A's rightfielder Mike Davis has just sent three batting-practice pitches rifling over shortstop at the Oakland Coliseum, and the reports turn the head of Red Sox centerfielder Tony Armas.
Armas, the major league leader in home runs last year and the man Davis replaced in what used to be the best outfield in baseball, has been lingering around the batting cage giving his former teammates the needle. Now he pays backhanded tribute to his successor.
"Michael Davis! Michael Davis!" Armas calls as the lefthanded hitter drills another rope to the opposite field. "Is that all Billy Williams can show you? I thought you could go deep."
Davis, whose gold-rimmed spectacles and goatee give him the mien of the coolest of jazzmen, smiles but stays intent on his cuts. Williams, the A's laconic batting coach, does the talking for his prize student. "That's the way you hit the ball," he says with a good-natured but pointed look at Armas, whose big swing is less than classic. "That's when the home runs come by themselves."
With a stroke sweet enough to make Billy Williams smile, Mike Davis has been hitting home runs in bunches this season. He hit nine in April, and with 10 is tied with Armas for the AL lead in homers. Davis, who is batting .312, tops the league in runs, slugging percentage and extra-base hits.
Davis is a 6'3", 185-pound coiled spring of a 25-year-old who has run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. He was first called up to the A's in 1980 by Billy Martin, who liked him so much he kept him on the big team to learn from outfielders Armas, Dwayne Murphy and Rickey Henderson. "Billy was a beautiful confidence builder for me," says Davis.
Martin was gone by the time Davis became a regular in 1983, replacing the departed Armas, but Davis still hit .275 with 62 RBIs and 33 stolen bases. He also threw out 16 runners.
"In ability and attitude, Mike doesn't have any deficiencies—he's just a bunch of plusses," says A's manager Jackie Moore. Opposing players agree. "He's got everything to be one of the best in the league," says Boston's Mike Easier. "He's just got to settle down, not force things."
Unfortunately, Davis did force things in 1984. He batted .230, an improvement over his .198 figure at the All-Star break. And he made 12 errors in the outfield, tying Detroit's Kirk Gibson for most in that category. "He was Pelé-ing everything," says his close friend, centerfielder Murphy. On one play against Seattle, Davis ran to the fence in pursuit of a fly—leaped high—and the ball hit him on the foot. Off the field, even simple tasks gave Davis trouble; e.g., one day he left a curl relaxer on his hair too long. "For about a month," says his wife, Sandra, "people were walking up to him and doing imitations of James Brown."
Reflecting on '84, Davis says, "The more I pressed, the worse it got. And the worse it got, the more I pressed." Moore, who replaced Steve Boros early in the season, tried batting Davis in different spots in the order. "I even benched him, hoping he would take it out on me," says Moore. "Nothing seemed to work."
But Davis is a hard worker who doesn't get down on himself. "No matter how bad things got, the guy was always eager," says Murphy. "It was always, 'C'mon, tell me what I'm doing wrong.' " Finally, in September, Davis found a groove, hitting .375. "In a lot of ways, this year has just been a carryover from September," says Davis. "September got me believing in Michael D again."
Given the fine athletes in his family, Davis should have faith in himself, on genetic grounds alone. His father, John, was a guard for Oakland's McClymonds High School on a team that included Bill Russell coming off the bench. His mother, Rosetta, swung a mean stick in women's softball leagues. His older brother, John Jr., was the best athlete at Hoover High School in San Diego—Ted Williams's old school—while he and Mike were there. And his younger brother, Mark, a junior at Stanford, is a center-fielder who should go high in next month's major league free-agent draft. Last year Mark suffered through a season nearly identical to his brother's—he hit .231—but this year he's on the rebound, too, batting .371.
In the off-season Mike Davis picked a personal theme, "Comin' Alive in '85." He said it so often that a family friend gave him a T shirt inscribed with those words. In wintertime workouts, Murphy discovered the reason Davis had had so much trouble judging flies—he had gotten into the habit of looking at the ground as the ball was coming to him.
Murphy also clued Davis in to wild-boar hunting near Salinas, Calif. "We got close enough to see those big tusks," Davis recalls, "and that set ol' M.D.'s heart to racing some kind of terrible. I was carrying three guns and about seven knives, but when the guide said, 'Go get him,' all I could do was take baby steps."
He took decidedly bigger strides in spring training, with six homers, 15 RBIs and a .324 average in 22 games, and kept rolling into the regular season. After 11 games he had five homers and 16 RBIs and was hitting .385. The most encouraging part of his comeback is that he's hitting .367 off lefthanders, against whom he had a .205 average last year. Still, even the wicked bat of ol' M.D. hasn't been enough to get the A's over .500; they were 14-17 as of Sunday.
Williams believes Davis is in the beginning stages of a transition that many gifted hitters go through. "Clemente, Aaron, myself, we all came up going the other way," he says. "Once you get to know the pitchers, you learn how to pull, and that's what's happening with Mike now. He's started out right nice."
Except for trying Davis in the second spot in two games, Moore has continued to bat him sixth, seventh or even eighth. "I just want Mike to settle in and enjoy the success," he says. "I think sometimes it's better to leave well enough alone."
Davis seems content to think of himself as a line-drive hitter. "Hitting the long ball felt good to me, so I have to watch out I don't get home-runitis," he says. It doesn't bother him that his name isn't on the All-Star ballot. "Those things will come," he says. "I'm just making sure 'Comin' Alive in '85' doesn't turn into 'A Little More of '84.' "