Baseball isn’t famous for its nice guys. Not-so-nice guys is the general rule.
By all accounts, Baltimore Oriole Chris Davis is one of the good ones – easygoing, smart, self-aware. That last part is especially rare.
That’s why watching Davis, 33, becoming the worst everyday player in the history of Major League Baseball is so painful. Because you know he’s probably capable of watching his own decline and fall from a remove. He must get how bad this is.
Before Friday night’s game, Davis had gone hitless over the past seven months. This week he set major-league records for the most consecutive at-bats (47) and plate appearances (58) by a non-pitcher without a hit.
As his run of desolation continued, reporters grew increasingly leery of going anywhere near Davis. They no longer have any idea what to ask him.
The other night, one poor schmuck tried to do an emotional check-in, but was too embarrassed to spit the question out.
“… so do you go home and …”
“Cry?” Davis suggested.
Someone should have said, “Yes,” but they couldn’t get themselves there. Possibly because there seemed the small possibility that Davis might do just that.
It’s not often that the stories of your childhood are revealed to you again as an adult. Davis is baseball’s Sisyphus. The only difference between the two is that one is crushed nightly by his boulder in front of a paying audience.
Before Davis eclipsed it, the consecutive at-bats record was held by a soft-hitting utility man named Eugenio Velez. Velez, who ended the 2010 season on a hitless streak with the Giants, was signed by the Dodgers in 2011. He began the new season, set that mark, was cut and, though only 29 years old, never played in the bigs again. That record destroyed him.
Unlike Velez, Davis is in no danger of being released. That’s the real tragedy here.
A few years ago, Davis was a great player on an up-and-coming Baltimore team. He’d had one magnificent 50 home-run season, another very good one and was due a free-agent raise.
At that point, klaxons should have been going off in the Orioles executive suites. Davis was about to turn 30. He’d recently been suspended for taking banned stimulants. He is a big, powerful man – the sort whose swing tends to desert him in middle-age.
The Orioles signed Davis anyway because he was a fan favourite, a box-office draw and, yes, probably because he’s a nice guy. They gave him the sort of contract that sinks regimes – seven years, US$161-million.
Almost immediately, Davis’s game began to disintegrate. In the first year of the deal, his only superlative was leading the majors in strikeouts.
In Year 2, he got worse. By Year 3, baseball wonks began debating if Davis was having an exceptionally bad season or the worst season ever. They decided it was most likely the latter.
This is Year 4. You see the pattern. The Orioles still owe Davis about US$85-million. Because of that, there is no end to this.
Everyone loves a tragedy in sports because it offers the possibility of catharsis and redemption. So-and-so will emerge from such-and-such setback a better man. He’ll have learned about failure and, in so doing, embraced philosophy.
In the best-case scenario, this ends with some sort of triumph – either an actual result or one of the will. Baseball throws up more of these stories than any other sport. The game is littered with also-rans who made good. They don’t necessarily need to be superstars, just to have overcome something.
Locally, former Blue Jay R.A. Dickey may be the best example – the failed pitcher who remade himself and, in the process, became baseball’s favourite mountain-top hermit.
That’s not going to happen with Chris Davis. He will eventually get a hit. If you stood up there 60 or 70 times, swinging wildly and snapping tendons, you might get a hit, too.
But Davis is never going to be good again. He’s never going to earn his US$23-million salary. Whatever ‘it’ is, he’s lost it. There will be no catharsis here, and no redemption.
All that’s left is pathos.
This leads to a question unique to pro sports – is it right to pity someone who is paid so much to be bad at something?
In this, some have drawn a line between pity and empathy.
I can’t empathize because, were I Davis – knowing I’d already earned well north of a hundred million dollars – I’d quit. No presser, no farewells. Just a one-line email. Go out like Butch and Sundance.
Because, seriously, why subject yourself to this? For money? Davis already has money. What’s a little more money weighed against nightly, public humiliation?
You know who does that – a masochist. You know where you’ll find the most successful masochists – in sports.
A lot of people are born athletic. Only a few will push themselves so relentlessly that they eventually make a living at it. Davis is plainly one of those.
On that basis, I do pity him. He’s a man who cannot but be what he is. He’s a prisoner of his nature.
It is in that nature to continue failing, believing that success is just up over the rise. That makes him no different from all of life’s losers (as well as its visionaries).
In the course of his struggles, you have seen spectators coming around to this idea. At first, a majority of them booed Davis, as though this were a garden-variety run of bad luck. They resented him his place in the spotlight, his paycheque and his wretchedness.
But as Davis accepted his misery with something like a sense of humour, they turned. In recent nights, cheers have become ascendant. People have begun seeing something in this rock star who is nothing like them. Perhaps some of them see themselves.
Whether it is pity or empathy, it is something salutary. If you watch sports, you are buffeted by success. At that level, even the losers are winning.
But failure on the level that Davis is managing it? That’s epic. It’s also profoundly, pitiably human.