Reds History

The Best I Ever Saw

I have been following baseball all my life, and 1967 was the first season that I have clear memories of the games, statistics, and players (Vada Pinson and Jim Maloney were my favorites then).  That era is as far in the past today as the 1919 Reds were when I as 12, and the Big Red Machine is now farther in the past than my dad’s 1940 Reds (and his hero Ernie Lombardi) was in 1975.  I have seen the Reds greats from Pete to Joey, and everyone in between, Hall of Famers and comets, and many, many great moments.  The best I ever saw peaked 30 years ago this month, and I thought I would recount the absolute wonder of Eric Davis in the first two months of the 1987 season.  It was before the injuries, the ring, the controversies, and the overwhelming media presence that can turn anyone into a viral sensation in a day, and it was the finest sustained performance of all round baseball I have ever seen.  Let’s go back in the time machine to 1987…

Davis SwingEric Davis was the Reds 8th round pick in the 1980 draft, and it took him a while to work his way through the Reds system.  Extraordinarily fast, some in the Reds organization wanted him to focus on hitting the ball on the ground (sound familiar Reds fans?).  In his first two trials he struggled in the eyes of traditional observers, hitting for a low average with a high for the era strikeout rate.  In retrospect, they focused on what Davis couldn’t do at the time (make consistent contact and hit for average) and ignored what he could do (everything else). He had another slow start in 1986 (a .200/.298/.367 slash line on May 31st) but he warmed up in early June and finally became a regular in the outfield on June 15th.   In July, he won the NL Player of the month with a .381/.465/.702 slash line, with 6 HR, 16 RBI, and 25 SB in 26 attempts.  He cooled off (duh) the rest of the year, but ended the 1986 season with a .277/.378/.523 line with 27 HR, 71 RBI, 97 Runs, and 80 steals in 91 attempts.  He joined Rickey Henderson as the only players at the time to post a 20 HR/80 SB season.  Keep in mind that due to his slow start, he posted those totals in only 109 starts.  His 5.3 bWAR led the Reds and ranked 6th in the National League.

In a masterpiece of understatement, the Reds 1987 media guide noted that “He is expected to be in CF on a regular basis in 1987”.  The heroics started on Opening Day, when with the Reds down 4-0 in the second inning Davis led off with a home run. He added an RBI single in the Reds 9 run 4th (which also featured Terry Francona’s only home run as a Red).   Through April 22nd, Davis had a .442/.500/.846 when he had the only really bad games in first part of the 1987 season.  Facing Mike Scott, Davis struck out in his last four at bats of a 4-3 11 inning Reds win.  The next night, facing Nolan Ryan, Eric struck five more times, making it 9 in a row (the Reds won 3-0).  He ended April with another NL Player of the Month award, with a .364/.437/.727 line with 7 HR, 16 RBI, 20 Runs, and 9 SB.

And then he raised his stratospheric game to an even higher level.

Davis StrawberryThe peak was a weekend series against Philadelphia on May 1-3.  Davis went 9-13, with 5 homers (2 of them grand slams), 11 RBI, 7 runs and a steal.  After the final game of the series, he was hitting a ridiculous .411/.475/.900.  The next game he stole a home run from his boyhood teammate Darryl Strawberry in a 2-0 Reds win.  On May 30th, he hit his third grand slam of the month as the Reds beat the Pirates 6-2.  The May line of .329/.404/.841 with 12 HR, 36 RBI, 23 runs, and 11 steals (in 11 attempts) easily gave him his second straight Player of the Month award, becoming the fourth player to win it in consecutive months (previously accomplished by Bob Gibson, Dave Parker, and Don Mattingly).  He had won three of the last five NL Player of the Month awards, a record only exceeded once since (Mark McGwire won three straight from Sep 1997 thru May 1998).  The equivalent of going viral in 1987 was making the cover of Sports Illustrated, and Eric was there on the May 25th issue.

Davis SIThe article was written by Ralph Wiley, and the sub-headline stated “Cincinnati’s Eric Davis, known as E, reminds some of Mays, Aaron, and Clemente”.  The article talked about his upbringing and the importance of his father Jimmy to his career.  It also touched on his struggles in the minors (Davis considered quitting in 1981 to play college basketball).  The rest of the article consisted of relentless superlatives and comparisons – Eric did his best to dispel such comparisons, quoted as saying “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 people I face every day? Tim Raines is the best?  Mattingly is the best?  Why not compare me to my peers?”

Daniels Davis ParkerThe highlight plays continued even as Davis regressed to a more human level of play.  He stole home runs from Jack Clark in back to back games in June.  He missed several games with an injured ankle but was the leadoff hitter and starting LF for the National League in the All-Star game.  He had another strong month in July (.348/.434/.641) but slumped in August.  On September 4th, he was involved in a play that symbolized Davis’ future career with the Reds.  With the two on and two out and the Reds clinging to a 4-3 lead at Wrigley, Brian Dayett launched a drive to the ivy.  Davis ran it down, made the game saving catch and crashed into the bricks.  The resulting rib injury knocked Eric out of the lineup and eliminated the Reds slim chance to steal a division in 1987.   Davis, Kal Daniels (who posted one of the great seasons in Reds history with a .334/.429/.617 line), and a good bullpen carried the overmatched Reds to a second place finish behind the Giants (the starting pitching was really bad, sound familiar Reds fans?).  Eric’s 7.9 bWAR (in 129 games) was the second highest in the National League that year (behind Tony Gwynn), and the 11th best for a position player in team history (a list dominated by Big Red Machine members and Frank Robinson).  Andre Dawson of the last place Cubs somehow won the MVP (his 4.0 WAR wasn’t in the top 15 of the NL), as writers in the 1980’s were obsessed by RBI counts (a league leading 137) and narrative – Dawson had signed a blank contract to play for the Cubs in 1987 during the height of the collusion era.

ERic Davis 30 30The run environment in 1987 (4.52 runs/game) was similar to 2016 (4.44), which makes Davis’ numbers in retrospect even more amazing.  For the first two months of 1987, he averaged .346/.420/.786 with 19 HR, 52 RBI, 43 runs, 20 steals and 22 attempts.  Per 162 games it translates to 74 HR, 201 RBI, 166 runs and 78 steals.  Who has delivered that combination since then for an extended period?  He was basically a half of a Big Red Machine, combining Pete’s hitting for average, Johnny’s power, Joe’s speed, and Cesar’s defense.  Joey Votto was incredible in the second half last year (.408/.490/.668) – and if you combine his offensive ability with Billy Hamilton’s speed and defense, you would have a decent proxy for Eric Davis at his peak.  Mike Trout was awesome last year – .315/.441/.550 with 29 homers and 30 steals.  If you double his home runs and steals you still don’t have Eric Davis rate stats in early 1987.  Of course, annualizing a relatively short two month period can lead to some crazy numbers.  What if you look at what Davis actually posted for the 162 games after he finally cracked the starting lineup for good on June 15th, 1986?

.304/.402/.619 48 HR, 124 RBI, 151 Runs, 96 steals (90% success rate)

Seriously, who has done that?  Bonds and Ruth may have created more runs (and we will see what May 2017 holds for Bryce Harper), but with the steals and Gold Glove defense in CF?  Credit to Joel Luckhaupt for the 1986-87 combined stats.

He did it all in era when one had to hope the highlights were captured on Sportscenter or the local news.  There was no MLB Network and only about 45 games a year were shown locally on WLWT.  The only networks that presented games nationally were TBS and WGN, so if the Reds weren’t playing the Braves or Cubs, odds are you didn’t see Eric’s heroics live.

There is no player I would want to see more under the Statcast microscope (along with  Davey Concepcion in the field).  Eric was the smartest player I ever saw, and his resilience was remarkable.  He won the Comeback Player of the Year with the Reds in 1996 after retiring in 1994, and played well while being treated for colon cancer with the Orioles in 1997.  And thirty years ago, he was the best I ever saw.

“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.” Sports Illustrated, May 25, 1987.

Eric, everyone that saw you play in 1987 remembers.

Sources:  Redleg Journal, Greg Rhodes and John Snyder, Sports Illustrated May 25, 1987 and the incomparable Baseball Reference.

Davis Fantasy Camp

The Author with Eric Davis, 2017 Reds Fantasy Camp

 

35 thoughts on “The Best I Ever Saw

  1. Davis still has the fastest wrist I’ve ever seen. And I remember a homerun I seen at RFC against( i believe Padres )where he hit a left field shot and it hit upper deck and actually ricochet upward not down. Still to this day on TV it’s one of the hardest line HR shots I can remember.

  2. “Eric, everyone that saw you play in 1987 remembers.” That they do, Gregory. That they do. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. He was the best I ever saw talent-wise. Granted, I didn’t get to see Mays or Aaron and other greats. But, I did see ED.

    What a shame. He was a sure-fire HOF talent that was derailed by the very same body that gifted him with his talent. More than anything, he’s my greatest “what if?” player.

    • I met and talked with Eric Davis at a Pensacola Blue Wahoos game two weeks ago. I told him I thought he would be in the HOF if he hadn’t gotten hurt. He responded that he wouldn’t change a thing because all his injuries made him who he is today. I am glad he is working with the Reds organization. He was a great ball player and talent wise was certainly one of the best ever for the Reds. He was a HOF talent for sure. He is also a classy individual.

      • That is a great story, Dewey. And, I too am glad that he came back to the organization. He should be a positive influence on a lot of young players both for the way he played the game and how he carries himself. And it’s nice to hear his perspective on the issue.

  3. Great player Greg. He was like Billy Hamilton in the field and can hit. Another thing to remember is that he played his career on astroturf. How much longer could he have played had he played on natural turf. I will never forget the catch he made in Game 4 of the 1990 World Series. He was injured on the play, but chances are we would not have won that game if he doesn’t make that catch and momentum might have shifted to the A’s.

    • Davis threw someone out, but thinking that was game 1? Billy Hatcher and Jose Rijo stole the show, but that organ rupture (spleen wasnt’ it) during that dive in WS did a number on Reds chances of sustaining some success.

      As much as anything, I loved seeing Davis get on first and steal 2nd and 3rd. Nowadays, players often don’t even get the chance, red lights, fear of injuries, poor coaching of base-running, etc.

      Ray Knight didn’t like Davis stealing 3rd, but the rest of us did. Man was he fast.

      As an Atlantan growing up, all I could remember is going to Reds games and it feeling like a home game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I also remember getting to a game late, first inning had started and we’re walking across the parking lot. I am wanting to run of course to catch the game. I hear cheers erupt (Reds tended to get the stadium fuller than most other teams), and I just knew what it was…Nick Esasky hitting a home run. He was from Marietta and tore the Braves up…then Braves/Red Sox and Vertigo derailed him.

      Ah, the memories.

      Another is listening to a crackling and popping 700 WLW broadcast, hearing background noises while Joe and Marty call the game. Joe being play by play tended to go silent for 5-10 seconds at a time, or longer. I sometimes would think I lost the signal again. Maybe those darn overpowerd Cuban stations or some thunderstorm between Cincy and Atlanta, but nope, Joe pipes back up in that low, calm, wonderful voice and I am back to imagining the action.

  4. By far my favorite Reds player in my 40+ years as a fan. Had his poster on my wall growing up. The power/speed combination was one of a kind.
    Thanks for the article, pleasure to read

    • I had his poster on my childhood wall as well. Him, Chris Sabo (later) and Mario Lemieux and some hot swimsuit model or two, but I can’t remember which ones, but I do remember the sports posters. Oh, and we had little felt pennants of all the NFL teams. I bet those are worth good money now and I still got em.

  5. Nice article. In my 43 years of following the Reds he is best all around player I have ever saw.
    I got cold chills and the hair stood up on the back of my neck when he took Dave Stewart deep in 90. I will never forget that moment.

  6. I am so glad that ED and the Reds mended fences after the Marge Schott monkey business and Eric has a continuing role in the organization. What an incredible player. Thanks for the happy memories Eric Davis and for the nice write up. 🙂

  7. He held his hands low but could still rip a fastball. That big wad in his cheek and the bat swaying back & forth! What a great ballplayer and Red.
    And of course the play where he ran down the ball off the wall and gunned down Bobby Bonilla at 3rd in the 1990 NLCS.

    • I used to mimic that swing when I was battling my brother one-on-one in the side suburban yard with tennis balls. Those were the easy, lazy, pre-adult hood days.

  8. Great article. I’m not quite old enough to remember Pinson, but I grew up watching the Machine, and agree — those two seasons, he was the best all-around Red I ever saw.

    In 1986-87 I remember thinking there was no limit to what this guy could do. Too bad all those injuries (and cancer in his 30’s!!!) derailed “what could have been…”

    I also agree it’s great to see him and the Reds organization on good terms again.

  9. This summarizes very well why Eric is always one of the five outfielders on my on my all-time great Reds team.

  10. One thing I have been wanting to see is someone like Hal McCoy compare Cesar Geronimo in CF to Billy Hamilton. I’ve always heard even as a kid how good the Chief was in center, but it would be interesting to compare him to Hamilton or Davis.

    Kal Daniels was a heck of a hitter too off those Reds teams and like Eric the Red could have been another story if he could have stayed healthy.

  11. Thanks for the memories Greg. E was one of the all time greats and a personal favorite. In baseball in college and then for years after in softball games I would always slap my left leg with the glove when camped under a fly ball as my own tribute to Eric Davis. I have no idea what year it was or what opponent, but I remember an extra inning game at Riverfront when Davis hit an opposite field home run just a few seats away from us in right field for a walk off win. One of the highlights of my too infrequent trips to Cincinnati. Awesome!

  12. I turned 11 that summer. I was always tracking Davis’s stats, back when it was much harder to do. We didn’t get a lot of Reds games in Indy, so I listened to every game possible on the radio.

    Davis was not only a great player, but he was also the epitome of coolness.

    • and did you, like me, wake up and quickly grab the sports section and check box scores of the night before? We had Atlanta Constitution morning paper and I hated those west-coast swings since box scores were just “Late” and not in the paper. We’d always be more than a full day behind with box scores, but I would still check it intently.

  13. I think I remember Barry Larkin calling him out as the best player he ever played with during his HOF speech.

    Also on FS1 the other night with Paul O’Neill speaking and showing flashbacks of the 1990 team he even said that had they not won game 4 without Eric Davis anything could have happened. Thankfully they won Game 4 but shows how much everyone on those teams acknowledge he was their star.

  14. Thanks for the great article Greg. I was at the game on September 4 in Wrigley. Whenever I think of Eric Davis it is that catch and him crashing into the wall flashes through my mind. I can still see it.

    • Another thing I remember about that game is that I was recently engaged and sat there the entire game extolling the virtues of Eric Davis to my fiancee. Now that she is my wife she has to hear about me yap constantly about Joey Votto and Billy Hamilton.

  15. I have met Eric “the Red” in Spring Training the last few years. Each and every time, he is personable as well as professional. He was a special, special talent for the Reds and he, along with Barry Larkin, are the very reason I’m a Reds fan.

  16. Hey, Greg! Very nice story, and there were a couple of points which hit me particularly close to home. One, the 1987 magazine article you referred to — on page 47 of that particular issue is a photo of Eric Davis reaching into the stands and signing an autograph. Immediately behind him is a guy whose face you can see half of — a guy with a mustache (at the time). That was me! 🙂 (I can’t add images to comments.) I was on field in my news reporting role at the time. So I can tell people honestly that my photo has been in Sports Illustrated. 😉 Also, I was at the first Reds fantasy camp (then called “Dream Week”) in 1986 in Tampa. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I, and I’m sure you, recommend to any Reds fan.

  17. Greg, thanks for nice story and the great memories. Living in NW Ohio, most of my early memories of Eric Davis are from TV. My last year of college we had WTBS, WGN and WOR, so I can still recall Davis trading multiple HR’s with Dale Murphy, dashing from first to third on a failed pickoff attempt, the cheap shot punch by Ray Knight of the Mets.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in the belief that his game 1 HR in the 1991 World Series set the tone for the sweep. I thought Dave Stewart and the A’s were invincible, and I remember being stunned when Davis homered.

    I didn’t see ED too many times in person, but he had a big hit each time I did.

  18. Excellent article! I loved your memories as well as all the stats. I was a 12 year old kid in ’87 and remember how great Eric Davis truly was. I had a friend who was a big big fan. We lived in the Chicago suburbs and even way out here we knew how great he was. He was one of the great athletes that played baseball. Those stats were unreal! Thanks for the letting us relive the memories!

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