SURPRISE, ARIZONA--A quick look around the Rangers clubhouse leaves me feeling that, despite the overall luxury, this is less a professional locker room than it is a halfway house for could-have-beens, used-to-bes and hope-they-still-cans. It's a sad sight, a total downer. (They have buckets of workout powder in this joint--Creatine and protein and such--but I'm convinced the containers really are filled with anti-depressants.)
In one corner, off near the entrance to the therapy and lunch rooms, sits Mike Lamb. He's doing a crossword puzzle. Lamb is a good guy with a disposition that always trumped his abilities at third base. Yesterday he was the future. Today he has a stall and a uniform to wear. Tomorrow is less certain.
Down the way a little bit, just a few lockers from Lamb, Ruben Sierra bullshits with A-Rod in Spanish. Sierra is the on-again, off-again, who-knows-now? Rangers outfielder who enraptured you in the late '80s and early '90s. That was before everything unraveled a few years ago and he had to work his way back through another minor league tour.
There are more revival projects here, more unknowns doubling as ballplayers--Juan Gonzalez and Carl Everett and the list goes on. Doug Davis might be at the top of that list. Like the rest, he's got a job. For now. Like the rest, nothing guarantees that he'll be in Arlington midway through the season--or even in Surprise a week from now.
"Sometimes plans don't go as planned," Davis offers, perhaps opening up more to himself than to me. "Sometimes life is hard."
Since 1999, that's been the familiar, if unfortunate, refrain rattling around his head. Through last season Davis was trumpeted as a serious prospect, a pitcher with an able left arm and the ability to help reform a Rangers staff that has been subpar at best. Though Davis pitched in the majors in each of the past three seasons, he also took the mound in Tulsa in '99 and Oklahoma City over the past two years. Those are minor league stops, places you don't want to frequent when you've been in the Bigs. Last year was perhaps his most deflating. He started the season with the Rangers and pitched well (2-0 with his first ever complete-game shutout). Things looked good, went as planned. But, well, you already know about Davis and plans.
By May everything had fallen apart, and he was optioned to OKC. It might as well have been a penal colony. He was cut off from his family, who stayed in Texas, while each pitch only served to remind him of the better life he'd left behind. From there, things went from bad to worse--he was exiled to winter ball in Azucareros, Dominican Republic. Not exactly the chosen destination of the stars.
"It was tougher on my family more than anything," says Davis, who suffered an 8-10 record combined in '02. "I bought a house in Texas, but I only spent, like, 80 days there together with my family [wife and two kids, one of each]. Eighty days, that's it; the whole year. The rest of the time I spent living out of a suitcase in OK City or on the road.
"It's part of the learning process. I got sent down, I went to the Dominican--I mean, that's almost like being out of baseball. But that was last year, and I don't want to talk about last year. That was last year; talk about this year all you want, but I'm done with last year."
That's probably for the best. For him especially, but for you and me, too. It's no secret that last season was an abomination in the way of pitching. Not just for Davis, but for nearly all of them. He is part of a pitching posse that may as well be wearing big black hats and evil, mustachioed smirks, considering how it's been (rightly) vilified. What Davis can take from that is small consolation--the fact that earning a spot in the starting rotation has to be a lot easier here than, say, Oakland. Or even some bar leagues, for that matter. It doesn't hurt, either, that Davis is a left-hander on a team dominated by righties or that he's out of options (meaning that the Rangers can't send him back to the minors without risking losing him to another team).
"Hopefully he's in a position that he separates himself from the pack," says manager Buck Showalter while spitting tobacco juice into an empty 12-ounce Dasani water bottle. "He knows the opportunity is there for him, but it's up to him to take advantage of it. We're certainly aware that he's out of options, and to say that that's not a factor wouldn't be completely frank.
"His being left-handed is certainly something that I'm aware of. I've talked to you guys about how well left-handed hitters play in our ballpark, and hopefully left-handed pitchers. But I'm not going to take a guy just because he's left-handed if he's not better than the competition."
To that end, Davis has been aided by pitching coach Orel Hershiser. Somehow, Hershiser has managed to stay sane enough to impart some of the wisdom he accumulated during his stead as a Cy Young winner with the Dodgers. ("Cy Young" and "Rangers" in the same column. How long before God smites me?)
"Working with Orel is awesome, just awesome," Davis gushes. "He's a big help. He's always positive, but then he has his on-the-field attitude; he's a bulldog, that's why they call him that. You know, the old bulldog is still out there, you can still see it. Every now and then he'll snap--snap a ball at you or whatever. It's all in fun, but he's got that edge, and there's a reason for that.
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"You know, actually, I despised him and Kirk Gibson back in the day. I'm from Oakland, and I was an Oakland A's fan back in '88 (when the Dodgers won the World Series). I hated him for that. I didn't really like him. But I didn't know the guy. He's great now. But they won, so I can't really bust his balls that much over it."
Right. I seem to recall some cliché or another about victors and their spoils. But for some reason I can't get my head around the idea of "Rangers pitching" and "winning." Point is, Hershiser was good. Really good. Davis isn't, but he'd like to be.
"I don't have any more options, so that helps me out," Davis says. "Unless no one else is interested, then I could accept a Triple A job, and I'm not really settling for that right now. I want to be with the big club."
Don't they all. He'll probably make it--hell, they might take you if you were left-handed and could get the ball over the plate without skipping it--but how long he stays is another matter entirely. Whatever happens, someone ought to pass Davis the Prozac.