The first half of this baseball season delivered some pleasant surprises.
Who thought the Braves would spend the first three months ensconced in first place? And what about this guy Evan Gattis? He was the talk of baseball until straining his oblique.
Or until the arrival of Yasiel Puig, the latest greatest thing. You’ve got to be good for ESPN to appoint itself your All-Star game campaign manager, right?
Back in March, Sports Illustrated predicted that the Red Sox would only win 77 games and finish last.
The same publication also predicted that the Pirates would win 76, but be spared from last place by the ever-hapless Cubs.
Lo and behold, on July 4, each possessed the best record in its league. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that hasn’t happened since 1903, when the two clubs wound up meeting in the inaugural World Series.
And what about Chris Davis? The season the Orioles first baseman is having has surpassed surprising and become downright shocking.
Through Sunday (88 games), Davis had belted 33 home runs. That equals his previous high for an entire season, set last year. Only Reggie Jackson (37 in 1969), Ken Griffey, Jr. (35 in 1998) and big Hondo, Frank Howard (34 in 1969) have hit more homers by the All-Star break. That’s some exclusive company right there.
Davis is hitting a cool .320, which happens to be 51 points above his career average. That’s also 35 points above his second-best season. He hit .285 as a rookie in 2008 with Texas.
His slugging percentage, an out-of-this-world .712, leads all of baseball, and edges his second-best season total of .549 by, oh, .163, which is almost B.J. Upton’s batting average. His on base plus slugging percentage of 1.106 trails only Miguel Cabrera, and tops his second-best season by .226.
Davis has surpassed his season high in doubles, with 26, equaled his season high with 85 runs batted in, needs one walk to reach that mark, and 12 runs to reach that personal record.
Where did all this come from?
Well, if this were 15 to 20 years ago, we’d know. We’d see Davis struggling to fit into his batting helmet, like Barry Bonds. See his biceps bulge like Mark McGwire. See him squeeze a bat handle until it looks like a toothpick, as Sammy Sosa used to do. And we’d know.
In fact, Davis threatens the Orioles club record of 50 homers in a season, set in 1996 by one Brady Anderson. Not Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Eddie Murray, or Cal Ripken Jr. Brady Anderson, who never hit more that 24 in any of his other 14 seasons.
“I know, I know,” Davis told Rick Reilly of ESPN.com last week. “I have to take the heat for other peoples mistakes. I guess its kind of a back-handed compliment. If people accuse me of steroids, I must be doing something right.”
Let’s just hope he’s not doing something wrong. Heaven knows we’ve been lied to far too often, by many other athletes who passed all their drug tests, and adamantly denied usage.
Not just in baseball, either. Track and field almost destroyed itself. And isn’t the Tour de France currently under way? Vive le dopage, right, Lance?
“I’m not sure the fans realize, we have the strictest drug testing in all of sports,” Davis told Reilly. “It’s impossible to beat the system. Anyway, I’ve never taken PEDs, no. I wouldn’t. Half the stuff on the list I can’t even pronounce!”
What a shame. A guy has a break-out season, and we immediately assume the worst. But that’s how we’ve been conditioned to think.
“I get it,” Davis told Reilly. “I remember, when I was a kid, being disappointed in players later on. You know, McGwire and Sosa. So I understand.”
It all could have been avoided so easily. The rest of baseball could have simply followed the lead of the 1986 Orioles. All but two members of that team agreed to submit to a voluntary drug testing program administered by Johns Hopkins University.
“The origin was that we had a lot of drug abuse, like today,” pitcher and union representative Scott McGregor told the New York Times in 2005. “The newspapers really covered the cocaine scandals in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but uppers were also common.
“Guys were using drugs that affected their performance on the field, for better and for worse. Drinkers and coke guys slumped, and guys who did uppers tried to gain an edge.”
“It was bad back then, with a lot of buzz about who was taking what,” added pitcher Mike Boddicker. “While I wasn’t much of a nightlife guy, you knew that there was a lot of drug abuse, both recreational and performance related.
“We made the gesture to show the fans of Baltimore that we had nothing to hide.”
Donald Fehr, Executive Director of the Player’s Union, had no objection to the program, because it was voluntary.
“We were a bunch of guys that tried to show our town we were playing fair and square,” McGregor told the Times. “It wasn’t about contracts and collective bargaining and privacy rights.”
Had the rest of baseball followed the Orioles lead, we’d have avoided the steroid era, and we’d simply be celebrating Chris Davis’ marvelous season. No questions asked.
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times.