Davis swinging for acceptance in Cincinnati


October 18, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

CINCINNATI -- Eric Davis is rich and unloved, handsome and unloved, talented and unloved.

You figure it out. He's polite, dresses nicely, doesn't kick the dog and hits 30 home runs. In most towns, that's enough to get you elected saint (see: Cal Ripken).

In Cincinnati, Davis is, at once, the player most likely to perform an on-field miracle and the one most likely to get booed. These fans, seemingly so ready to give their hearts to a team that has the town in thrall, refuse Davis. It's a mystery, although not one entirely absent of clues.

When Davis hit that home run Tuesday night, with one mighty swing simultaneously piercing the night air and shattering the aura of Oakland invincibility, the Riverfront fans screamed their appreciation. While Davis took note of the reception, he couldn't help but add this:

"They always do that when you do something good."

They cheer home runs. Of course. And they boo, sometimes, when he takes a strike, and not even a third strike. Fans are, by definition, fickle, but we've moved way beyond the realm of ordinary fickledom. In the area Davis resides, he provokes maddening and startling mood swings.

If the Reds are to beat the A's in this World Series, Davis -- playing with a painfully injured shoulder and a not altogether healthy knee -- must provide the spark and the fire.

Davis is capable. He has, in his still brief career, hit as many as 37 homers, stolen as many as 80 bases, scored as many as 120 runs and driven in as many as 101 runs in a single season. Few players ever have possessed such speed and power in concert. No wonder they expect him to be Willie Mays.

The two grandest moments in the postseason have been Davis' home run in the Series (headline in Cincinnati Post: Davis Slays Goliath) and his throw to third to erase Bobby Bonilla in the third game of the National League playoffs. He is a player who can carry a team. He just can't carry the town where the team plays.

What's the deal?

His problems this season are obviously rooted in pay-for-performance. After signing a big contract, Davis, at age 28, has had his worst year. It doesn't seem to matter that he has been hampered by injuries. He's always hampered by injuries -- Davis has never played more than 135 games in a season -- and maybe that's it, although it should be obvious that Davis' physical difficulties are born of playing, if anything, too hard. The tender shoulder, which until Tuesday had robbed him of his home run swing, was the product of a violent meeting with the left-field wall.

When asked if the shoulder hurt after the home run, he said, "It hurts just standing here." Just so you understand.

Before the injury, Davis was in the process of rescuing his season, and the Reds' too. They had led from Opening Day but were faltering under the heat of a charge from the Dodgers. Until Davis stepped up. From Aug. 22 until he tried to knock down the wall on Sept. 27, Davis hit .357 with nine homers and 29 RBI. He finished the season at .260, 24 homers, 86 RBI and 21 steals, a down year by his standards, as the fans were inclined to remind him.

But his problems didn't emerge this season. Seems it was ever thus. The problem was money, or an attitude thought to be too aloof, or the way he holds his bat, or that he hasn't put together the monster year everyone expects. Some fear that in a town where Joe Morgan and George Foster were never embraced in the manner of a Johnny Bench or Pete Rose race is a factor. Morgan and Foster, like Davis, are black.

For his part, Davis avoids speculation, and, when asked directly, will downplay the entire matter. "It's not as bad as everyone says it is," Davis suggested.

But you knew Tuesday the fans were prepared to bury Davis after the flap about the batting order. Manager Lou Piniella wanted Davis, who bats fourth, to bat leadoff, as he had in the old days. Davis said he didn't want to, so, of course, he was a selfish guy who didn't care about the team. His teammates say his feelings were hurt.

But he didn't give the fans a chance, launching that homer in his first at-bat, the homer that turned the Series around. He had another hit and a near catch that would have made the highlight films for years. He jammed a finger on that one, prompting teammate Glenn Braggs to tell Davis: "Man, I bet you can't wait for this thing to be over. If we go another month, you might not have any legs."

Davis didn't complain, and he wasn't interested in taking much credit either. He wouldn't even say that the win served as a message.

"We're not concerned with what Oakland thinks," he said. "They're not in our clubhouse."

It was late by then. The pressure had gone over to the A's side, and Davis, finally, was getting dressed. He says his goal in life is to make the cover of GQ, and he was doing his part -- black leather pants, black leather sandals, gold bracelet, heavy gold necklace with "Eric 30/30" encrusted in diamonds, a blue turtleneck covered by a black leather jacket with a blue and orange suede shark's teeth configuration cut into the leather. He's an L.A. kid and looks it. Maybe that's the problem. Who knows?

All we know for sure is that he walked out of the room looking like a couple of million bucks and into the Cincinnati night -- into a town that he ought to own.

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