'I hear the people every night': Inside Chris Davis' 0-for-53 streak

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BALTIMORE — Dave Campbell didn’t even know he was in a slump.

Well, he knew, but he had no idea about the magnitude of it. The year was 1973, and Campbell was in the midst of an 0-for-45 odyssey that spanned three different teams and, until this week, was tied for the second-longest hitless streak in major league history.

It started in San Diego, where Campbell was an infielder for the Padres. It followed him to St. Louis, where he was traded in June of that year, and then to Houston, where he was dealt in August. Through it all, Campbell was clueless. It wasn’t until 2011, when current Brewers manager Craig Counsell went through an 0-for-45 of his own during his final season as a player, that Campbell discovered just how historic his slump was.

“I only learned about it after a couple calls from some buddies at ESPN,” says Campbell, who transitioned to the broadcast booth after his playing days. “Nobody was detailing those types of stats [back then].”

Unlike Campbell, today’s players don’t have the luxury of ignorance. Just ask Chris Davis.

At the Orioles’ home opener last week, fans at Camden Yards were merciless in their treatment of Davis. Knowing full well he hadn’t recorded a hit since the middle of September, they booed him when he ran down the orange carpet during pregame intros. They booed him in his first at-bat and each AB after that, getting progressively saltier each time. When he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, the crowd gave a sarcastic standing ovation.

“It’s not something I was really expecting. It was tough,” Davis said after the game. “At the same time, I heard it a lot last year, and rightfully so. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again — I understand the frustration. Nobody’s more frustrated than I am.”

Davis was so frustrated that at the end of the home opener, which the Orioles lost 8-4 to the Yankees, he tossed his batting gloves — the brand-new pair he’d busted out expressly for the occasion — into the dugout trash can. When he got back into the clubhouse, instead of putting the pants of his uniform in the laundry basket like players do after every single game, he threw those in the trash, too.

Four days later, with Davis on the verge of setting a new record for futility, the feeling at Camden Yards was completely different. Before his first at-bat Monday, when Davis lined out to right field to make it 0 for his last 45, the crowd gave him another standing O — but this time in a show of support. Before his second AB, when he lined out to left field, they did it again. And then again before his third trip, when he hit another liner to left to make it 0-for-47. He’d make out twice more to run the record streak to 0-for-49. (After flying out in his lone at-bat Wednesday, and going 0-for-3 on Thursday, the streak is now 0-for-53 and counting.)

Maybe it was because the intimate gathering of 6,585 (the smallest paying crowd in the stadium’s history) consisted only of die-hards, the kind that bleed black and orange and relish the opportunity to watch a midweek April game against the Oakland A’s. Maybe it was because the fans realized beating a guy when he’s down — and let’s face it, hardly anyone in baseball has ever been more down than Chris Davis — is just plain mean. Whatever the reason, on the night Baltimore’s first baseman broke the record for the longest hitless streak ever by a position player, the fans that witnessed it gave him nothing but love.

“It was a little unexpected, after Opening Day and most of the season last year, but it was awesome,” Davis says. “I hear the people every night, cheering for me, encouraging me, the guys and gals that sit down closer to the field, the ones that are more consistent in attendance. I hear the encouraging people trying to pick me up, and I’ve always been very appreciative of it. Unfortunately, I feel like a few people who decide to boo, or say whatever they may say, are ruining it for a lot of people. I’ve been here long enough, I’ve played for the Orioles long enough to know what kind of fan base we have, and to know that they support their players through good and bad. And that thought has kept me in a good state of mind throughout this whole thing.”

These days, the booing isn’t what bothers Davis most. Instead, it’s the negative attention that detracts from what his young teammates are accomplishing on the field.

“It takes away from so many positive things that we’re doing,” says Davis, who didn’t speak after Monday’s record-setter, a 12-4 rout over the A’s in which he was the only Orioles starter who failed to reach base. “We won the game and I went 0-for-5, and I knew that the media was going to want to talk about it. For me, that was just such an unprofessional thing to do, to sit there and talk about my own personal circumstances when we had so many things to be excited and encouraged about as a ballclub. I want these guys to enjoy playing in the big leagues. I want them to enjoy playing for the Orioles, playing for the city of Baltimore. I want them to understand that it’s a privilege to be able to put on this uniform night in and night out. I want them to do as much as they can to have the best outcome possible, and I don’t think it’s fair for me to bring all the baggage that I have with me right now and dump it on those guys.”

Davis and his baggage are standing in the tunnel that leads from the first-base dugout to the home clubhouse at Camden Yards. It’s Day 3 of the A’s series, and even though Oakland is sending righty Frankie Montas to the mound, Davis will be riding the pine for a second straight day. The decision to rest him is a conscious one made by rookie manager Brandon Hyde. He wants to give his slugger, who’s taken early batting practice with hitting coach Don Long each of the past two days, a little time to work on some mechanical things. It’s not a full-on furlough like last June, when Davis went 10 days without playing. It’s just a little breather.

“I don’t want to take a sabbatical again,” says Davis, who ended up pinch hitting in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s 10-3 loss and flied out to the warning track in center field. “I don’t want to leave and not play for a week or two weeks. And [Hyde] understands that part. But at the same time, he wants me to continue to work and he wants to give me an opportunity to be successful. I think that’s encouraging, to say the least, to hear from your manager.”

The mini-holiday is merely the latest in a series of machinations intended to reverse the fortunes of a slugger who, when he’s right, is one of the most dangerous left-handed bats in baseball. Problem is, it has been forever and a day since Davis was right. In three-plus seasons since signing a seven-year, $161 million contract with the Orioles in January 2016, his .199 average is the worst in baseball among players with at least 1,000 at-bats. The 36 percent strikeout rate (third highest) would be overlooked for a guy with game-changing power, except Davis doesn’t seem to have that anymore: His homer totals the last four years are 47, 38, 26 and 16. And now, to make matters worse, he’s hitless in 2019.

“It’s going to be an ongoing, very intentional thing,” says Long of the tee work and soft toss he has done with Davis during their early BP sessions.

Asked whether he thinks Davis’ issues are more physical or mental at this point, Long hedges: “One can lead to the other. For any hitter, if your mind is not in the right spot, it’s going to impact what you do physically. And if you don’t feel like you’re in the right position physically, it can affect how you react mentally and emotionally. It’s such a hard thing to do. And it’s so easy to not remember when you’ve done it well. It’s easy to react to what just happened, to your most recent games. So we try and keep all our guys connected to their best.”

Even though Davis’ best was very good once upon a time, he’s so far removed from it now that the airwaves — both locally and nationally — have become flooded with talk of how the Orioles could and/or should handle him.

One thought is to send him to the minors to ease the pressure. But because Davis is out of minor league options, the O’s would have to designate him for assignment, a process that first requires him to pass through the waivers process. If any one of the other 29 teams were to claim Davis, he would immediately become a part of that team’s 40-man roster. Of course, he would also become a part of that team’s payroll, and the odds of any club taking on Davis’ nine-figure contract — via waivers or a trade — are roughly equivalent to his batting average through Baltimore’s first 13 games (um, zero).

Whether it’s passing through waivers and going to the minors, or spending some time at the Orioles’ spring training complex in Sarasota, Florida, to work out the kinks — an idea Davis says new general manager Mike Elias proposed during a meeting toward the end of March — Davis is game.

“If I’m struggling to the point where I feel like it’s going to be a repeat of last year, I’m absolutely open to anything,” says the former All-Star who hit .168 last season, setting a record for the lowest average ever by a qualified hitter. “I want to be successful. I know I have four more years here. I want to make the most of ’em.”

Of course, it’s entirely possible Davis doesn’t spend four more years in Baltimore. Crazy though it might seem, it’s possible the O’s could just flat-out release him. Doing so would allow young slugger Trey Mancini, the team’s best offensive player, to move from left field back to his natural position at first base. That, in turn, would open up an outfield spot the rebuilding Birds could use to give more playing time to younger big leaguers (like Joey Rickard and Dwight Smith Jr.) or to take a look at minor-league prospects (like Austin Hays and Yusniel Diaz).

As crazy as the idea of releasing Davis sounds, it’s not without precedent. This past winter, the Blue Jays released Troy Tulowitzki, even though they still owed him $38 million. In 2016, both Carl Crawford (Dodgers) and Jose Reyes (Rockies) were dropped with more than $30 million remaining on their respective contracts. At the time of their release, Tulowitzki and Crawford were 34 years old, and Reyes was 33. In other words, all three were men of a certain age. So too is the 33-year-old Davis. The difference is, cutting Davis, who earns $23 million per year over the next four seasons, would cost way more. But it’s a sunk cost: Release or no release, the Orioles are into him for another $92 million.

The decision for Peter Angelos to invest heavily in Davis three years ago was an emotional one. Even though Angelos has since ceded control of the team to sons John and Lou, it would be difficult for ownership to cut ties. Unlike Crawford, Reyes and Tulowitzki, all of whom were relatively new to the teams that released them, Davis has deep ties to the city in which he plays. He has spent eight years in Baltimore and helped resurrect a moribund franchise that made the playoffs three times in his first five seasons there. Not to mention, the Birds are still holding out hope that the Chris Davis of Seasons Future and the Chris Davis of Seasons Past are the same.

“I really believe that he’s dedicating himself not just to get back to where he was, but to be better than he was,” Long says. “That’s a big statement, but that’s how we have to think. We have to think that there’s greatness accessible to him.”

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