In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Chris Davis is not going to give the Baltimore Orioles a hometown discount. The team offered him a seven-year, $154 million dollar deal, and he essentially said, "Eh."
On the one hand, it’s easy to view Davis as an ungrateful, money-hungry mercenary. How else to explain turning down that kind of money, nearly double the largest contract ever awarded by the O's? How else to justify him thumbing his nose at the opportunity to stay with the franchise that gave him his first real crack at being an everyday player, at the chance to remain in a baseball-loving town that views him as something of a cult hero?
On the other hand, Davis is a free agent, and one who has created quite the market for himself over the past year. In the space of 12 months, the left-handed slugger somehow transformed from a PED-suspended, sub-Mendoza-hitting cautionary tale into a model citizen and a baseball-mashing folk tale who’s one of the most precious commodities available on the open market.
Given the absurdly inflated nature of said market -- already this offseason, four players have signed richer contracts than the one Baltimore offered its former first baseman -- it’s not hard to imagine another team trumping the O’s offer and securing Davis’ services for the rest of the decade and beyond. Unless, of course, you’re an Orioles fan. In that case, it’s almost impossible to fathom.
To understand why Davis passed up two-thirteenths of a billion dollars, let’s zoom in on the night of Sept. 1. Bottom of the ninth, to be exact.
Buck Showalter’s club was mired in a mother of a slump. The Orioles had lost 11 of their previous 12 games, in the process falling out of the second AL wild-card spot and into oblivion. Trailing 11-0 to the visiting Tampa Bay Rays, they were well on their way to yet another defeat. And Showalter knew it.
In the top of the eighth inning, the Orioles’ skipper yanked All-Star center fielder Adam Jones and replaced him with September callup Dariel Alvarez. In the bottom half, he sent seldom-used reserve Ryan Flaherty up to pinch hit for Manny Machado. In the top of the ninth, he pulled starting catcher Matt Wieters in favor of third-stringer Steve Clevenger. Showalter’s mercy benchings were a clear sign that hope had been lost, if not for the season then surely for that evening.
Somewhere in the midst of waving the white flag, Showalter moseyed over to Davis in the first base dugout and informed him that, like Baltimore’s other veteran leaders, he’d earned the right to take a seat for the remainder of the night. But Davis wasn’t having it.
The hulking first baseman -- a notorious hot-and-cold slugger who’d been downright arctic for the better part of the previous two weeks and whose spot was coming up in the bottom of the ninth -- glared at his manager and pleaded with him to stay in the game. He even dropped an F-bomb or two for effect.
As fate would have it, when Davis strode to the plate in the bottom of the ninth (the F-bomb resulted in a direct hit on Showalter’s conscience), someone named Kirby Yates was standing 60 feet, six inches away. The same Kirby Yates who’d just been called up from Triple-A Durham earlier that day when rosters expanded. The same Kirby Yates who, in three brief stints with the Rays earlier in the season, had allowed an eye-popping seven home runs in 11 innings. The same Kirby Yates who, in Davis’ only previous official at-bat against him, in 2014, had served up a gopher ball. If this game had been a Star Trek episode, Yates would’ve been the crew member you’ve never seen or heard of who suddenly gets introduced at the beginning of the show for the express purpose of dying at some point before the closing credits roll. Maybe Davis had no idea that First Officer Yates was on the mound when he begged Showalter to leave him in. Then again, maybe he did.
As you might expect in the ninth inning of an 11-0 blowout, the First Officer threw a first-pitch fastball to Davis. Just like he’d done to each of the previous five Baltimore hitters he’d faced since coming on to start the eighth. As you might expect, Davis relocated the baseball to a seat beyond the right center field wall, some 400 feet away.
As Davis' massive 35-inch, 33-ounce bat landed on the ground and he slowly engaged in a home run trot, he turned toward the Orioles' dugout with his arms out wide, nodded his head emphatically and barked, "Thank you!"
The following day, Showalter talked about what a gamer Davis is. About how even in the midst of a horrific skid, both for himself and the team, and despite being on the wrong end of an absolute shellacking, he simply refused to come out of the game. Refused to take even a single inning off.
And maybe it was that simple. Maybe Davis’ insistence on staying in the game was nothing more than a veteran ballplayer leading by example, his reaction an overt attempt to light a fire under a lifeless Orioles team that had all but given up hope of a postseason return.
Then again, maybe there was more to it. Maybe Davis’ refusal to sit was less about the team and more about the individual. After all, he entered the game in a 4-for-35 slump during which he’d struck out 20 times, and had gone hitless in three trips that night (with two more whiffs) prior to facing Yates. So maybe this was about snapping out of a personal funk that, if it persisted in a way that Davis funks have been known to persist, could rob him of millions of dollars at the bargaining table. Maybe it was about not missing a golden opportunity to add one more home run -- the chief measurable in any discussion of Davis' free-agent worth -- to his total. After all, he’d only gone deep once in his previous 16 games and was stuck on 35 dingers. While not an inconsequential number by any means, if he could go yard off Yates, he’d be that much closer to 40, that much closer to cha-ching.
As it turned out, Davis did go yard off Yates. No. 36 on the season. A seemingly meaningless garbage-time tater, it clearly flipped a switch for Davis, who hit four bombs over the next two games to reach cha-ching, then clubbed seven more during the final month of the season to reach cha-cha-cha-ching. When it was all said and done, Davis would finish with an MLB-best 47 homers. And apparently enough leverage to say, “Ya know what? Two-thirteenths of a billion is not enough.”
Tempting though it may be to vilify Davis for passing on the O’s offer, the man is merely reaping the benefits of all his efforts, the operative word there being "effort." Don’t get me wrong -- before this year, nobody had ever accused Chris Davis of not giving everything he had. After all, this is a guy who, in 2012, was called on to pitch in a 17-inning game and responded by firing two scoreless frames to earn the win, despite going 0-for-8 at the plate with five strikeouts. But this past season was different.
Right from the get-go in 2015, Davis looked for all the world like someone who knew he was in a contract year and performed accordingly. Watching him play, you got the sense that he and agent Scott Boras huddled at some point last winter and decided that one of their main goals following an abysmal and embarrassing 2014 campaign was to produce the best free-agent mix tape ever, one that would give any general manager who watched it no choice but to throw gazillions of dollars in Davis’ general vicinity. Not that Davis and Boras would be the first player-agent duo to hatch that idea. After all, there’s a reason that it’s called a contract year. That said, if there were an Academy Award for Best Performance by a Male Athlete in a Contract Year Highlight Reel, then Crush Davis would have received a nomination, at the very least.
For starters, he played every day. Well, almost. Aside from Opening Day, which was the 25th and final game that he was forced to sit out as a result of his 2014 suspension, Davis appeared in every single contest with the exception of one game in July that he missed due to a stomach bug. Playing 160 games might not sound like much, especially in the town where Cal Ripken forged his ironman legacy, but in an era of nine-digit contracts where investment protection trumps plate protection, you could argue that 160 is the new 162. For Davis, the 160 games matched a career high and were tied for third-most in the American League. Not only did Davis post, he posted hard.
MLB lineups are littered with multimillionaires who, whenever they hit a routine grounder to second, barely make it out of the batter’s box. Chris Davis is not one of them. Ever since coming to Baltimore in 2011, he has made a habit of sprinting the full 90 feet from home to first. But in 2015, his hard runs looked more like unstoppable runs, to the point that I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen someone run harder to first base on a consistent basis than Chris Davis did this past season. I tried to get some empirical data to support this observation -- like how Davis’ average home-to-first time in 2015 compared to seasons past -- but was told that those specific metrics don’t exist. So you’ll just have to trust me on this one: Dude busted some serious hump.
Then there’s the whole outfield thing. Remember how Queen Latifah used to be just a rapper? Well, Chris Davis used to be just a first baseman. But just like QL somehow managed to convince folks that she’s also a jazz singer, CD magically morphed into an outfielder, owing to the fact he started 30 games in right field this past season. Mind you, it’s not like Davis approached Showalter and said, “Hey skip, if you wouldn’t mind putting me out there every now and again, I really think it could help me score a few more ducats this offseason.” The truth is, the O’s had major corner outfield issues this season and putting the very athletic Davis in right was a creative way for Showalter to boost an offense that was prone to prolonged droughts. Still, you couldn’t blame the big fella if he’d resisted the move. After all, the last thing an eight-year vet who’s about to hit the open market needs is to be made to look like a chump. But that’s not what happened. Instead, Davis took it like a champ. In fact, he acquitted himself better than most expected: If you look at UZR/150 (a defensive stat that measures range), of the 83 American League outfielders who logged at least 250 innings, Davis ranked fifth. Which is really just a fancy way of saying, you can bet your butt that right field is featured prominently on the mix tape.
I haven’t had the good fortune to view the mix tape, but I’d be willing to wager that there’s also a healthy dose of daily posting and unstoppable runs, not to mention an ample supply of first-base footage (Davis ranked second among AL first basemen in defensive runs saved). And it wouldn’t surprise me if each and every one of those 47 home runs were on there as well, culminating of course with the garbage-time, F-bomb blast off First Officer Yates.
But what about loyalty, you ask? What about the fact Baltimore is where Davis has spent the past four-and-a-half seasons? Where Buck Showalter helped turn a 25-year old castoff into a 29-year old cult hero? Where Chris became Crush and the Birds once again became ballers? Does none of this matter?
It matters, but not nearly as much as fans would like to think -- at least not to most ballplayers. Besides, Chris Davis is not Cal Ripken: He wasn’t born in Maryland, didn’t grow up there, wasn’t drafted by dem O’s, hon. He’s not Darren O'Day: He doesn’t have a wife whose career provides gravitational pull to keep him in the Mid-Atlantic. He’s a Texas native who was drafted by the Texas Rangers and spent his first four big-league seasons playing his home games in Arlington. He’s also a husband and provider, the proud father of a 1-year-old baby girl named Ella. All of which helps explain why, on the rare occasion this past season when Davis actually indulged questions from the media about his impending free agency and methodically read his lines -- “I’d love to stay here,” he said with a straight face and flat effect following a mid-August game against the A’s in which he went deep twice -- the words invariably seemed to ring hollow.
You can’t blame Chris Davis for trying to do what’s best for him and his family, especially after one of the most clutch contract-year turnarounds in the history of free agency. Sure, $154 million is more than enough for anyone (so is $70 million, which is probably more accurate after taxes and agent commission), but it’s not his fault that the free-agent market has gone berserk. Even if interest in his services turns out to be not as rampant as originally forecast -- already the Cardinals and Giants, two of the clubs that were thought to be pursuing Davis, have supposedly stood down -- he’s clearly prepared to roll the dice and see how this thing plays out.
In the meantime, let’s not act surprised or offended. Baseball is a business, just like any other business, and Chris Davis is a commodity. If you don’t believe it, check out the mix tape.