked up the scent and asked Davis if he had ever used any performance-enhancing drugs.

“I have not ever taken any PED’s,” Davis told Reilly.

Ultimately, Davis credits his extraordinary career turnaround to God, hard work and the simplicity of manager Buck Showalter’s daily lineup card. Being penciled in every day at first base, he says, has made a world of difference.

“The consistency of being in the lineup every day and knowing I’m going to be at first takes a lot off your mind,” he says.

Reaching Out

Crush Davis’ most important routine has nothing to do with baseball. Each day, he employs his thick fingers, powerful hands and ham-hock forearms—the same menacing anatomical tools that bedevil opposing pitchers with his 35-inch, 33-ounce Louisville Slugger—to open Scripture.

“I get in the Word every morning,” he says.

For Davis, soaking in biblical truth is essential for staying grounded in a sport that loves to elevate its stars. Verses such as 1 Corinthians 10:31 put a new perspective on his burgeoning career: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Even mashing moon shots.

“It’s just a daily reminder that the reason I’m here is not because of anything I’ve done,” he says. “Obviously, it’s a blessing that I came to Baltimore and have had success. When I hit a home run or get on base, I praise God for that because know He’s in control of everything. He’s using me and doing things through me.”

Since 2012, Davis has been involved with Christian Youth Athletics, a Baltimore-based organization that reaches out to at-risk youth through sports. He is also donating $100 for every home run he hits this season to Luke’s Wings, a non-profit military organization that supports wounded soldiers. And he contributes $5,000 a year to sponsor disadvantaged youth through an Orioles game day program.

Beyond that, Davis is still searching for his charity niche. He and Jill, a registered nurse, have a heart to serve others. But this whole fame-and-fortune thing is new to them. They’re running to catch up.

“Our soft spot is kids,” Davis says. “We’re still trying to find what we can get excited about.”

In the meantime, Orioles fans have plenty of reasons for enthusiasm. Camden Yards is buzzing once again with winning baseball. The AL East is no longer an annual two-horse race between the Yankees and Red Sox. And standing at the epicenter of it all is a hard-swinging, God-fearing late-bloomer who has learned the power of the Word through the lows and highs of life.

It’s good to be Crush Davis these days. But he knows, ultimately, what makes life good.

“It all worked out,” Davis says. “Obviously now, I’m about as happy as I could be. I give a lot of credit to God for working in me and keeping me afloat.”

This story was published in the Vol. 27, No. 4 print issue. Joshua Cooley is a freelance writer who lives in Germantown, Md.

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