The 1991 baseball season has been reduced to one big "what if" in Baltimore, where the long-awaited return of first baseman Glenn Davis has left room to wonder if he might have made any difference.
No one ever will know, but Baltimore Orioles fans finally will get a chance to see how Davis might fit into the club's future when the team opens a six-game homestand tonight with the first of three games with the Minnesota Twins.
Davis returned to the everyday lineup Monday night and quickly re-established himself as one of baseball's impact players with a five-RBI performance Tuesday.
He had played only four games at Memorial Stadium before a freak neck injury forced him onto the disabled list and threatened his career, but he has returned in time to give the Orioles a six-week look at what might have been.
It will be an important evaluation period. Davis can become a free agent at the end of this season, so the club must decide
soon whether it will make a serious bid to retain his services.
Not an easy decision. Not after Davis signed a one-year contract worth a club-record $3.275 million and played only 12 games while the season still had some promise.
Club officials have said little about the prospects for re-signing Davis, but there has been speculation that the Orioles will try to persuade him to accept another one-year contract and prove he can play a full season before he gets the megabuck, multi-year deal that his free-agent eligibility seems certain to bring.
Davis isn't ready to look that far ahead, but he is convinced that the next six weeks are very important to his financial future.
"I'll be a free agent this off-season, so It's important to show the Orioles that I can continue to produce. It's also important that other people see that, too."
The free-agent market has been so volatile the past two years that Davis may get an outside offer he can't refuse, but he said this week that he might be more flexible with the Orioles because of the way the organization treated him after his physical breakdown.
"They have shown me a lot of respect, and they have had a lot of patience with me," Davis said. "I really appreciate that. At a time when I had a crisis in my life -- at a time when I was battling for my career -- they helped me a lot. That will weigh a lot on my mind."
The Orioles front office is very secretive about contract negotiations, so there is little to indicate how far the club will go to keep Davis. Owner Eli Jacobs is not a free spender, but he knew the price would be high when he approved the deal that brought the veteran first baseman to Baltimore in the first place.
The club paid a heavy price to get him, trading promising youngsters Steve Finley, Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling to the Houston Astros, and paid a heavy price to sign him -- nearly $1 million more than the team will pay favorite son Cal Ripken this year.
If Davis does not return, the whole affair would have been an unqualified organizational disaster. Finley and Harnisch have been productive in Houston and should continue to be for years to come. The Orioles did not want to part with either.
Davis shies away from the contract talk, perhaps because he has not had sufficient time to make a case for himself on the field. Or maybe he's just not ready to take a comeback for granted.
"I've been through one of the worst battles I've been in my whole life," he said. "There are a lot of other things that weigh on my mind more than my contract. There's no point worrying about your contract if you can't play the game."
It appears that he can play the game, perhaps as well as ever. His five-RBI performance Tuesday -- which included a long home run off Texas Rangers pitcher Oil Can Boyd -- matched a career high. Davis made it look as if he hadn't missed a game.
"That was a good night for me," he said, "because it was a big boost of confidence. It told me I still have the power, I still have the ability to hit the ball with authority and I'm still able to drive in runs. I also made some defensive plays.
"I like to think my hard work has paid off."
Davis spent nearly four months in intense rehabilitation therapy after damage to the spinal accessory nerve left his right shoulder almost useless. There was room to wonder if he ever would be the same player again. Perhaps there still is, but Davis seems convinced that he is back.
Now, he wants to spend the next six weeks helping the Orioles build toward a brighter future.
"The first thing I want to do is help this team finish as high as possible in the standings," Davis said. "I want to help us to get back to being a respectable club in our division and baseball in general. When we come into town, I want people to say, 'Hey, that's a pretty good ballclub.'
"It's important to end on a positive note so we can start next year on an upbeat basis."
It almost sounds as if he's planning to be back.
Davis at home
How Glenn Davis has fared in his 4 games at Memorial Stadium this season:
Date.. .. Opponent.. .. Statistics
April 8.. Chicago .. .. 1-for-4, RBI double
April 9.. Chicago .. .. 0-for-4
April 19. Texas.. .. .. 2-for-4, HR, RBI
April 20. Texas.. .. .. 0-for-2, walk