COMMENTARY I Thirty years ago, Eric Davis broke into the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds and smashed 10 HR in just 174 AB. It was the beginning of great things for Davis, a true superstar in the making. To watch him was to be in awe. I vividly remember seeing Davis as a young player in Cincy, and I’ll never forget it. He was unquestionably one of the greatest players I have ever seen take the field. When people compared him to Willie Mays, it was more than warranted.
1984-1991. Eric Davis patrolled the outfield for parts of eight seasons with the Reds. In a practical sense, he only played five full seasons in Cincinnati (1986-90). Even that is a rather loose statement, because Davis never played more than 135 games during a single season. But when Davis was on the field, he was a sight to see. Today, far too many players are falsely labeled as five-tool players. Davis, however, defined the five-tool player. He was a rare defensive whiz (CF, LF) who regularly robbed home runs, hit home runs and swiped bases with amazing speed.
In Davis’ first full season (1986, 132 games) with the Reds, he hit 27 HR and stole 80 bases. He followed that up the next year with 37 HR, 100 RBI and 50 SB. Davis led the league in both 1986 (40.4) and 1987 (42.5) in the power-speed stat. Davis’ 1987 42.5 rating (in only 129 games) is the 3rd best season ever recorded behind Alex Rodriguez (1998, 43.9) and Alfonso Soriano (2006, 43.4). Only Davis and Barry Bonds (1990, 96) have recorded two seasons in excess of 40.0. From 1986-1990, Davis averaged 30 HR and 41 SB with an average of just 131 games played! But it was not just Davis’s offensive prowess that had us in awe. In 1987, he led the league in seven different defensive statistics, including putouts, assists and range-factor. Davis collected three Gold Gloves from 1987-89.
1990 World Series. Perhaps Davis’ most memorable moment was in the 1990 World Series against the heavily favored Oakland Athletics. He set the tone for the Reds as he hit a first inning two-run homer off of 22 game winner Dave Stewart in Game 1. The home run sent a stern message and the Reds rallied around the moment and went on to sweep the series. Davis finished with 5 RBI in the 4 games.
The Injuries. Davis tried to make a diving catch in Game 4 of the ’90 World Series, and in the process, he lacerated a kidney. To recover, he needed rest (as much as 18 full months). But he tried to play through this in 1991 and was a mere shadow of his old self. The world would never see the real Eric Davis after 1990. The kidney, the bad knees and a host of other nagging injuries had caught up to the fragile star. After the 1991 season, the Reds sent Davis packing. His last eleven years (1991-2001) were filled with injury, as he only played in over 100 games during three seasons.
Cancer and Comebacks. As if injuries were not bad enough, in 1995 Davis was diagnosed with cancer. After skipping the entire season, Davis returned to Cincinnati in 1996 to hit 26 HR and steal 23 bases in 129 games. Davis won the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year award (MLB began giving the award in 2005). Davis signed a two-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles in 1997. But 1997 was another year lost, as continued treatment for colon cancer limited him to 42 games. However, he walked away with both the Hutch Award (player who best exemplifies the fighting spirit) and the Roberto Clemente Award (player combining good play and strong work in the community). In 1998 Davis rolled back the clock one last time and went off for 28 HR and 89 RBI (131 games), his highest totals since 1989. He also hit an all-time best .327. Once again, it earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors (Players Choice Awards).
The Legacy. It is simply a shame that the Hall of Fame does not have a wing for players like Davis, a talent that writer Dan Holmes called “Superman.” In spite of the countless injuries and a cancer scare, he miraculously averaged 28 HR, 93 RBI and 35 SB per/162 games played. I feel lucky to have seen Davis, an all-around talented center fielder that I could only compare to a young Ken Griffey Jr. Yes, he was that good! Paul O’Neill, Davis’ teammate in Cincinnati, once said that Davis was “the best hitter, best runner, best outfielder, best everything” he ever saw. Forget the stats; to see was to believe.