Stability, faith help Chris Davis unlock power for Orioles

Road to majors wasn't easy for first baseman but trade to Baltimore gave him peace of mind to succeed

  • Orioles first baseman Chris Davis walks off the field in the pouring rain during a game in Los Angeles earlier this month.
Orioles first baseman Chris Davis walks off the field in the… (Gene Sweeney Jr. / The Baltimore…)
June 15, 2013|By Childs Walker and Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

The power? That blunt-force ability to lay wood to a baseball and propel it 400, 420, 450 feet? He had it even when he was a boy. Came from God, as far as he's concerned.

Harnessing it? Well, that's the work of Chris Davis' life.

There’s a paradoxical quality to the Orioles’ first baseman, who has emerged this season as one of baseball’s most fearsome sluggers, a likely All-Star starter who leads the majors with 22 home runs.

Growing up in East Texas, Davis was like a puppy with big paws, bowling over everything. But even as he climbed the ranks of the game he loved, he could not find the deeper fulfillment he coveted.

Before he could put all that strength to use, he had to stop trying to overpower everything in his life. He had to tone down the perfectionist streak he inherited from his dad, Lyn, who gave him his work ethic but could also be an overbearing presence. Both men acknowledge their competitive drive created friction in their relationship. That stress, which friends and teammates watched unfold as the younger Davis was blossoming into a star athlete in Texas, is what Chris Davis says helped set the course for his success today.

He had to believe that his faith, his marriage and his team could prop him up during bad times.

“With my strength, I also have an extremely short temper,” Davis said before a recent game at Camden Yards. “It doesn’t take a lot to make me tick, and I’ve learned to kind of control that, through the grace of God, over the years. It’s just growing up and realizing that you can’t control everything.”

Davis, 27, looks like the first guy you'd cast as a sports star — angular jaw, gleaming teeth, sky blue eyes, biceps that bulge from the sleeveless shirts he favors in the Orioles clubhouse. He appears comfortable in his own skin, eager to laugh and game to chat with anyone who approaches his locker. He even married a cheerleader.

Yet his story is not one of ease, not exactly.

For years, Baltimore fans lamented their club's inability — or unwillingness — to pay for a middle-of-the-order slugger. When the Orioles finally acquired the long-awaited power hitter, no one realized it.

That's because Davis was trapped in an equally vicious cycle of frustration. Even his Texas nickname, “Crush,” hinted at it. A clever play on words, sure, but Crash Davis, the hero of the baseball movie “Bull Durham,” was a minor league home run king who never made it in The Show. That narrative hit a little close to home for Davis as he ping-ponged between dominating Triple-A and struggling with the Texas Rangers.

When he was traded to the Orioles in 2011, he finally received the everyday chance for which he’d prayed. And with an approach that blends the old work ethic with a newer calm, he has emerged as a folk hero — the slugger who won a game as a pitcher, the guy whose T-shirt sold for $100 on eBay and the star who inspires young fans to bring “Hit it Here” signs to the bleachers at Camden Yards.

“It has worked out as well as anyone could possibly have hoped,” said Andy MacPhail, the man who traded for Davis.

Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said Davis is as powerful as any player he’s been around in 35 years, including Mark McGwire. But that’s only part of his current story.

“I think now he knows, ‘I’m comfortable with what I’m doing, I have a routine, I’m going to be in there every day,’” said Presley. “It gave him a peace of mind. And it has paid off.”

Even his pop-ups drew ahhhs

Around Longview, a football-obsessed town of 80,455, folks still talk about the home runs Davis hit as a kid. Like the one he launched in high school that soared over the lights and landed 460 feet away on Longview’s soccer field. They found the ball buried in mud, as if it had plummeted from space.

Or the walk-off grand slam that Davis, then 15, hit for the Texas all-stars to beat Mississippi in an extra-inning tournament game that had dragged past midnight.

“We heard it hit the roof of a metal outhouse — bam! — and everyone went crazy,” recalled teammate Sammy Hardwick.

Even Davis’ pop-ups drew aahs.

“Against Lufkin, our big rival, he hit the highest pop fly I’ve ever seen,” said his high school coach, Joey Kalmus. “He hit it so dad-gummed high that everyone lost it. All of the infielders were shouting, ‘Where the heck is it?’ When the ball finally came down, just on the outfield grass, nobody was around it, two runs had scored and Chris was on second base.”

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