You can add the name of Alvin Davis to the list of great rookie performers of all time, alongside Fred Lynn (1975, American League MVP), Barbra Streisand (1968, Best Actress), Wilt Chamberlain (1960, NBA MVP), and Alexander the Great (335 B.C., All World). Since joining Seattle in the first week of the season after first baseman Ken Phelps was injured, Davis, 23, has become one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. At the end of last week he led the AL in slugging (.656) and was third in home runs (12), hitting (.338) and RBIs (39). Now, when Davis comes to bat, he gets lots of respect. To wit:
After Davis hit five doubles and a homer against Oakland in three April games in Seattle, the A's walked him seven times in three May games in Oakland. "I've never seen anybody pitched to like they pitched to you in Oakland," Seattle manager Del Crandall told Davis later. "And I played with Hank Aaron and Willie Mays."
After Davis hit two homers against California, the Angels retaliated by going into a Ted Williams shift against Davis: Shortstop Dick Schofield moved to the right side of second base, and third baseman Doug DeCinces played the left side of the infield by himself. "Isn't that a pretty good tribute to a rookie so early in his career?" says Seattle hitting coach Ben Hines, who first tutored Davis in 1980 in the Alaska Summer League, then in his last two seasons ('81 and '82) at Arizona State. Even Williams didn't see the shift until the fourth season of his major league career.
In Seattle, where the populace has generally viewed the Mariners as it views the raindrops—they're here, so we might as well get used to them—Davis has become the talk of the town. After he hit a three-run homer off Minnesota's Mike Smithson on May 3 to spark a 6-2 win, Davis got only the second curtain call in the M's eight-year history. (The first went to Tom Paciorek after he hit a home run to beat the Yankees one night in 1981.) "Alvin has been acclaimed as the first true baseball hero in Seattle," says team president Chuck Armstrong. "And he's not someone we traded for, like Gay-lord Perry." Adds publicity director Bob Porter, "We kept telling the fans, 'Just wait. The kids are on the way.' Alvin is the first one to come through our minor league system and stick." Davis's popularity was never more evident than after the injury he suffered in Yankee Stadium on Saturday night. May 12, in a game televised back to Seattle.
He hit a third-inning double off the right-centerfield wall to give the Mariners a 2-0 lead. Then, in the bottom of the fourth, New York leftfielder Steve Kemp hit a sharp grounder to first. Davis saw the ball take its second hop, then didn't see it again until it was right in front of his face. He stopped the ball with the right side of his nose and went down as if he had been shot.
Davis's nose and right eye were so battered that the team flew him back to Seattle the next day so he could undergo a CAT scan for possible eye damage. But the medical conclusion was that Davis had suffered only a badly broken nose. Interest in Davis's well-being was so great in Seattle that the club had to call a press conference to announce the test results. Davis missed only four games. "If it didn't hurt too much, there wasn't any reason to sit around and do nothing," he says.
Not only are Davis's big, brown eyes the highlights of one of baseball's best smiles, but they also are the keys to what has been one of this season's best swings. "When the ball is three or four feet out of the pitcher's hand," says Hines, "Alvin can tell what direction, movement and speed it's gonna have when it gets into his hitting zone. Part of that is visual acuity, but it's also visualization. His vision gives him patience. He knows he can get the bat head through the zone. He comes across like a 10-or 12-year veteran."
Davis says, "I don't have superior vision. I'm 20-20. Ben doesn't mean the physical ability to see, but the way I perceive things. When I'm going good, I never swing at bad pitches." Last year at Class AA Chattanooga, Davis walked 120 times in 131 games. After 43 games this season, he had 32 walks. Of course, Davis frequently gets walked because pitchers prefer to work around him, realizing that there is no big bat behind him. Now that Gorman Thomas is gone for the season with a torn rotator cuff, the Mariner batting order looks more and more like Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Indeed, about the only other thumper the Mariners have is Phelps, 29, whose finger injury gave Davis his chance to play. Davis didn't get a real test in spring training because Crandall had promised Phelps the first shot at taking first base away from veteran Pat Putnam. Phelps displaced Putnam, but his tenure lasted three games. His first-base job gone, Phelps returned as a DH May 18 and has added five homers to the two he hit before he was hurt.
Davis has a history of being overlooked. After hitting .370 and 10 home runs as a sophomore at ASU in 1980, he "slumped" to .395 and four homers as a junior. A lung infection had sapped his strength and, ultimately, his bargaining power; Davis wasn't chosen until the sixth round in the June 1981 free-agent draft. Oakland picked him, but Davis turned the A's down because he felt their $30,000 offer was $20,000 short. "A lot of scouts questioned whether I really wanted to play after that," Davis says. "It's real easy to be misunderstood. I believe I'm happier this way. I got a [finance] degree, which I'm very proud of."