WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Glenn Davis makes you blink. He stands there in the sun and wind taking batting practice, this 29-year-old with all those home runs to his name, and you blink. He just doesn't look that big. As tall as Bill Ripken. No stronger than Craig Worthington. Not small, oh, no, but no Ruthian giant. He doesn't stand out. Yeah, that's the way to put it. He just doesn't stand out.
And yet: All those homers, one for every 18 at-bats in the major leagues. And yet: Balls are coming off his bat with a sweet, resounding clap, the sound of perfect contact, wood meeting ball squarely, as intended. Clean, neat. A door closing on an expensive car. A bank vault slamming shut. Balls flying high, deep, over the fence. Thirty a year, they say. Doesn't look like a reach.
You blink. You look again. You see that that first impression is a bit misleading, that Davis does have thick wrists, Popeye arms, a strong chest, a rump. But you wouldn't assuredly pick him as the home run hitter in any lineup, and you stand there in the sunshine looking at his numbers in the media guide, all those homers, and you look back up at him, and it just, it just, well, what gives?
The manager knows. He is the answer man today. He hit 586 homers never weighing more than 185 pounds. He shakes his head and gives you that aw-you-dummy smile. The huge, shirt-rippling slugger is a cartoon, he says, a piece of fiction. "Size," Frank Robinson says, "doesn't have anything to do with hitting home runs."
He is in the dugout wearing sunglasses, watching batting practice. "Maybe way back the huge guys hit the home runs," he says, "but not anymore. Look at the modern home run hitters. Look at Ernie Banks. Hank Aaron. Willie Mays. They weren't big, none of them. Mickey Mantle weighed 195 pounds. Joe Morgan, a little guy. Jimmy Wynn. They called him 'The Toy Cannon.' "
The manager enjoys talking about this. Talking ball. "A lot of things are involved in hitting home runs," he says. "Recognizing the right pitch. Using a good, fundamental swing. Using your shoulders. Your wrists. But the biggest ingredient by far is bat speed. That's where you get your power. Size is irrelevant. A guy like Canseco is an exception. Bat speed is what matters."
His coaches are sitting a few feet away, gathered in their own conversation, one of dozens on the day. The manager interrupts. "Hey, yo," he says loudly, and they look up, and he polls them, looking for seconding opinions: "What's the biggest reason that people hit home runs?"
Tom McCraw, the hitting coach, answers instantly: "Bat speed." Elrod Hendricks: "Eye-to-hand coordination." Johnny Oates: "Pure physics. Bat speed. Look at someone like Howard Johnson. I'm bigger than he is, but he hits 30 a year. It's bat speed. Getting that bat moving. You put a [football] lineman out there and he's too bulky. It's why Canseco is so awesome. He's as big and strong as a lineman, but he still gets terrific bat speed. Strength plus bat speed. The double whammy."
So, the buzzword for today, the answer to the riddle: Bat speed. Getting the bat going fast enough to generate the necessary power. You would think that brawny strength is the secret, but you look at Glenn Davis drumming the ball around the park, and you know that's wrong. It isn't bulk, muscles on muscles. It is limber arms, strong wrists, coordination, using your hips to develop momentum, as golfers do.
It is a mysterious quality, a technique that can't be taught, most of the power coming in mid-swing, as the bat moves between the hips. Don't try to decipher it. Davis was hitting home runs long before he discovered weight training and grew to a subtle, sturdy 210 pounds. "Ever since I was a kid, I was always the one who hit the ball farthest," he says. "I've just always been able to hit the long ball. It's a gift, I think."
He hit 19 in Daytona Beach when he was 21, hit 25 in Columbus the next year, hit 31 in his first full season in the majors, in 1986. It is easy to see why. The guy just crushes the ball. "Strong hands, strong lower body," he says. Bat speed? "Yeah, bat speed. Every year I muscle a few out, wrist a few out. You don't hit 30 hitting 'em all the same. But bat speed is the main ingredient."
It is true that there are other factors. As they said at Faber College, knowledge is good. "Ryne Sandberg," the manager says, referring to the Cubs' slight second baseman, who hit 40 homers last year, "he didn't get any bigger or any stronger. He just stayed in the league and learned how to hit homers, when to drive the ball, the right and wrong pitches to hit, how to read pitchers."
Davis nods. "I'm still learning how to hit home runs," he says, agreeing. "The last two years I learned more about hitting than I did in my whole career. Knowing myself, my strengths, my limitations. Knowing the strike zone, the pitchers. It just accumulates."
He is a born power hitter, though, not a self-made one. He does make you blink, watching him, not appreciably bigger than any of his teammates, but that's all wrong, the big slugger is just a legend, not a reality. "A home run hitter can look at Davis and say, 'Oh yeah,' " the manager says, and then he gives the mantra, the power hitter's chant, the glorious Secret of Swat: "Bat speed. Bat speed. Bat speed."