NEW YORK – The Chris Davis story is one that Mariners fans might find painful, considering Jack Zduriencik opted to take another young Texas first baseman in the Cliff Lee trade.
But, paradoxically, Davis’ breakout as a slugger of the first order is also a tale of perseverance and redemption that should provide a measure of hope — and perhaps a lesson — for the Mariners. And not the only such example to be found at this year’s All-Star Game at Citi Field.
All those Seattle prospects struggling to find their way, including Justin Smoak, the choice of Zduriencik in 2010 — well, Davis has been there. And done that, so emphatically that his home-run pace at the All-Star break puts him on a Roger Maris path.
It’s hard to imagine now, as he brings 37 homers and 93 runs batted in to New York, but Davis once was failing so badly that he began to contemplate a career change.
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“I used to be good at baseball,’’ he remembers telling himself glumly. He jokes now that “I was going to move to Africa and live off the land, hunt, fish.” Turning serious, Davis says he wondered if he should become a youth pastor and high-school coach.
“I think it’s something every player goes through to some extent,’’ Davis said at Monday’s All-Star media availability. “Whether they struggle in the minor leagues or the big-league level, I think there’s always kind of a period where you figure out things about yourself. It just took me a little longer than most guys.”
Davis stuck it out, even after being handed the first-base job by the Rangers when Smoak was traded, and hitting less than .200. Thus began a familiar pattern: Davis tore up the minors, but was unable to sustain that success whenever the Rangers gave him a crack at a job.
“That was kind of the question: Would I be able to do it at the big-league level?’’ he said. “The thing about it was, I just couldn’t do it consistently. I couldn’t put the bat on the ball. I was striking out at an astronomical rate.”
Finally, at the trade deadline in 2011, the Rangers were desperate for relief help, and coveted Baltimore’s setup man, Koji Uehara. They knew they ran the risk of Davis blossoming, but sent him, along with pitcher Tommy Hunter, to the Orioles, for Uehara.
Davis, 27, is not quite sure whether his subsequent emergence (he hit 33 homers last year for the Orioles) is due to a change of scenery, receptiveness to new methods, or natural maturity.
But he does believe there is a lesson in his experience to be taken away by players like his former teammate Smoak.
“Absolutely,’’ Davis said. “I think it would be an inspiration for anybody who tried, succeeded, failed, and had to come back and learn how to succeed again. There’s a lot of stories in baseball where guys came up, were highly touted, and it didn’t pan out.
“It’s unfortunate. I didn’t want to be one of those guys. I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate to get the opportunity I got in Baltimore, and made the most of it.”
In another corner of the room sat Kansas City’s Alex Gordon, another story for the Mariners to cling to. The best comparable here might be Dustin Ackley, who, like Gordon, was the second overall pick in his draft, both players expected to lead their teams out of the wilderness.
Gordon, a left-handed hitting third baseman, was inevitably compared to George Brett, who merely added to the hype by famously saying he was honored to be compared to Alex Gordon.
But injuries and inconsistency had Gordon on the path of being a high-profile bust. In 2010, the Royals sent him to the minors and converted him to the outfield to make room for a younger third-base prospect on the fast path, Mike Moustakas. Sound familiar?
Gordon says the key for him was his sense that Royals general manager Dayton Moore, through it all, still believed in him. And Gordon rewarded the Royals with a breakout season in 2011 (.303, 23 homers, 87 RBI, a Gold Glove in left field), and has been an upper-echelon player since.
“They did stick with me through injuries and a position change,’’ he said. “I had the same GM the whole time, and he kind of stuck up for me, and looked out for me, and I wanted to pay him back.
“When he sent me down, I could have moped and been miserable, but I wanted to work hard and prove to him he made the right choice.”
Gordon admits his confidence waned at times, but he refused to be defeated. Late in the 2010 season, when he was recalled to the majors but was still finding success to be elusive, he told a reporter, “I plan to dominate next year.”
Eyebrows were raised, and Gordon was even mocked for being delusional. He didn’t care. He felt he had to change his mindset.
“In this game, you’ve got to have confidence and a little bit of a swagger to be good,’’ he said. “With my hard work and dedication, it really came out.”
In Ackley’s case, “You just have to look at it like you’re not the only guy that’s been sent down to the minors,’’ Gordon said. “A lot of guys it’s happened to. A couple guys on our team, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who are highly talented, did great, then kind of struggled.
“It’s just about dealing with those struggles and being patient and realizing it’s going to turn around. I’ve seen Ackley play; we all know about the kind of a talent he is. He’s going to be a special player, I’m sure.”
There are no guarantees in this game, of course. For all the shining examples of perseverance to be found at the All-Star Game — the Phillies’ Dominic Brown is another touted prospect who took a slow, meandering path to success — there are scores of players for whom the breakthrough never came.
Yet Davis and Gordon, teammates for a day on the American League All-Star squad, are powerful voices for sticking it out with your prospects through all the travails. They might break your heart on the way — but there might also be a huge payoff ahead.
|AL||Player, team||NL||Player, team|
|LF||Mike Trout, Angels||2B||Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati|
|2B||Robinson Cano, Yankees||RF||Carlos Beltran, St. Louis|
|3B||Miguel Cabrera, Detroit||1B||Joey Votto, Cincinnati|
|1B||Chris Davis, Baltimore||3B||David Wright, Mets|
|RF||Jose Bautista, Toronto||LF||Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado|
|DH||David Ortiz, Boston||C||Yadier Molina, St. Louis|
|CF||Adam Jones, Baltimore||SS||Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado|
|C||Joe Mauer, Minnesota||DH||Michael Cuddyer, Colorado|
|SS||J.J. Hardy, Baltimore||CF||Bryce Harper, Washington|
|SP||Max Scherzer, Detroit||SP||Matt Harvey, Mets|
|Turning it around|
|All-Stars Alex Gordon, Chris Davis and Domonic Brown started slowly in their major-league careers before figuring things out. The Mariners hope for similar turnarounds by hitters like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Michael Saunders. Gordon, the No. 2 overall choice in the 2005 draft, was demoted to the minor leagues for parts of the 2009 and 2010 seasons after playing two full years in the majors. He hit .303 with 23 home runs when he returned full-time in 2011, having made the switch from third base to the outfield. Davis split the 2008 through 2011 seasons between the majors and the minors before Texas traded him to Baltimore at the 2011 trade deadline. He hit 33 home runs last season for the Orioles and already has 37 this year. Brown, the youngest of the three, spent parts of the 2010 through 2012 seasons with the Phillies, but didn’t hit for average or power in the majors. This season, given a full-time job, he has hit 23 home runs and driven in 67 runs.|
|OF Alex Gordon, Kansas City, age 29||AB||Avg||HR||RBI|
|1B Chris Davis, Baltimore, age 27||AB||Avg||HR||RBI|
|OF Domonic Brown, Philadelphia, age 25||AB||Avg||HR||RBI|
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry