This is a Ralph Wiley Sports Illustrated cover story from May 25, 1987. It's reprinted here courtesy of Sports Illustrated. Copyright (1987), Time Inc. All Rights reserved.
Let's get it straight from the beginning. Eric Davis is not Willie Mays or Henry Aaron or Roberto Clemente. Eric Davis is E. That's it, just E, the single-letter nickname his friends know him by. E's friends are everywhere now, and many of them never saw Mays or Aaron or Clemente. Children who play on scarred inner-city blacktops, manicured suburban lawns and wide-open country fields join E's legions with every sweet, vicious swing of his 32-ounce bat. That's E, as in Everything -- which is what the new Cincinnati Reds star has.
I met Ralph during spring training in 1986, and I must say he was a breath of fresh air because he was honest and true to his word. From that point on we became very close friends. He was like a big brother to me, and I had the utmost respect for him. He was one of those guys who was very opinionated, but that didn't stop him from being a great listener. And during some of my difficult personal times -- most notably when I got cancer in 1997 -- Ralph was always there for me as great friends always are.
Our friendship grew even stronger in 1998 when we spent nearly 3½ weeks together in preparation for the book he wrote about me, "Born to Play." He was an easy guy to talk to, and he helped me in becoming more trustworthy of other reporters. He gave me that sense of security to be more confident in myself when dealing with other people.
He was a phenomenal person, and someone I will truly miss.
"Eric," says the Reds' six-time All-Star outfielder Dave Parker, "is blessed with world-class speed, great leaping ability, the body to play until he's 42, tremendous bat speed and power, and a throwing arm you wouldn't believe. There's an aura to everything he does. I tell you frankly that I'd pay to see him if I had to."
Everyone who has paid to see Eric Davis lately has gotten his money's worth. As most of America knows, E is off to one of the all-around best starts in National League history. His numbers: .358 average, 15 homers, 36 runs scored, 16 steals, 38 RBIs, and two weeks still remaining in the month of May. But it's the ease with which he has amassed these stats that has astonished older fans and enraptured younger ones. Meanwhile, baseball cognoscenti are left with an inescapable conclusion: To find an appropriate comparison for the soon-to-be 25-year-old outfielder, one must hark back to the '50s and '60s, to Mays and Aaron and Clemente.
"In a way it's kind of frightening to compare my son with ballplayers who were like miracles, acts of God," says Davis's father, Jimmy, who goes to work each day at a Boys Market grocery chain warehouse in the Los Angeles-area community of Gardena knowing his coworkers will already have checked out the E-line in yesterday's box score ("5-4-4-6! You're kiddin' me!"). "I don't have to read the paper," says Jimmy. He accepts their praise with pride, humility and amazement. "I just pray to God that he can be half the player that Mays was."
On the night of May 5, the eve of Willie Mays's 56th birthday, Eric Davis sits in the visiting team's clubhouse beneath Shea Stadium in New York and begins to sign a few baseball cards from a huge stack. The Mays comparison arises again. "Not even close," says Davis. "I've got a long way to go. I'm being compared to the impossible. I never saw Mays, Aaron or Clemente play. What about the people I face every day? Tim Raines is the best? Mattingly is the best? Why not compare me to my peers?"
Rose has the answer to that: "Because there ain't nobody else. There ain't nobody quite like Eric Davis."
The first time Willie Mays met Eric Davis was last August at Candlestick Park. Davis, finally given an everyday shot in the big leagues after five frustrating years in the minors (the last two bouncing up and down from Class AAA Denver), was on his way to a 27-homer, 80-steal season in only 415 at bats.
Rose told Mays he had somebody for him to meet.
"I got a kid who can do all the things you could, Willie," said Rose.
"Where is he?" said Mays. He and Davis were introduced.
Mays has powerful hands that could strangle a bear; Davis's look gentler and smaller, even though he can palm a basketball. Mays was a 5 ft. 10 in. brickyard of stony ridges; E is almost smooth, 6 ft. 3 in. and 175 evenly distributed pounds. Davis's forearms ripple with lean cords of muscle, yet he has the feet of a kid inside his size 8 1/2 spikes.
"I saw no similarities," says Mays.
Then Reds third baseman Buddy Bell walked over. "He hit one 500 feet yesterday, Willie," Bell said.
"I still couldn't see the similarities," says Mays. "I had my time. Let the kid play. In the end, they'll compare numbers on paper. And that's not always the game."
In fact, Mays transcended numbers. Willie went right for the heart. His 660 home runs? They pale in comparison to the Catch, in deepest centerfield in the Polo Grounds, his back to the plate, off Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series. That is the indelible Mays: You had to see to believe.
On the eve of Mays's birthday, Davis made some new believers in New York. In the bottom of the sixth of a 1-0 game, Darryl Strawberry cracked a Ted Power pitch to deepest straightaway center. Strawberry is one of Davis's best friends. They've been playing on the same fields since they were 16-year-old teammates on Earl Brown's Compton Moose, a Connie Mack team in inner-city L.A., along with Chris Brown, now the third baseman for the Giants. Before the game Strawberry had said, "The Reds told Eric he wasn't ready for a long time. Too long. His body is so strong, and he can fly. He's the best ballplayer I've ever seen." Now Davis tracked Strawberry's towering drive, stopped at the wall and waited.
Davis averaged 28 points a game as a senior guard at Fremont High in L.A. in 1979-80. He has been playing basketball with the likes of Los Angeles Laker Byron Scott since he was a 12-year-old at the Baldwin Hills Park and Recreation Center. When Jimmy Davis would come home between his two jobs and play basketball in his work boots against Eric and his brother Jimmy at the 68th Street Elementary School playground, the father would get so physical that the boys would go home bruised and their mother, Shirley, would complain. "I told her I was helping them," says Mr. Davis. "But I was just trying to survive. They could jump so high!"
At about this time a baseball coach named O.J. Knighten took Eric aside and told him that he was a bit small for basketball and that his hands were good enough to be a shortstop's, so why settle for less? Davis took more interest in baseball. Still, just this past winter, E scored 49 points horsing around in a benefit basketball game in San Diego against other baseball pros, including Strawberry, Brown and Tony Gwynn.
On the night before Willie Mays's birthday, Eric Davis waited at Shea Stadium's centerfield fence, watched Strawberry's eighth home run sailing out and then leaped. The ball was gone. But Davis launched himself from the warning track so that his head lifted above the top of the eight-foot fence, just to the right of the 410-foot sign. He reached over, caught the ball, brought his glove back and came down without crashing into the wall. He made this look routine.
Davis also stole three bases that night and scored a run. Reds win, 2-0. E could play if he hit only .230. Rose says, "I didn't think Superman could get to that ball. I guess I forgot who was going after it."
The next day Mays said, "It's an honor to be compared to Eric Davis. I hope Eric is honored."
"Eric Davis has unlimited ability -- awesome ability," says Henry Aaron. "I don't think he'll be Willie Mays. That would take some doing. But, on the other hand, I don't think he has a weakness, either."
Henry Aaron hit 755 home runs and drove in 2,297 runs in 23 major league seasons. Number 44. The Hammer. Bad Henry. That's what we remember. It's hard to recall that he was once a shy teenaged infielder who hit cross-handed off the front foot.
When Eric Davis was negotiating adolescence, he was so shy he stuttered around strangers. His mother would tell him to slow down and think. Then she reminded him that if no one else ever had confidence in him, she and his father always would.
When Jimmy Davis, who had moved his family from Mississippi to L.A. in 1960, tried to get Eric into Little League ball in Torrance, then a mostly white and middle-class community, he was turned down because the family didn't live there. As Eric got ready to enter high school, Jimmy wanted to arrange to have him bused to the suburbs; it couldn't be done. "I wanted Eric to have better equipment, better fields. But [his staying] was all for the best. He had friendships.And competition was fierce here. The kids were tough."
When Davis first went out for the baseball team at Fremont High, the school that produced major leaguers Chet Lemon, George Hendrick, Bobby Tolan and Bob Watson, he was sent home. "The coach called Eric a basketball player," says Jimmy. "I told Eric, 'Don't give up justbecause someone says there's no room for you.' " Eric went back to baseball practice. Two days later he came home with a brand-new uniform. Jimmy said, "I thought they weren't gonna let you play." Eric said, "After they saw me play they changed their minds."
In his senior year the Fremont shortstop and leadoff batter hit .635 with 50 stolen bases in 19 games. He was not caught stealing once. In fact he would not be caught stealing until his second year of pro ball.
In 1980, the Dodgers gave him a tryout. "[Dodger scout] Mike Brito said they'd sign me," says Davis. "They didn't." Brewers scouts timed Eric over 60 yards. "They got me at 6.36. They didn't believe it. They timed me again. Same thing. They didn't sign me."
As it turned out, the only team that had even a slight interest in Davis was Cincinnati, which drafted him in the eighth round, in June 1980, and signed him for $18,000. "I could've played basketball," says Davis. "But my mind was on baseball. I didn't know what I was in for. In high school it was a matter of talent. No one told you what to do."
Now it was a job. He left for rookie league the day after he signed. It took him a while to get accustomed to playing centerfield, and, besides, the Reds were well-stocked with outfielders. Also, the organization had envisioned him as a slap-and-run hitter, and he really didn't want to be. Eventually, though, Davis would begin to turn heads every time he stepped to the plate. Kind of like Hammerin' Hank.
"Eric has wrists like Henry Aaron's," says Parker. "He whips that bat through the strike zone." Aaron, now a vice-president with the Braves, says, "People ask me, 'How do you pitch to him?' Pitchers say, 'Bust him inside, inside, then breaking ball away.' That's how pitchers want to pitch to hitters they don't know what else to do with. But it's not that easy."
Indeed. In Philadelphia on the first weekend in May, Davis went 9 for 13 with five homers, including two grand slams. He hit three of the homers in one game on Sunday, May 3. In the third inning that day, he went with a Kevin Gross curve and hit it out on a line to right center. In the fourth, he jerked a fastball that Dan Schatzeder tried to bust inside and sent it screaming into an upper deck in left center. In the sixth, Schatzeder came in with a curve. E hit it into the seats in center. Only the week before, in Houston, Davis had struck out nine times in a row over two extra-inning games to set a major league record. Clearly, he learns from his mistakes. "He's thinking up there," says Aaron.
"Baseball is not what I love," says Davis. "It's my job."
Look at Eric Davis out of the corner of your eye and you see a resemblance to Roberto Clemente, the flying Buc. Maybe it's the head held at the same high, proud angle. Davis isn't one to smile unless he means it. Like Clemente, when he smiles, his eyes sparkle -- a smile worth waiting for. Like Clemente, he plays with abandon. Last Friday, Davis made a spectacular diving catch of a ball hit by Terry Pendleton of the Cardinals with one out and the bases loaded. He came up throwing and then left the game with an injured shoulder. "The way he plays, he's going to have bumps and bruises, wear and tear," says Rose.
When Davis was in the minors, it was his feelings that were hurt. "There were people in the [Reds] organization who treated me -- excuse the French -- like a piece of ----." One instructor, he says, "belittled me as a man." Davis's eyes do not sparkle. "He told me to beat the ball down, that I'd never be a home run hitter. People were telling me I couldn't accomplish what I wanted. I would've quit if it hadn't been for my father."
Davis telephoned his father in the spring of '81 and told him he was going to college to play basketball like Byron Scott. "I told Eric to stick it out, that maybe they were trying to test him," says Jimmy. "I told him -- I was sorry I had to tell him this -- that sometimes it wouldn't be fair, because of his color. I told him not to let that stop him. God had not given him all that ability just to take it away."
In 1982, Jimmy and Shirley divorced. "You know how the Devil can get in your life," says Jimmy. "But we weren't going to let the children suffer. They would be on their own."
Shirley moved to Orange County, Calif., and then to New York. Jimmy stayed in the house on 66th and Denver. For a long time, when E saw a ballplayer saying "Hi, Mom!" on TV, he would hurt. "My father didn't leave," Davis says, resentfully. "She left."
But Jimmy Davis, who later remarried, kept watch over his son and guided him through the frustrations of the minors. "I told Eric not to let people tell him he couldn't do it," he says. ""I told him, 'One day, they'll come to you.' "
On Friday night, May 8, more than 40,000 came to Riverfront Stadium to welcome Eric Davis and the rampaging Reds back from their road trip to open a series with the Phillies. "Nice to see a big crowd in May," said Rose. They got what they came for. E hit a two-run double. Reds win, 4-2. After the game a retired reporter named Earl Lawson, formerly of the Cincinnati Post, brought baseball cards for Davis to sign. "For my grandkids," said Lawson, who covered the Reds for 34 years and saw them come and go. "I'll keep these for 30 years. They'll really be worth something." "Nah, probably not," said Davis, eyes sparkling.
Reds G.M. Bill Bergesch came by E's cubicle. "Get 'em a different way every night, big E," said Bergesch. "Right, Mr. B," said Davis.
Two days later, on Mother's Day, Davis spanked a Shane Rawley pitch for a three-run homer. After the game, in his townhouse outside Cincinnati, Davis held his 10-month-old daughter, Erica, in his arms for two hours, while Erica's mother and E's fiancee, Sherrie Brewer, was out shopping for dinner. Davis talked contentedly and recalled his own mother's visit last Thanksgiving to the new house he bought in Woodland Hills, Calif. It had been a happy reunion. "The home run today," he said, "was for Shirley and Sherrie."
Monday night, May 11. The Mets are in town. In the fifth, with two on, Rick Aguilera tries to bust E inside. Davis swings viciously. The ball leaves the yard on a line and lands in the yellow seats at Riverfront. Reds win, 12-2. The big E, it seems, gets bigger with every passing game.
"I don't want to be famous," he says. "I want to be secure. I don't want the world. I just want a piece of it. I want people to remember Eric Davis."
Eric Davis? Yeah, he reminds you ... He reminds you of ... E.
For now, let's leave it at that.