“You can’t imagine the feeling that you suddenly have no idea what you’re doing out there. You have no business being out there, performing that way, as a major-leaguer.”
Steve Blass gave this quote to the New Yorker’s Roger Angell in 1975—after he’d mysteriously lost his ability to pitch, but before this loss of ability had been pathologized as a disease bearing his name. But, of course, you’re not supposed to compare a player to Steve Blass. To invoke Steve Blass Disease is to suggest that a player’s bad week or bad month or bad year is not just struggle but failure; moreover, it’s to suggest this failure is fatal. It’s not a comparison. It’s a diagnosis.
So, then, you cannot fairly tie all of this to Chris Davis. You cannot fairly tie it to anyone. And, yet, if you have been watching Davis—watching him string together the longest hitless streak in baseball history, watching him exit one of the worst seasons in recent record only to enter one that looks even worse, watching him strike out and strike out and strike out—it is hard not to remember Steve Blass's struggle. Watching Chris Davis has felt like watching a player who has become truly, unequivocally, pathologically lost.
There can be a fine line between poor luck and poor performance; baseball inherently includes so much of the former that it can be tricky to definitively distinguish it from the latter. There is an entire suite of metrics devoted to uncovering this difference—stripping away luck and context to determine the truest version of the player underneath. After all, even the best hitter will have an extended slump at one point or another. It’s often just noise. But Davis’ recent performance has seemed very much like a signal. It does not feel like there is very much to peel away. It feels like this is the truest version of the player, right now, at least. What can be underneath the longest hitless streak in history?
Davis’ 45th, 46th, 47th, 48th and 49th consecutive hitless at-bats came on Monday night, in the form of three lineouts and two strikeouts, during Baltimore’s 12-4 win over Oakland. In terms of the box score, this game was very much like every other one he’s appeared in this season; he’s now 0 for 28 in 2019 with 15 strikeouts. In terms of the reception, though, it was something different. During Baltimore’s first home game of the season, last week, Davis was booed, booed and booed again—one raucous round for each of his three strikeouts. When he was lifted in the eighth inning, his replacement received a hearty cycle of cheers, simply for stepping in the box as someone other than Davis.
On Monday, however, Davis was met with applause for each of his plate appearances, including a standing ovation for his final one of the night. You could read this as encouraging; he was breaking a record, after all, and clapping tends to be standard practice there. You could read it as the opposite; not all records are good, and this one certainly was not. You could read it as something in between. But, to be fair, there isn’t a road map for this: What is a home crowd’s proper response to historic failure?
Maybe it would be most polite just to ignore the whole thing. If Davis’ situation looks like it might be incurable, perhaps it would be kindest simply to let it pass without any special recognition: he knows this is happening, the crowd’s collective thinking might go, so maybe we just shouldn’t remind him of it. Emily Post would probably approve. A cheer can be seen as a simple vote of confidence for Davis, sure, but it can also be seen as the same for his failure, something mocking and mean, and… well, who wants to get in the middle of that? In a sense, there’s precedent here, too, as polite disregard is just how home fans treated the previous record-holder.
During Eugenio Vélez’s 46 consecutive hitless at-bats in 2010 and 2011, no one said much of anything: “It is probably better that most people overlooked Eugenio Vélez’s last at-bat of the season,” wrote the Los Angeles Times, nearly a month after it had passed. “Television sportscasters all but ignored the saga of the Dodgers utility player. His name appeared in a few news stories the next day, mostly near the end.”
Here, the precedent doesn’t quite apply, however. It took no special effort for the home crowd to stay quiet for Vélez. It typically doesn’t, when it comes to a utilityman whose playing time is doled out irregularly. Vélez’s futility occurred in fits and starts over the course of more than an entire calendar year, from a player of whom too much had never been expected. Davis, of course, is different. He’s a former All-Star, Silver Slugger, two-time home run champion and two-time MVP candidate. He’s the team’s highest paid player, a $161-million man. And he is, for now, the team’s starting first baseman. There’s expectation saddled to each of those titles. (None so much and so fiercely as the money.) The result is a player impossible to ignore, even as it feels as if it might be kinder to everyone involved. Davis’ struggle is not a statistical tidbit; it’s an experience, and it looks like hell. So: Do you boo? Do you cheer?
Blass told Angell of “at least seventeen” theories about his collapse: physical, mental, mechanical, emotional. He didn’t know which, if any, might be right. He just knew that he couldn’t fix it. Once this was evident, he wasn’t booed, and he wasn’t cheered, but he wasn’t exactly ignored, either, Angell noted: “sometimes, of course, what is happening on the field seems to speak to something deeper within us; we stop cheering and look on in uneasy silence, for the man out there is no longer just another great athlete, an idealized hero, but only a man—only ourself.” It’s not exactly a comfortable reception. But it might be the only one that works.