Here is the stigma that Major League Baseball just can’t shake.
Chris Davis is having the kind of breakout year that fans should celebrate.
The long-tenured minor-leaguer is finally making his mark with the Orioles, crushing 33 home runs through Saturday to lead the majors.
The 27-year-old first-baseman, who also carries a .325 average, is a prime reason Baltimore is in line for a playoff spot.
Major-league home-run leaders (through Sunday’s games)
Chris Davis, Orioles (pictured)
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
Domonic Brown, Phillies; Adam Dunn, White Sox; and Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
But behind every homer is a whisper.
Davis’ production is the most in the first half of the season since Barry Bonds hit 39 in 2001.
Oops. Did someone just trip over an asterisk?
“I know, I know,” Davis told ESPN columnist Rick Reilly. “I have to take the heat for other people’s mistakes. I guess it’s kind of a back-handed compliment. If people accuse me of steroids, I must be doing something right.”
There lies the rub.
No one has accused Davis of juicing. He has passed every drug test. Goodness knows, baseball players today are the most probed and tested of all pro athletes. There is absolutely no reason to doubt that these home runs are spurred by talent, not additives.
That, though, is not easy to accept these days.
Fool me once … you know the rest.
And fans were fooled by a generation of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Canseco and Clemens.
“I have not ever taken any PEDs,” Davis told Reilly after a fan brought up the issue last week via a tweet. “I’m not sure fans realize, we have the strictest drug testing in all of sports, even more than the Olympics. If anybody was going to try to cheat in our game, they couldn’t. It’s impossible to try to beat the system.”
It’s that last part that poses the problem. Is it impossible to beat the system?
Even today, the continuing saga of Balco Labs and its tentacles into Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
There’s a feeling there still is much more about PEDs that is unknown, especially the ways to inject natural substances into the body that boost performance but avoid current detection.
After all, Davis can claim his home run totals are the product of effort and ability alone, but too many others made the same (later discredited) claim.
That’s not fair to Davis. But it is his reality and that of any baseball player who suddenly takes his power game to another level.
The skeptics have plenty to fuel their suspicion.
Davis, who has been bestowed by fans with the nickname “Chris Crush,” has more homers already this year than he did all of last season, and more than he did in the three previous seasons. He is hitting 50 points higher and is on pace to double his career high in RBIs.
As Reilly said, he is playing like he got bit by a radioactive spider.
Oh, did we mention this is Crush’s contract year, too? On-field performance equals a bigger payday next offseason.
Uh, huh. Fool me once …
“I get it,” said Davis, who views Roger Maris’s mark of 61 as the true home run record, not the 73 hit by Bonds in 2001. “I remember, when I was a kid, being disappointed in players later on. You know, McGwire and Sosa. So I understand.”
For that reason alone, it would be especially cruel if Davis led the next generation to marvel at his talents only to learn that they were not all his alone.
There is no reason to doubt Davis.
His numbers, while remarkable, are not inconceivable. Just like Maris, Davis has always had power. It is a matter of reeling in ghastly strikeout tendencies and honing his hitting stroke.
Or is it?
The stigma remains as the legacy of the steroid era, which we say as if it has officially ended.
Baseball has a feel-good story in Chris Davis. The fact that many find it difficult to “feel good” about it says less about Davis than about the generation that came before him.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.