Featuring one of baseball’s most explosive combinations of power and speed since the days of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, Eric Davis burst onto the major league landscape with unlimited potential when he joined the Cincinnati Reds in 1984. Sadly, a series of health problems robbed him of the chance to be remembered as one of the game’s all-time greats; injuries so enervated his body in the latter half of his career that he was forced to take an entire year off from baseball to recover. After a successful comeback, Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer in early 1997 but made a remarkable return the same year with the Baltimore Orioles.
A friend of future teammate Darryl Strawberry while growing up in Los Angeles, Davis was selected by the Reds in the eighth round of the 1980 June draft after graduating from Freemont High School. He was promoted from Double A Wichita in 1984 and quickly earned the Reds’ centerfield job. Two events that season foreshadowed the course his career would take. First, he suffered an injury which required surgery to remove bone chips from his right knee. Second, he gave a brief demonstration of his power, blasting five home runs in four September games, and becoming the first Red to hit home runs in four straight games since George Foster in 1978.
After spending 1985 between Cincinnati and AAA Denver, Davis broke through to stardom in 1986. Although he didn’t make the starting lineup until June 15th, Davis batted .277 with 27 home runs while stealing 80 bases, joining Rickey Henderson as the only player in baseball history to hit at least 20 home runs and steal 80 bases in the same season. The lanky, 6’3” centerfielder possessed blinding speed on the bases and one of the quickest right-handed bats in the game. His ferocious swing looked like a blur passing through the strike zone, and when he connected solidly he sent line drives rocketing to the far corners of the ballpark.
A gifted basketball player in his youth, Davis used his tremendous athletic talent to his advantage in the outfield, where his speed allowed him to run down anything in the greater Cincinnati zip code and his phenomenal leaping ability robbed many an incredulous batter of a sure home run. On June 25, 1987, he nearly turned one of the most amazing double-plays of the season at Candlestick Park. With the bases loaded, the Giants’ Will Clark hit a grounder up the middle off of Reds reliever Rob Murphy. Davis raced in to snare the ball, touching second to force Robby Thompson. Were it not for an errant throw home, he would have caught Chris Brown at the plate as well.
If 1986 was the season that demonstrated the raw possibilities of his talents, 1987 was the year that he came closest to realizing that frightening talent. Few players could put together hot streaks like “Eric the Red”, and that season he began the year on a scorching tear. He won the National League Player of the Month award for both April and May (an honor he received in July of 1986 and would win again in August of 1988). In May he set a National League record with three grand slams in one month. In July he made his first National League All-Star team, and on August 2nd he became the seventh player to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in the same year — a mark he reached earlier in the season than anyone in history. In 129 games he batted .293, hit 37 home runs, drove in 100 runs, stole 50 bases (against just six caught stealing), and scored 120 times. The one chink in his armor may have been his tendency to strike out; he fanned 134 times in 474 at bats.
The following year his numbers would drop to .273 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs in virtually the same number of at-bats. Nagging injury problems cost him a step on the bases, but he still had 35 steals, in the process swiping 33 straight without being thrown out.
In 1988, he set a career high by driving in 101 runs (tying a personal best with six on June 2nd vs. San Diego, when he also hit for the cycle) and was third in the National League with 34 home runs. His speed numbers continued to drop, though, as he collected only 21 steals and somehow grounded into sixteen double plays. He was the National League‘s starting centerfielder in the All-Star Game, and won his third Gold Glove for his defensive excellence.
To that point, Davis’ impressive numbers had been wasted on mediocre Reds teams. In 1990, however, Cincinnati bolted out of the gate with nine straight wins and led the NL West wire-to-wire. Davis’ 86 runs batted in paced the Reds, while his 24 home runs were second to Rookie-of-the-Year third baseman Chris Sabo‘s 25.
After sending the Pittsburgh Pirates home in a six-game NLCS triumph, the Reds faced the heavily-favored and reigning World Champion Oakland Athletics in the World Series. But in the first inning of Game One, Davis set the tone for the series by hitting a two-run homer off Oakland ace Dave Stewart, becoming the 22nd player in history to go deep in his first World Series at-bat. The Reds won the game 7-0 and stormed to a three games to none series lead. In Game Four, Davis proved that life does imitate the World Series as his body betrayed him even in the Fall Classic. Davis suffered a lacerated kidney while diving for a ball in the outfield and was unable join his teammates when the Reds celebrated their stunning sweep of the Athletics with a 2-1 victory. Davis was hospitalized for eleven days following the injury, and on November 19th he underwent arthroscopic surgery for the sprained knee that had sent him to the disabled list earlier in the season.
Even in those prime years of his career, Davis had never managed to play more than 135 games in any season, but injuries would exact a far greater toll in his career after the 1990 season. After playing in just 89 games for Cincinnati in 1991, the Reds traded him to Los Angeles for pitchers Tim Belcher and John Wetteland, where he was reunited with his childhood friend Darryl Strawberry. The Dodgers’ dream of a fearsome Strawberry/Davis outfield were little realized, though, as both endured injury-plagued campaigns and combined to play in just 119 games. That year, Davis suffered a fractured left wrist, a sprained left shoulder and a herniated disc in his neck. The following season, split between the Dodgers and the Detroit Tigers, he managed to play in 131 games and hit 20 home runs. In 1994, however, his career hit bottom as problems with a disc in his neck limited him to just 37 appearances.
Davis decided to retire from the game after the season, believing that his body was too damaged and fragile to effectively play baseball again. But given the chance to rest and heal for a year, uninterrupted by the exigencies of the baseball season, Davis recovered more completely than he thought possible and felt stronger than he had in years. The Reds were willing to give their former star another shot, and although he wasn’t the same player he once was, Davis became Cincinnati’s Opening Day left fielder and soon proved he could still be a potent hitter. Playing in 129 games (he went on the disabled list for several weeks in May and June with bruised rib muscle) Davis batted .287 with 26 home runs and 83 runs batted in. He also showed he could still run the bases, swiping 23 for the year. In one torrid five-game stretch in early May, Davis drove in 16 runs; on May 24th he became the 45th player to homer into the left field upper deck at Phildelphia’s Veterans Stadium.
His career resurrected, Davis once again left the Reds, and signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Orioles prior to the 1997 season. His clutch bat and commanding presence proved to be just what the talented but sometimes underachieving Orioles needed. With Davis in right field, batting third, the Orioles began the season on a roll; in fact, like the 1990 Reds, Baltimore would spend every day of the 1998 season in first place, though they would not fare as well in the postseason. Davis cranked seven home runs in his first 21 games, driving in six runs on April 23rd and belting his ninth career grand slam. A 4-for-4 game on May 6th raised his average to a league-leading .388. As the Orioles got off to their best start in almost 30 years, Davis had become immensely popular with the fans. The marriage of the affable outfielder to the Camden Yards crowd seemed like a match made in heaven.
On May 24th, however, Davis’ season — and life — took a dramatic turn when he was forced to leave a game with severe stomach cramps. Shortly thereafter Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery to remove a malignant mass on June 13th. From the start, Davis vowed that he would return to the Orioles that season, though few people believed it possible. In July he began a series of chemotherapy treatments which left him considerably weakened, but he never wavered in his resolve to make it back to the team.
During an inspirational comeback attempt, Davis avidly embraced his role as a messenger of hope to others afflicted with cancer. On August 22nd he began working out with the Orioles for the first time since the diagnosis, and was given a standing ovation by the Baltimore fans as he sat in the dugout in uniform for the game that day. Two weeks later, the Orioles activated him from the disabled list and started him in right field in the first game of a day/night doubleheader with the Cleveland Indians. From that point on, Davis tried to work himself back into form while still undergoing chemotherapy treatments. Although the chemotherapy sometimes left him too tired to play, Davis gradually recovered his swing. On September 27th he collected four hits, including his first home run since May 6th.
In the Division Series against Seattle and the League Championship Series vs. Cleveland, Davis played a limited role for the Orioles, as he was still far from 100 percent healthy. But in Game Five, Davis slammed a dramatic pinch-hit home run off Paul Assenmacher in the top of the ninth inning at Jacobs Field which proved to be decisive run in the Baltimore’s 4-2 victory. Nevertheless, when the Orioles failed to score in eleven innings of Game Six, not even Davis could prevent them from losing the series to the underdog Indians.
After the season, Davis was honored for his fight against cancer with several awards, including baseball’s prestigious Roberto Clemente Award.
The Orioles picked up Davis’ club option for 1998, and Davis responded with one of his finest and most memorable seasons. After putting up decent numbers during the Orioles’ disappointing first-half collapse (they started the season with a 38-50 record) Davis began the second half with one of his inimitable hot streaks. As the Orioles surged back into wild-card contention with a 30-8 burst, Davis hit in a career-high (and team-record) 30 consecutive games. Although Baltimore slipped back below .500 by season’s end, Davis ended the year batting a career-high .327, good for fourth in the American League. His .388 on base percentage and .582 slugging percentage both ranked in the league’s top ten, and his 28 home runs and 89 runs batted in were his highest totals in nine years. In an odd twist of fate, Davis learned in September of 1998 that his close friend Darryl Strawberry had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Davis signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1999 and hit just five homers in 58 games. (He couldn’t blame his lack of power on his bat, as teammate Fernando Tatis became the first player to blast two grand slams in one inning while borrowing Davis’ lumber.) Davis’ season ended when he tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder while diving for a ball to protect Jose Jimenez’s no-hitter on June 25. Jiminez was traded to the Colorado Rockies in November, but Davis insisted the rookie hurler still owed him. “I’ll find him,” Davis told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He’ll have something for me, even if it’s a Value Meal.”