On Sunday mornings Glenn Davis would put on his finest clothes and comb his hair with water until it lay flat on his head, as if he were trying to smooth off all his rough edges. He was much admired by the elders of Jacksonville's Calvary Baptist Church for never missing a service—mornings and evenings on Sundays and Wednesday nights. "When the doors were open, I was there," Davis says. "Every sermon that the preacher ever preached I knew by heart, and I could quote the Bible from Genesis to Revelation."
This is an article from the Aug. 25, 1986 issue
On Sunday nights Davis would return to his room and sit in the dark, his mind racing. He would try to calm himself, but nothing seemed to slow down the thoughts that churned in his brain. "There was a real me and a fake me," Davis says. "And I had them all fooled." When the house was finally quiet he would take a .25-caliber automatic pistol out of a drawer and point it at his head.
On many nights the gun was loaded; some nights it was not. "I would put a gun to my head with no bullets in the chamber and just sit there on the bed and pull the trigger over and over," Davis says. He presses his index finger to the side of his head and holds it there for a moment, then casually he squeezes his thumb down as if he were switching off a light. Now I lay me down to sleep....
"I used to sit there and try to imagine what it would look like," he says. "I would try to decide whether I wanted my brains to end up on this side of the room or that side." I pray the Lord my soul to keep....
"I knew that if I did that, it would hurt my mother and father, that they would be sorry for what they had done to me. They would have to live with that for the rest of their lives." If I should die before I wake....
"All through my teenage years I constantly thought about committing suicide," Davis says. "I would hold a knife to my stomach and think about stabbing myself, or sometimes I'd consider running out into the street in front of a car. Many nights I would sit in my room crying and ask God why He was letting these things happen to me. I felt like an ugly duckling, unloved and alone in the world...." I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Glenn Davis lowered his head for a moment, then looked up at the sea of faces surrounding him and smiled. At first he bit his words off carefully at the roots so he could be sure they wouldn't flower, but soon they came tumbling out. For 40 minutes he had sat by himself in the Houston Astros' clubhouse, trying to figure out how to explain the anguish and confusion he had been feeling all day.
It was July 28, and Davis had gone into that night's game against the Atlanta Braves in an 0-for-19 batting slump and ended it by driving in all of the Astros' runs for a 4-2 victory. He drove in one run with a single in the first inning, then with two out in the bottom of the eighth he hit a Doyle Alexander fastball for a three-run homer. That kept Davis among the National League leaders in home runs and RBIs, where he has been most of the season and where he remained at the end of last week with 25 knocks and 77 runs batted in.
Now in his second major league season—last year he hit 20 home runs in 100 games—the 25-year-old Davis has established himself as a contender for the National League's Most Valuable Player Award, and he's a big reason the Astros have a six-game lead in the NL West. He has done all this while playing in the zipless muck that passes for air in the Houston Astrodome.
St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog has called Davis baseball's "next legitimate home run hitter," and Houston batting coach Denis Menke thinks that Davis may already be there. "He has a home run hitter's swing and a better stroke, I think, than Mike Schmidt's," Menke says. "But Glenn doesn't just want to be a power hitter, he wants to be a hitter."
On this night Davis had been troubled not only by his recent slump but also by the success that had gone before it. "I'm not the type of person to enjoy doing well," he said. His offensive cannonade had thrown him into a tailspin because he wasn't sure how he would handle the praise that was sure to follow.
By any measure, he had come a long way. His father was seldom around when he was growing up, and when Glenn was only seven his dad walked out of the house for good. Gene Davis had bounced around in the minor leagues for 10 years, a power hitter with jangled nerves and a drinking problem, before finally giving up the game. "He was the type of person that couldn't handle pressure," Glenn says. "He had all the ability, but he wasn't able to deal with failure. I think that's what started the problems between him and my mother." The elder Davis, who now runs the post office at a Jacksonville naval base, hopes his son will cope with failure better than he did. "If I did three good things and one bad, I couldn't let the bad one lie," he says. "I always elaborated on the past and it destroyed me."
It also destroyed his marriage. Margaret Davis eventually divorced her husband and got on with her life, but she never could get over what baseball had done to her. "When Daddy was playing ball he got involved in drinking," says Diane Kirksey, Glenn's older sister. "Momma was determined to protect Glenn from that." Even now Gene Davis concedes, "When I get off work I'm going to have six or seven cold drafts." He is not proud of the emotional wreckage his carousing caused. "I led a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life," he says. "I had a beautiful family and a nice home, and then I turned around and did these things on the sly. I finally decided it would be best to just bow out."
Davis's mother decided early on that her only son would one day be a preacher, and that he would never under any circumstances play professional baseball. "I know what goes on, having been through it once before, and I feared for Glenn," she says now. After the divorce Glenn was forbidden to see his father. "I didn't understand what was going on for a while, but I began to see that something was wrong, that I was being used as a tool of jealousy against my father," he says. "I was always made fun of in the neighborhood because I had to sneak down and meet my father at the end of the block if I wanted to see him." As his involvement in sports grew, it became increasingly galling to Glenn that he had no father to whom he could report his triumphs. "Glenn was very bitter about the divorce, much more so than the rest of us," says Diane. "He wanted his daddy there to see him do all these things."
Davis is 6'3" and 205 pounds; he had grown to much of his full size while still in elementary school. He was bigger and stronger than others his age, and when Glenn lumbered up to the plate in street games the fielders would turn and run as far back as they could go. "Ever since I was a kid I was always the one who could hit the ball the farthest," he says. But he was ponderous and slow, and he became both the neighborhood gorilla and the neighborhood joke. "He was always so fat that they would kid him in Little League that he had to hit a home run just to get to first base," recalls his sister. Before he was even into his teens his face had been ravaged by acne, and for that hormonal sin he was also made the butt of jokes.
His mother's determination to keep him from falling in with the wrong crowd was one of the great ironies of Davis's adolescence, because by his early teens he was the wrong crowd. "If she could have had her way, I would have been confined to our yard," Davis says. "It was like all there was to life was to stay home, go to church and associate with no one else."
Davis would not date because his mother insisted on being his chauffeur, and he couldn't talk to girls on the telephone without her picking up the phone and cutting off the conversation. "When I would stay out late playing ball she would come and drag me home in front of everybody," he says. But that was not the worst of it. "Momma would come to pick him up in that old Cadillac with the huge tail fins and the kids would say, 'Here comes the Batmobile again,' " says his sister. "Glenn would get so mad he'd want to fight them all."
He certainly seems to have fought his fair share of them. "We used to hang around down at the convenience store and pick fights," he says. "Anybody I could pick a fight with, for no reason at all, I would do it." Davis grew up on the north side of Jacksonville, where people refer to themselves with a certain amount of pride as "rednecks" because it distinguishes them from the "rich snobs" of the south side. He lived on Tulsa Road, and it was his whole world, a quiet stretch of shaggy lawns and towering trees, with brightly colored automobiles sitting in the shade like decaying fruit.
Davis considered Tulsa Road to be his own and did not welcome visitors. When outsiders began using the road as a shortcut to a busy thoroughfare, Davis and his friends imposed punitive measures. "If we didn't know the people in the vehicles, we would throw rocks at them and try to destroy their cars," he says. "When they started routing school buses through there for desegregation, we really didn't like that. We didn't want them coming through our neighborhood, so it became like a combat zone. We would get dressed up in our camouflage clothes and hide in the woods with our BB guns, rocks and bows and arrows."
Though he was never actually arrested, Davis concedes he was "your basic juvenile delinquent," a situation that infuriated his mother. "My mother was a firm believer that if you spared the rod you spoiled the child," he says. "I was beaten by belts and when a belt didn't work, whatever else she could get her hands on. Until I was 17 there wasn't a day that went by when I wasn't beaten." Diane remembers their home as being "very tense all the time." When Glenn went out to play in the neighborhood, "Punishment was coming when he got home," she says.
"I knew Glenn had many struggles, and my heart bled for him," says Davis's mother, who married an evangelical preacher seven years ago and is now Margaret Todd. "I wasn't the perfect mother, but then Glenn was a headstrong boy and I felt I had to apply some discipline. I can assure you I never whipped Glenn harder than my own daddy whipped me." Even Gene Davis believes his ex-wife was simply trying to be the father Glenn never had. "The thing is," he says, "if I had been there, I'd have beat him my own self."
When he was 17, Glenn left home and moved in with George and Norma Davis, to whom he is not related but whom he now refers to as his mother and father. Their son Storm, who pitches for the Baltimore Orioles, was one of Glenn's best friends at University Christian High School, and George Davis was the school's football coach and assistant baseball coach. Glenn and Storm played both sports for him. "It's hard for people to understand how close we are," says Storm. "Now that he's in the big leagues, when people say, 'I talked to your brother,' I don't even think about it."
Encouraged by his adoptive family, Davis pursued a career in baseball. "My heart's desire was for him to be in full-time Christian service," says Margaret Todd. "I believe Glenn was pressured by outside influences to make some of the decisions he made. I think they were interested in his potential for stardom." The Orioles drafted Davis in 1979 in the 32nd round and offered him $2,000 to sign; Davis thought the offer was a joke. It wasn't. He reported to the Orioles' farm team in Bluefield, only to discover that Baltimore wanted to turn him into a pitcher. "I had a good arm and all, but I told them I wanted to hit," Davis says. He played a season at the University of Georgia. That was followed by a stint in the Cape Cod summer league, where he was co-MVP and tied for the lead in home runs, so impressing the Orioles that they raised their offer by three or four thousand dollars. "I was embarrassed," Davis says. "I told them I'd take my chances somewhere else."
Davis was signed by the Astros in 1981 to a contract large enough to afford a new condo and sports car. He used both to impress the women he spent most of his free time chasing. "Any way I could use someone, I would," he says. Davis is convinced he would either be dead or in jail by now if he had not, in the nick of time, heard the voice of God. "I wasn't having any fun at what I was doing anymore," he says. "I was playing pro ball, but my life was in chaos. That was the first time I was really scared, and I knew then that I needed help. I believe that's when I would have finally pulled the trigger if nothing had happened."
After hitting .315 and a league-leading 19 home runs for the Daytona Beach Astros in 1982, Glenn returned home and discovered his family was dissolving around him again. Norma Davis told him that she and her husband knew all about his drinking and womanizing, and that they had had enough. "She came to me and said, 'We've been trying to be a mother and father to you, and all you've been doing is bringing grief back to us,' " Davis says. " 'If you need a place to stay and a bed to sleep in, you can stay here, but we're not going to be a mother and father to you anymore.' I started crying, and I told my mom I needed help and I needed it fast. I needed someone to save my life." At that point Glenn and Norma fell to their knees and began to pray for his redemption. "The moment I finished praying, that chip on my shoulder was gone," he says.
His life took another change for the better when he married Teresa Beesley in 1984. He met Teresa two years before in Columbus, Ga., where he was playing for the Astros' AA farm team. Teresa is the daughter of a Korean mother and an American GI. Though she now speaks nearly flawless English, which she taught herself from a dictionary, she didn't learn the language until she moved to Columbus with her mother and stepfather at the age of 15. Prior to that she had had a fairly typical Korean upbringing, attending a Buddhist temple regularly with her mother. "I didn't understand much of it," she says, "but they always had great food."
At their wedding, Davis had a smorgasbord of parents on hand. His mother showed up with her new husband, his father came with his new wife, and George and Norma Davis were there, too. "I think the most confused person in the wedding party was my mother," says Teresa. "She didn't know which parents were which." Actually, it wasn't that hard to pick them out because they were the couples not speaking to one another. "We had different factions sitting in different parts of the room, and then they all had to come up separately for group pictures," says Davis. "The sweat was pouring off of me so bad I had to look down so that people couldn't see my face. It was terrible."
As Teresa brought stability into his life, Davis's baseball career began to flourish, but a reconciliation with his mother still seemed a long way off. For two years after he left home Davis could not be around his natural mother without starting to shake and breaking into a sweat. Even five years later, after he had met Teresa, he could not describe his childhood to her without becoming so ill that sometimes he would actually throw up. A year and a half ago Davis went home to see his mother, "so she wouldn't go to her grave feeling I hated her," he says. "But let's face it, she and I don't have a great relationship."
His religious affirmation gave Davis a new beginning, but it has not brought him complete peace of mind. "I really don't have anything to trust or believe in now but Him," he says. "I think all the time, Lord, you put me here and gave me success. Are you going to take it away from me one day to see how I react? Sometimes it goes through my mind that my life is going to be a storybook tale: Glenn Davis is saved from the pits of hell, meets with success and becomes famous, and then he gets cancer just like Brian Piccolo.
"It seems like my life has been a crossword puzzle," he adds, "as if it was all mapped out from the start and all that remained to be done was to fill in the blanks one by one. A taste of the bad, then a taste of the good, that's what keeps me going." It is the curious lockstep of sin and redemption, two across and one down, the blanks being filled in one by one.