TBT: Eric the Red's epic 162-game run in 1986-87
This is mostly about one year of baseball. It's not a calendar year, because Eric Davis did not have a calendar-year kind of career. He had a baseball life that was splintered into pieces, a career stopped and started by injuries small and large, by colon cancer and movement from team to team, a career swirl of impossible brilliance mixed with swings and misses.
But for one year, when Davis was young, he played a sort of surreal baseball. The statistics look imaginary -- cannot wait to show them to you. The reality was even better than the statistics.
Baseball has its share of folk heroes, of players who for too short a time exploded our minds. Bo Jackson was such a player; he only had one season of 500 at-bats, but he did so many things -- broke a bat over head, ran up a wall, hit a homer off Nolan Ryan that seemed it would never land and threw Harold Reynolds out an impossible throw from the wall -- that remain lodged in memory.
Mark Fidrych was such a player. Joe Charboneau was such a player. Dwight Gooden. Hideo Nomo. You can think of others.
Think of Eric Davis as the greatest folk hero of them all.
Davis was a basketball player first. He averaged 29 points and 10 assists a game at Fremont High School in Los Angeles, and he was recruited by just about every school in the Pac-10. Davis had no doubt that he would play in the NBA. He probably would have played in the NBA. But then baseball scouts started coming out to watch Davis play, and he barely even knew how to play baseball. That stopped him cold.
"I chose baseball because I would have to wait for four years before I could make the pros," Davis told reporters. "I didn't want to go to school that long."
Ah, the 1980s. This was years before the one-and-done college basketball player. If one-and-done had been a thing back then, Davis probably would never have played baseball.
As it was, with all those scouts already interested. Davis decided to put some energy into baseball his senior year. He hit either .531 or .635 (accounts differ) and stole 50 bases. Davis' great friend and rival from crosstown Crenshaw High School, Darryl Strawberry, was the first overall pick in the 1980 Draft. The Reds took Davis in the eighth round.
Cincinnati did not know quite what to make of Davis. Was he a leadoff hitter? His speed said he was. Scouts see fast players all the time, but Davis was a different kind of fast -- world-class fast. He ran so easily that when scouts timed him running down the line, they did comical double-takes as they looked at their stopwatches. Davis stole 40 bases in 62 games in his first full year of professional baseball, and he barely knew how to take a lead.
But maybe Davis was a cleanup hitter. He had that kind of massive power. When Davis made it to the big leagues in 1984, he was just 22 years old, raw as he could be, a strikeout machine. But on sheer talent and strength, he hit five home runs in a four-game stretch in September.
"Wait 'til he learns how to play this game," then-Cincinnati manager Pete Rose said.
Yes, just wait. It did take a little while longer than Rose or Davis expected. His 1985 was a wash -- he was an extraordinary athlete, probably one of the 10 best to ever play Major League Baseball, but as he would say years later, he just wasn't a natural hitter. Davis chased a lot of bad pitches. He often fouled off the meatball pitches. Davis couldn't think with the pitcher, couldn't adjust to the curve. One of the sad truths about baseball is that some great athletes never could learn how to hit.
Davis refused to be one of those players. He never got the credit for how hard he worked in those years -- often with Rose -- to learn the subtleties of hitting. On June 10, 1986, Davis was hitting .198, and there were questions if he would ever get it.
The next 162 games are … well, just wait until you see the numbers.
Baseball fans of the 1980s will remember this … this was a time when players who combined great power with great speed were the holy grail. This is alway true, probably, but it was especially true in the '80s, and the measuring stick was the 30-30 season.
Ah, the old 30-homer, 30-stolen-base season. Remember? Up to 1987, only six players had ever done it. An underrated player of the '20s named Ken Williams was the only player to do it before '50. Willie Mays did it in back-to-back years in '56-57. Henry Aaron did it quietly in '63. Tommy Harper did it in '70 for the Brewers; that was a huge surprise, as Harper was a small guy who never hit even 20 homers every other year. Dale Murphy did it in '83.
And then there was Bobby Bonds. It's easy to forget that Bonds was a freak of nature. He had five 30-30 seasons in the 1970s for five teams (he split one of the seasons between the Rangers and the White Sox). For San Francisco, Bonds came within a homer of a 40-40 season in '73, 24 years before his son did it.
So up to June 11, 1986, Bonds was the the most perfect version of the power-speed guy anyone could imagine.
Davis changed everything. In 1987, four players, including Davis and Strawberry (along with Joe Carter and Howard Johnson), had 30-30 seasons. Jose Canseco did it the next year. Then came Barry Bonds and Ron Gant.
Back to Davis. On June 13, he stole a base as a pinch-runner. The next day, Davis singled as a pinch-hitter. Rose started him on June 15, and he hit a three-run homer. The next day, Davis started again and stole a base. The day after that, he stole two bases. The next day, Davis homered again.
Looking back, it's not easy to tell when people began to realize that Davis was, as the 1980s expression goes, tilting the pinball machine. Maybe it was June 23 when he stole three bases. Maybe it was July 4, when Davis homered and stole a base for the second time in a week. Maybe it was July 10, when he hit what Rose would call the longest opposite-field home run he ever saw in Montreal.
Then maybe it wasn't until that game in San Francisco on Sept. 10. Nobody who was there will ever forget it. Not many were there. The official count was 5,571 in Candlestick Park, but there probably weren't even that many there. These were two middling teams, the Reds and the Giants, both hovering around .500, both on the fringe of being contenders. Nobody really cared.
Davis was hitting cleanup, and he came up with a man on in the first inning against Giants starter Vida Blue. He homered. In the bottom of the inning, Davis ran to the wall, leaped and stole a home run from San Francisco's Rick Lancellotti.
Davis came up again in the third, and he homered again. In the fifth, he singled, stole second and came around to score. In the seventh, Davis reached on an error (his speed spooked defenders) and came around to score. In the eighth, he hit a monstrous opposite-field home run off Mark Davis.
That's a 4-for-5 night with three homers, five runs, four RBIs, a stolen base and a stolen homer.
Rose then took Davis out of the game, taking away his chances to hit four homers. Rose admitted that he didn't think his spot in the lineup would come up again (it did in the ninth with the bases loaded). Davis shrugged. There would be other opportunities.
"I was fortunate to see great players like Mays and Aaron, but I've said this before -- he's the only guy in the league who can hit fourth and lead the league in stolen bases," Rose said.
"He reminds me of Hank Aaron," Giants manager Roger Craig said, "except that he can run better than Aaron."
"I don't remind myself of anybody," Davis said.
Davis, absurdly, was even better in 1987. On Opening Day, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, a homer and two stolen bases. Ten games into the season, Davis was hitting .526 with four homers and eight stolen bases. On May 1, he hit two home runs, including a grand slam. Two days later, Davis hit three more runs -- one to left, one to center and one to right. One of those was a grand slam, too. He also stole a base.
"Nothing surprises me anymore," Rose said. "He can be as good as he wants to be."
Later in the month, Davis hit his third grand slam, becoming the first to hit three in one month.
OK, we've waited long enough. Do you want to see the 162-game numbers for Davis, starting June 11, 1986 and ending July 4, 1987? Get ready for it, because it will not disappoint:
Davis played in 162 games, starting 152. He got 659 plate appearances. It is basically a full year.
Over that stretch, Davis hit .308/.406/.622 with 47 homers, 149 runs, 123 RBIs and 98 stolen bases (getting caught just 12 times).
In the equivalent of one year of baseball, Davis just about had a 50-100 … 50 homers and 100 stolen bases. It's almost laughable. It looks like a baseball video game on cheat mode. You can look and look through the history of baseball. You will not find anything quite like that.
What happened to Davis after that is, well, hard and cold reality … and one of the greatest anticlimaxes in baseball history. In 1987, Davis crashed into the wall at Wrigley Field going after a fly ball and slowed. He still finished with a 30-30 season … actually it was a 37-homer, 50-stolen-base season. That '87 season remains unique in this way. Nobody else who has hit 37 homers in a season has stolen 50 bases.
Davis continued to play wonderful baseball, but the injuries took their toll. He never played 140 games in a season. Davis ran less (after 1987, he never again stole 40 bases in a season). He hit 34 home runs in '89 and never again hit 30. The batting averages started to tumble. The body started to break down.
In 1995, Davis missed the entire season as he battled colon cancer. It looked like his career was done. But Davis refused to stop. In '96, even though he was 34, he flashed some of the old magic. Davis hit .287/.394/.523 with 26 homers and 23 stolen bases, and he was the runaway pick for Comeback Player of the Year.
At 36 years old, in Baltimore, Davis hit .327 with 28 home runs and actually received an American League Most Valuable Player Award vote in 1998. He then kicked around with the Cardinals and Giants at the end. and he retired at 39.
It was, in the end, a very nice career complete with three Gold Glove Awards, and even with all the injuries, Davis remains one of just 23 players with 250 homers and 250 stolen bases in his career. The list includes some all-time greats like Mays and Joe Morgan, Ryne Sandberg and Derek Jeter. It also includes some names that might surprise you, like Steve Finley, Hanley Ramirez and Reggie Sanders.
But, sure, we all thought it would be better. "The greatest player on earth," one magazine story called Davis after that 1987 season, and that's sure how it felt. You know, three people voted him for the Hall of Fame in 2007. Davis did not have quite a Hall of Fame career, not when you look at the totality of it, but when I asked one of the people who voted for him why, he said something interesting: "Yeah, but he was the best player I ever saw."
Well, Davis was that. For one year, Eric the Red just might have been the best player any of us ever saw.