Thirty years ago, the Topps Company produced one of the best baseball card sets of my lifetime. Each of the 1980 cards features a simple but effective design, with small banners in the upper left and lower right corners indicating the player’s position and team, respectively. The design provides a sturdy framework for the card photography, which is consistently clear and vibrant throughout the set, almost without exception. All in all, Topps supplied the set with a good mix of portrait and action shots, giving it a balanced and varied look.
One of my favorite cards in the 1980 set depicts Ron Davis, who is being rediscovered by the baseball world because of his son Ike’s fast rise through the farm system of the Mets. A nondescript minor league reliever with a common name, Ron Davis originally came to the crosstown Yankees from the Cubs in the middle of the 1978 season. Davis was the return for an over-the-hill Ken Holtzman, who had become the bane of both manager Billy Martin and owner George Steinbrenner. Davis was actually the player to be named later in the deal, with the official announcement of his involvement not happening until two days after Holtzman had been dispatched to the Cubs.
Late in the 1978 season, Davis made his major league debut for the Yankees. As I remember rather vividly, he hardly made a stirring impression. The numbers support my memory. In four relief appearances, he coughed up runs at a rate of nearly 12 per nine innings. Numbers aside, Davis didn’t look very impressive from a physical standpoint, either. With his oversize wire-frame sunglasses, pointy nose, and wide hips, the tall and gangly Texan looked like a misshapen schoolteacher. Based on initial reactions, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Davis never pitched in the major leagues again.
Thankfully for the Yankees, my ability to evaluate talent in the late 1970s ranked right up there with my ability to slam-dunk. In 1979, Davis emerged as one of the lone bright spots during a season pockmarked with heartbreaking losses, disabling injuries, and unforeseeable tragedy that came with the passing of Thurman Munson. With Goose Gossage injured and Dick Tidrow slumping horrifically, managers Bob Lemon and Billy Martin began to turn to Davis and his hard, sinking fastball. Throwing from a distinctive three-quarters delivery, he didn’t strike out many batters, but that hardly mattered. It seemed that almost every game Davis entered from the bullpen, he began the proceedings by inducing a double play. Having removed the inherited runners, he usually proceeded to pitch scoreless ball, as the Yankees either clawed back from deficits or broke up ties in the late innings. By the end of the 1979 season, Davis had won 14 games while losing only two. It’s the kind of record that you rarely see from today’s relievers, who are usually restricted to one inning at a time.
Davis’ performance earned him his first card, a spot in Topps’ 1980 set. In a clear-cut action shot seen from the first-base side of the mound at the old Yankee Stadium, Davis is seen at the finish of one of his characteristic whip-like deliveries that became so distasteful to American League hitters.
Logging an incredible 131 relief innings in 1980, Davis fully evolved as the setup man to Gossage. He devoured the sixth, seventh, and sometimes the eighth innings before turning the ball over to the future Hall of Famer. Davis continued to rely on his sinkerball, which made him a constant double play in waiting. And then, in 1981, Davis turned on the gas. On May 4, he offered a glimpse of his renovated pitching style by striking out eight consecutive Oakland batters. Making a stunning transition to power pitching (with a newfound emphasis on high fastballs), Davis proceeded to fan 83 batters in 73 innings during the strike-shortened season. With Davis throwing hard, and Gossage throwing harder and hardest, the Yankees cornered the market on late-inning flames. The two right-handers became the most feared relief tandem in the game, helping the Yankees come within two games of winning the 1981 World Series.
It was also during the 1981 season that Davis made a name for himself as a bit of an everyman. With the major league players opting to go on strike in midseason, Davis didn’t have enough money to sit on his back account. Instead, he took a job as a waiter at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City. On July 18, two walkways at the hotel collapsed, killing 113 people while injuring nearly 200 others. Davis played an active role in the rescue efforts, helping bring some injured people to safety.
Having compiled three brilliant seasons in setup relief, including an All-Star performance in 1981, the 25-year-old Davis appeared destined to eventually inherit the closer’s role from Gossage. Sadly, that never happened. In fact, Davis never pitched for the Yankees again. After Davis reported to spring training in 1982, he watched the Yankees make a major trade on April 1. The April Fool’s deal brought talented reliever Shane Rawley to the Bronx, giving the Yankees a left-handed complement to Gossage. Now overloaded in the pen, the Yankees felt they had something to trade as part of their efforts to bulk up the middle infield. Long admirers of the Twins’ talented, power-hitting shortstop, Roy Smalley, the Yankees pulled off another headline transaction only 10 days later. On April 10, the Yankees acquired the switch-hitting Smalley—at the hefty price of Davis and top shortstop prospect Greg Gagne. It would turn out to be one of the Yankees’ worst trades of the 1980s.
It’s not that Davis blossomed in Minnesota; he did not. Anointed as the Twins’ closer, Davis struggled in his new role. He would never be as dominant in the ninth inning as he had been in the sixth, seventh, and eighth. Still, the Yankees had lost their most valuable relief pitcher, a durable, hard-throwing right-hander who could give them innings—high quality innings, at that—while also closing games on days that Gossage wasn’t available. And if Davis had remained in New York, he would have eventually replaced Gossage as closer, allowing Dave Righetti to remain in the rotation—a position from which he never should have been removed.
After four mediocre seasons in Minnesota, Davis bounced from the Cubs to the Dodgers to the Giants, finishing out a journeyman career in 1988. Though only 32 years of age, Davis‘ days in the major leagues had ended. He exited the baseball stage just as quietly as he entered it. To this day, I rarely hear Yankee fans talk about Ron Davis. It’s as if he were a ghost that never really donned pinstripes for those four seasons in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The only time that I hear anyone mention him is in association with his offspring, Ike Davis, who could be playing first base for the Mets in 2011, if not sooner.
The saga of the older Davis does make you wonder. At one time, he was a dominant setup reliever who seemed primed for a long career as a standout closer—the successor to Goose Gossage. If Davis can become forgotten that quickly, perhaps anyone can.
At least I have his 1980 Topps card to trigger my memory.