When Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry were kids in Los Angeles, playing baseball together and dreaming of their futures in the game, it's safe to say that they never imagined Strawberry suffering a precipitous, self-inflicted decline that would land him in a near-beer league in St. Paul. Nor did they envision Davis's hanging up his cleats because he was sick of spending all his time in post-op. Those circumstances, however, were where the two old friends found themselves before the start of the 1996 season. At that juncture they could only look back at disappointing careers—disappointing because they weren't as phenomenal as had been forecast when Davis and Strawberry had burst on to the scene in the early '80s.
Then something happened. Strawberry, who had been on a downward spiral of heavy drinking, drug abuse and run-ins with the law since 1987, got his act—and his game—together. Meanwhile, Davis's health improved, albeit temporarily. Now, three seasons later, the 36-year-old childhood chums are playing like kids again, much to the chagrin of American League pitchers.
When Davis and Strawberry met as Little Leaguers in South Central L.A., it was natural for them, as the two best players around, to form a bond. "My park played his park in the championship, and we won," says Davis of their initial meeting. Over time they became best friends, playing baseball and basketball together and doing their best to steer clear of the pitfalls that lurked in the neighborhood. Neither viewed baseball as a way out of the mean streets. "It was easy to get out," says Davis. "The hard part was to stay out."
Strawberry will attest to that. After starting his big league career in 1983 with 26 homers and following that with eight more seasons of 25 homers or more, Strawberry, at only 34, was out of the game when he signed to play with the St. Paul Saints in the independent Northern League in 1996. Two months later the Yankees gave him a shot, and he played well down the stretch and in the playoffs as New York won the World Series. Last year, though, an injured left knee limited him to 29 at bats, and in the off-season the Yanks signed Chili Davis to be their DH. But when Chili went down with an ankle injury early this season, Strawberry stepped in and began swinging like the Straw of old. Through Sunday his 22 homers, in only 248 at bats, tied him with Tino Martinez for the club lead. His home run frequency of one every 11.3 at bats was fourth in the majors to Mark McGwire's, Sammy Sosa's and Greg Vaughn's. It wasn't just the sheer number of his taters that had been impressive, either. His homers had been both timely (a pair of ninth-inning pinch-hit grand slams) and mammoth (a 465-footer that was the longest ball ever hit at Camden Yards)
Chili's return from the DL last week figures to cut into Strawberry's playing time, but Straw is content with his status as a role player. "Baseball teams don't need to label guys superstars," says Strawberry. 'Too much is expected from just one player. This team here, we don't believe in that. We believe in a team concept."
Unlike Strawberry, Eric Davis has been able to keep his nose out of trouble. The rest of his body is a different story. Neck, knee, kidney: You name it, he's been hospitalized for it. His return from colon cancer last season was baseball's feel-good story of the year, but in 1998 Davis's newsmaking exploits have been strictly on the field. His .331 batting average through Sunday ranked fourth in the American League, and his 30-game hitting streak, which ended on Aug. 15, was the longest in the majors this season. More impressive, Davis had hit .384 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs since the All-Star break. Not coincidentally, Baltimore had the best record in the majors over that time.
Orioles manager Ray Miller used Davis sparingly early in the season, fearing that the chemotherapy Davis received until February would cause him to tire. "I think it really took its toll for a month or two," says Miller. "You'd see him play three days in a row, and his bat would slow down. But he's gotten beyond that. He's gotten comfortable in the DH role. I would think after a life experience like that, being a DH doesn't bother you so much." It's not as if Davis can't move around should the need arise. When Brady Anderson went down with a strained right patella tendon last week, Miller used Davis in center.
"You can't call him an igniter or a spark," says the Orioles' Cal Ripken Jr. "It's bigger than that To have him put the team on his back, as he has in the second half, you just can't say enough about his impact"
These days, Davis and Strawberry aren't able to speak to each other as often as they used to. "We talk more in the off-season," says Strawberry. "Every year, when it's over, we sit down and joke about how everybody thinks we're not able to produce. But we always seem to find a way"
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