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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE

These Rough Diamonds Worth the Wait for Davis

June 01, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

LAKE ELSINORE — He appears as all the great ones appear at quaint ballparks, in antique minor leagues, on evenings where the wind sounds like a pipe organ.

He appears as would a ghost.

From around a corner in the tiny visitors clubhouse at the Lake Elsinore Diamond, from among pimply and uncertain faces, here comes a shaved head and bemused smile.

"Hey, I know you," he says, walking past. "How you doing?"

"Fine. You?"

"Just great," he says, still walking.

"What are you doing here?"

"Well. . . . " he says, stopping.

At that moment Mark Davis pauses, holds up his outstretched palm as if hoping to catch an idea, then waves the hand and keeps walking.

It's that way every June, with all the great ones that come through the bushes, hoping to catch something that will allow them to play forever.

If you have to ask, you will never understand.

*

The last time anyone really saw Mark Davis, nobody could see Mark Davis. His curveball was that quick, his fastball that sneaky.

It was 1989, he pitched for the San Diego Padres, and after 11 professional seasons, he was touched with brilliance.

Forty-four saves, a 1.85 earned-run average, a Cy Young Award, and the answer to a trivia question.

"Today people say, 'Oh, that year you won the Cy Young, how many games did you win?" Davis recalls. "I tell them, 'Four.' They say, 'No, really.' I say, 'No, really."

He was that good, getting the Cy Young with the fewest victories of any winner.

One month later he was that wealthy, signing a $13-million contract with the Kansas City Royals, the richest deal in baseball history at the time.

Today, he is that forgotten.

The touch lasted all of five seconds. He never again saved more than six games in a major league season, never again had an ERA of under 4.26.

On his second batter in his first Royal spring training, he broke his finger while trying to bare-hand a line drive.

He later hurt his elbow, perhaps because he was compensating for the finger.

Early stumbles led to a spectacular free fall, accompanied by constant abuse. One day he found himself in the outfield stands in Oakland, confronting an abusive fan for cursing in front of children.

"The harder I tried, the worse it got," he remembers.

He finished the 1990 season with a 2-7 record and 5.11 ERA and six saves. The arm, and the head, never recovered.

Seven years, five organizations and three arm surgeries later, he is the first major league veteran with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.

At age 36, he has agreed to begin this summer with their highest minor league team--theClass-A High Desert Mavericks--despite no promises that he will pitch in the big leagues during their inaugural season next year.

He lives in a Victorville-area Holiday Inn while his wife and four children remain in their Atlanta home.

He takes 90-minute bus rides and pitches one inning in front of 3,000 fans while Cy Young winners before him--like Roger Clemens and Orel Hershiser--are still on his TV.

But this is not what you think. He doesn't need the money; he already has fulfilled his wildest dreams.

"I know I will never be the pitcher I was in 1989 again," he says. "That's not what I'm trying to be."

What he's trying to be, is a ballplayer. Any kind of ballplayer. Once you've been one, it doesn't much matter.

"I still have it inside me," Davis says. "And when you still have it inside of you, you have to do it."

The "it" is that elusive feeling that separates baseball from the other sports, the sense that this is still the last game you play, the last chance you'll have to be 20, sport's best job at its kindest pace.

Mark Davis gives players goofy sunglasses in the clubhouse, throws exploding caps at their feet in the runways, tells them crazy stories in the bullpen.

He takes the mound every night or so, hears the canned organ music, watches the Little Leaguers chasing the foul balls, breathes air that tastes like cotton candy.

Rejuvenated by last summer's shoulder surgery, he sweats and strains and feels more alive than any 36-year-old should.

He has struck out nine batters and walked none while giving up just two runs in 7 2/3 innings. That is good news for when he calls his wife and family, who understand his absence because they know when he finally comes home, it will be for forever.

"I'm waiting for people to start yelling at me, asking me why I'm still hanging on," he says. "I will tell them, how can you not do something you still enjoy?"

He is asked, where is his Cy Young Award.

"On a shelf in my computer room?" he says.

It is a question, not an answer.

"Excuse me," he says, smiling, jogging to the plate with a fungo bat in one hand, a ball in the other.

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