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.
"Eric is the one guy who can lead our league in home runs and stolen bases," says Pete Rose, Davis's manager. "Name me another cleanup hitter who can steal 100 bases. Name one. It's like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout."
"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.