Monday, November 28, 2011
The return of Chili DavisPosted by Bruce Markusen
Under ordinary circumstances, the hiring and firing of hitting coaches doesn’t generate much in the way of headlines or analysis. In the case of the Oakland A's, however, the hiring of Chili Davis creates some legitimate interest. It marks the return of a hitter who enjoyed a successful 19-year career to the ranks of the big leagues, where the A's hope he can turn around of a drowsy offense.
Charles “Chili” Davis was one of my favorite players of the 1980s and '90s. First, I loved the nickname, a shortening of “Chili Bowl,” the words used to describe a ghastly haircut that he once received as a child. With a nickname like Chili, Davis became more memorable than he would have been as merely Charles Davis.
I also liked the way he transformed his reputation. Playing for the Giants in his 20s, Davis had speed and power but was often criticized as a lazy and uninterested player who did not play hard. He put up respectable numbers for the Giants, but his critics felt that he fell well short of his superstar potential.
Somewhere along the way, Davis underwent an epiphany. Perhaps it started in Minnesota, where he contributed to a world championship in 1991. By the time Davis joined the Yankees in 1998, he was being praised by the New York writers as one of the game’s elder statesmen. Even though Davis played only two seasons with the Yankees, he completely fortified his reputation as a genuine leader, an all-round good guy, and a role model to the younger players on the team. In spite of missing a large portion of the season to injury, Davis contributed to the Yankees’ memorable 1998 world championship, and then put in a full season for the 1999 champs before retiring.
At one time, it appeared Davis might return to the Yankees as a batting coach, but that never happened. There were also close calls with the Mariners and Diamondbacks, who both seemed on the verge of offering him batting coach jobs before pulling back. Finally, the A’s have given Davis that chance, in large part because of his friendship with manager Bob Melvin. As one of the game’s more successful switch hitters, it is hoped that Davis can specifically provide aid and comfort to Oakland’s young switch-hitters Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington.
Just as significantly, Davis may be able to restore some of the patient, work-the-count philosophy that seemed to govern the A’s during the Jason Giambi-Nick Swisher era. The A’s have seemingly lost the ability to develop patient hitters over the last five years. Davis was an exceedingly selective hitter throughout his career, drawing 80-plus walks five times and reaching the 70-walk mark four other times. If Davis can’t teach the value of the base on balls, then no one short of Gene Tenace will be able to do the trick.
Outside of Lou Piniella, Rudy Jaramillo and a few others, most hitting coaches don’t make a huge difference. I’m betting that Davis will be one of the exceptions. Either way, I’m glad to see that Chili Davis is back in the major leagues, doing what he should be doing: teaching the art of hitting and helping young players become better.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.