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BASEBALL EXTRA | BASEBALL

Eric Davis Is Potentially the Unluckiest Ever

May 18, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

If Rupert Murdoch--aggressive, impulsive and often unforgiving in his approach to business--had owned the Dodgers then, heads might have rolled.

The 1991 trade that sent pitchers John Wetteland and Tim Belcher to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Eric Davis became the worst of Fred Claire's tenure as executive vice president of the Dodgers--unless you opt for the 1993 deal that sent pitcher Pedro Martinez to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields.

Wetteland became one of baseball's best closers. Belcher is still a productive starter.

Davis, burdened by the albatross of great expectations when he came out of Fremont High, returned to his Los Angeles roots and continued to be plagued by the injuries that have marred his career.

Ken Griffey Jr.? Barry Bonds?

Davis has performed at that level when physically fit, but so often his two years with the Dodgers were typical of the way it has been.

Still weakened by the kidney injury suffered in the 1990 World Series, Davis also experienced hand, rib and shoulder injuries in Los Angeles.

He batted .228 in 76 games one year, .234 in 108 games the next, and totaled 19 home runs.

"The only thing I feel bad about over my entire career is that I physically wasn't able to perform at a level that the fans of Los Angeles and the Dodgers deserved," Davis said in reflection.

"I had a great time with my teammates, and I have utmost respect for everybody in that organization. They put me in the best possible position to succeed, but I physically wasn't able to do it."

Traded to the Detroit Tigers, Davis retired after a second operation for a herniated disk in his neck, in September 1994, his eighth operation in nine years.

"I was mentally and physically exhausted from everything I had been through," he said. "I had no thought about returning to baseball. It was time to be a husband, father, son, uncle. I have a limo company in Atlanta, I'm starting a clothing line and I have a public-relations firm. I had enough things to keep me busy."

Davis said all of this while sitting in the Baltimore Oriole clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium this week.

He ended his retirement last year and was the National League's comeback player of the year with the Reds.

Although off for almost a year and a half, he batted .287 in 129 games with 26 homers, 83 runs batted in and 23 stolen bases.

Now, soon to be 35, he is filling a valuable role with the Orioles while battling a tender hamstring and sore shoulder. What's new?

A teammate named Cal Ripken Jr. hasn't missed a game since 1982, and Davis has never played more than 135 games in 18 professional seasons, sitting out more than 500 games over the last 10 years, in one span having surgeries for five consecutive years.

"Some guys get injuries," he said. "I've never been allowed to be me."

Frustrated? Disappointed? It's out of his control, he said. Bang his head against the wall and ask why?

"Ask who?" he said. "The Lord? Got other things on his mind. No one has an answer, and besides, I've been blessed. Do you know how many millions of people wish they could do what I've done, wish they could play in the major leagues for as long as I have?"

It's just that there's so much more he might have done. The man's basic big league season--based on 680 plate appearances--is 33 homers, 108 RBIs, 47 steals, 108 runs and 85 walks. He won three Gold Gloves and always played with abandon, which maybe why he was hurt so often.

Even now, batting .370 as the Oriole right fielder and designated hitter with seven homers and 20 RBIs and a .700-plus slugging percentage, he has not played more than six games in a row.

What ifs? Davis has been conditioned to it.

The public, he says, was never allowed to recognize his accomplishments because those accomplishments were never enough.

"I've always been in a no-win situation," he said. "I'll never be what people think I should be. Some guy says I should be the next Willie Mays, and I have to live with that stigma. No one was ever satisfied with what I did, and I did a lot. I mean, I'm one of only two players to hit 20 homers and steal 80 bases in a season and one of only three to hit 30 homers and steal 50 bases in a season, but if I don't hit 600 homers, I haven't succeeded. I can't tell you how happy I'll be if I never hear the word potential again."

Cincinnati's Barry Larkin and Lenny Harris were among those urging Davis to return after he did not attend a game during the 1995 regular season. Even Marge Schott, the Reds' owner and one-time Davis nemesis, lobbied for his return, but his remarkable comeback was not enough for the Reds to meet his 1997 price.

"I was their most productive outfielder, but [Manager] Ray Knight thought it was a fluke, that I couldn't do it again," Davis said. "I was in a situation where I had to leave."

The Reds obtained Ruben Sierra as a replacement and have since released him. Davis calls it all a blessing, says the Orioles are the best and most professional team he has ever been on. He signed a $2.2-million contract with an option for '98 and is essentially replacing Bobby Bonilla, bringing the Orioles better defense and speed.

Bonilla's forte is hitting, a one-dimensional player, said Oriole General Manager Pat Gillick, who added: "Eric helps in a lot of ways. You just can't expect him to play 160 games. He can be as good as there is for 130."

Can he play that many? Can he play beyond 1997? Davis knows better than to look past today.

"I'm not on the psychic hotline," he said. "I can't predict the future. As long as I can play at a level I'm comfortable with, I'll continue to play."

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