Q&A: Chili Davis

Whether he’s offering a strong opinion or he’s waxing philosophical, Chili Davis is always engaging. The former slugger can hold court on any number of subjects — he was born in Jamaica and coached in Australia — but when the topic is his 19-year big-league career (1981 to 1999), thought-provoking pearls are a given. That is especially true when a conversation about hitting morphs into an examination of doctored baseballs — Nolan Ryan cheated? — and bias in hall-of-fame and MVP voting.

Davis, a career .274/.360.451 hitter with 350 home runs, is coaching in the Red Sox system. This interview was excerpted from a conversation about hitting philosophy.

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David Laurila: Who did you least like to face? For instance, Ryne Sandberg told me that the pitcher who gave him the most trouble was Larry Andersen.

Chili Davis: Well, Larry cheated. Ryno probably wouldn’t say that, but later in Larry’s career, he cut the ball up. He taught Mike Scott how to cut the ball up, and then they taught Nolan Ryan how to cut the ball up. Larry Andersen was a good pitcher before that, but as a hitter, I know he did. The ball moved too dang much.

DL: Another former player told me that Mike Scott cheated better than anybody he ever saw.

CD: He went from a guy that was very hittable, with the Mets, to a Cy Young award winner with the Astros. It wasn’t because he gained velocity. Scotty is a good friend of mine; I play golf with Scotty. He’ll probably never admit it, but we had balls, when I was with the Giants, that they threw out of the game and there were scuff marks.

There was one game with Scotty — and he’ll probably remember this — when we were playing in Houston against him, and we were just screaming, “Check the ball! Check the ball!” Roger Craig went up to the umpire and said, “Look at these dang balls.” The umpire went out to the mound to check the ball, or his glove, or whatever. Scott walked off the mound toward second base, stopped between second base and the mound, and you could clearly see that he dropped something [on the mound] before he walked off. Billy Doran came in, grabbed the rosin bag like he was putting rosin on his hand and picked up whatever [Scott] had dropped. Now they can’t check Billy Doran — he’s not pitching. When they checked Scotty, they found nothing.

DL: How prevalent was doctoring the ball in your era?

CD: It was big, very big. I played with Mike Krukow and he tried it — he didn’t cheat all year, but he tried it a couple of times. I remember him almost killing Manny Trillo with a fastball that he lost control of, because the ball just ran like crazy. Manny and Mike were good friends; they played together with the Cubs and Giants. From that day, he said, “I’m never going to do that again.” But, you know, you’ve got the Gaylord Perrys and guys that did stuff — wetting the ball up. That’s why they have that rule. You can’t go to your mouth on the mound. Guys with spitballs, and with sandpaper… there were catchers that would scuff for their pitchers and throw it out there.

DL: Did hitters accept that?

CD: It wasn’t accepted, but we knew it was there. It was sort of like 0-2 fastballs up and in, or if you tried to bunt on a guy, he’d knock you on your ass. Or, if you dig in the batter’s box, and you’re a young guy, all of a sudden you’re on your ass. It was part of the game. There were brawls and stuff, but it wasn’t because I got thrown up and in 0-2, or a guy hit me with a curveball. No, you got hit and you went to first. Nolan Ryan drilled me as a rookie, so I went to first. My way to get back at him? He didn’t have a good pickoff move, and I could run, so I stole second and third. Of course, I knew I was going to get drilled again next time up. You play the cat and mouse game. It’s who can intimidate whom.

As far as the scuffed ball, I don’t know what ever happened to it. I don’t see it anymore. But you don’t need one now. They’ve got cutters now. Sinker away, cutter in. That’s the equalizer. It’s like the split-finger back in my era; it became the pitch of the ‘80s or ‘90s. Now the cutter is the pitch of the millennium.

DL: You said that Nolan Ryan scuffed the ball. I’ve never heard that before.

CD: Yeah, he did. He did the one year with Houston, when Scotty and Andersen were with him. He did. We checked. He threw a couple balls that moved unlike any [of Ryan’s balls] I’ve ever seen move. We checked it and it had scuffs on it. He was up in age at that time, and he was still throwing hard.

DL: Was Ryan intimidating?

CD: He was intimidating. He had great stuff and wasn’t afraid to pitch in. You always hear about Nolan Ryan’s fastball. Nolan Ryan had a 12-6 curveball that was hard and would buckle right-handers and left-handers. It would just fall off the end of the table. He had good stuff. I don’t want to take anything away from Nolan Ryan when I mention the fact that he scuffed a few balls, because he didn’t the majority of his career. It could have been one year he was trying to do something, you know? He was a very good pitcher, a very successful pitcher. He was a dominant pitcher.

DL: Who did you hit well, despite him being an outstanding pitcher?

CD: Maybe David Wells [26 for 74, seven home runs]? The first time I faced him was in Toronto, in that old football stadium or whatever it was. I hit two home runs off him. I hit a fastball to center field and the next time up he threw a curveball — I saw it like he told me it was coming — and I hit it out to right field. From that point on, I guess I just felt comfortable.

There was also Jeff Reardon I hit him hard, but didn’t get hits. Faced him once a game, and hit a line drive out every time. The numbers won’t show it [5 for 24] but I felt like I hit him well.

DL: What do you remember about Dave Stewart [12 for 56, four home runs]?

CD: My boy. Stew was pretty tough on me. I think I got a couple of bombs off him, but he was tough. He was a smart pitcher. You don’t win 20 games four years in a row for nothing, not being smart. He was just tough.

DL: Is he the most underrated pitcher of your era?

CD: He was one of them. Another one was Lee Smith. Lee Smith should be in the Hall of Fame. I think Dave Stewart should be in the Hall of Fame. [Winning] 20 games in that era? I mean, Bob Welch won 27 games one year, but Dave Stewart won 20 games four years in a row. Greg Maddux does that and he’s a hall-of-famer. Tom Glavine does that and he’s a hall-of-famer. Dave Stewart should, and don’t even talk to me about Lee Smith.

There is no way Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter and all these guys go to the Hall of Fame and not Lee Smith. Smith set precedents: He was the all-time saves leader until his record was broken in the save era. Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame? I don’t know. I look at guys like Albert Belle — 50 home runs and 50 doubles and he didn’t win the MVP. Eddie Murray didn’t win an MVP. Why? I don’t know. The guys voting on it probably didn’t like them. They weren’t very media-friendly and those are the guys that vote on those things. Belle to me was an MVP. Cecil Cooper was an MVP. Murray was an MVP. I see Kirk Gibson win an MVP with 21 bombs and 76 ribbies. Come on, are you serious?

DL: Looking back, what kind of career did you have?

CD: Average. I look back on my career and think more of “How could I have been a better player?” Not even the home runs. The one thing I’m proud of in my career is the RBIs — 1372 RBIs — and I didn’t hit 400 home runs. I hit 30 home runs only once in my career, but I drove in runs.

I have a record that I’m very proud of. I drove in 112 runs [in 1993] without a sac fly. That was my approach as a hitter. If I have a runner in scoring position, why am I going to change my approach, that I work on every day in the cage? Why am I going to change my swing to hit a fly ball? It’s still an at bat, so why not let this guy make a mistake, like I do every other time, and drive the ball somewhere? I’m trying to get a hit.

I think we find [fewer] hitters trying to move runners now than back in my era, or prior to my era. I think you find guys now that, with two strikes, still have a home-run swing working. It’s shithouse or castle, the whole at bat.

As a hitter, I was trying to get the maximum out of the at bat. I wasn’t trying to get the maximum over the fence, just the maximum. When a [pitcher] is in trouble, his tendency is to minimize mistakes and he’s not just laying it in there. You’ve got to be smart enough to say “I know you’re trying to make pitches here, but I need a little mistake out over the plate, so I can do what I need to do.” Like I said, get the maximum.



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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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test
Guest
test
4 years 10 months ago

Wow, that hits all the stereotypical things an ex-player would say about his era (everyone was a HoFer and an MVP!), but the stuff about scuffing the ball is refreshingly honest. It doesn’t make it all true, but it was honest.

I didn’t realize Glavine and Maddux had a hall of fame case based on four years of winning twenty games. I must go back and re-examine them now, I thought they were somehow better than Dave Stewart. Gibson’s MVP does look odd on raw traditional numbers (WAR loved that year though).

Sounds like a fun guy to read about, but also someone who would be infuriating to have to listen to on a regular basis. Lee Smith for the Hall (reasonable), and DAve Stewart too (yeah…slowly backing away)! Albert Belle should have won an MVP (reasonable), and Eddie Murray (seems that way, but when exactly was he the best palyer?), and Cecil Cooper (yeah…not so much).

Parker
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Parker
4 years 10 months ago

Is he implying race at the end there?

Zach
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Zach
4 years 10 months ago

Yes.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 10 months ago

I transcribed the interview, and not to burst any of David’s balloons, but Chili insisted that he wasn’t playing the race card.

MikeS
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MikeS
4 years 10 months ago

Seems that way but it’s not going to hold water. Belle’s big year was 1995 and a black man who didn’t get along well with the press (Frank Thomas) won the AL MVP the two previous years. Thomas was never as thorny as Belle, especially early in his career.

The more logical conclusion is that even though each Murray, Belle and Cooper were good there was somebody better in there best years. Between the three they only have 5seasons of 7+ WAR with a peak of 7.5. The AL WAR leader has had 7.5 WAR or lesss 6 times in the last 50 years.

*I know the MVP isn’t given to the WAR leader, I am just using it as a quick and dirty reason why those guys never won an MVP.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

i don’t read him saying race outright, more that media-friendliness/team narrative (of which race might a partial component) weighed too heavily in voting for those end-of-season awards. hardly an outrageous claim. however, the notion that race presented an uphill battle for non-whites in MVP voting during his career is wrong:

MVPs:
85: mattingly/mcgee
86: clemens/schmidt
87: george bell/andre dawson
88: canseco/kirk gibson
89: robin yount/kevin mitchell
90: ricky ricky ricky/bonds
91: ripken/terry pendleton
92: eckersley/bonds
93: big hurt/bonds

as for his claim murray…murray *was* surpremely unlucky that his best years happened to coincide with other HOFer’s career years, otherwise he would have at least 2 MVPs. re: stewart, he makes it sound like he was getting left off the cy young ballot for that four year stretch. hardly the case. in fact, looking at stewart’s numbers, it appears he may have gotten more respect than he deserved from CY voters once or twice. re: lee arthur…he’ll get there eventually.

Jamie
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Jamie
4 years 10 months ago

The older sportswriters during Chili’s career would all have been white men who grew up in pre-ciivil rights society, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least a few of them had backwards racial attitudes. Perhaps a lot of the players he mentions “weren’t very media-friendly” for good reason.

nosferatu
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nosferatu
4 years 10 months ago

This does sort of get into the issue I’ve heard Barry Bonds talk about, the idea of how he came to distrust the media from seeing them interact in the clubhouse with his father. Not to say Barry should have harbored those feelings as an adult, as I think things had changed a lot in terms of the media, but putting it all together does give some insight as to why Davis made these comments and those guys may not have been so media friendly.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/milton-bradley-and-the-race-card/

it might not just be an artifact of a pre-civil rights era. it might exist today. honestly, there have certainly been a number of prominent examples over the past decade that have the smell of institutionally acceptable racism within baseball–the kent thing, the lack of multi-year deals for black players like orlando hudson, that jermaine dye can’t get a job, etc etc. and that’s sad. but what i can’t buy is this notion that black players were held down in major award votings during the 80s because of the color of their skin. we see, again and again in that decade, black players winning major awards, getting elected to the HOF, and later becoming media figures. so how much is race really guiding the media portraits of players?

every other major sport/entertainment industry (nfl, nba, golf, movies) has demanded for the last 30 years that it’s stars play nice with the people who purchase ink by the barrel. why should baseball players be the exception?

Steve Balboni
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Steve Balboni
4 years 10 months ago

In a close vote, it only takes 10 racists and that’s not hard to find in a 1980s sportswriter guild- some of those guys happily covered segregated ball.

That type especially dislikes churlish, clenched blacks (Lee Smith, Frank White, Bonds, Belle) while excusing similar whites (McGwire, Will Clark, Jeff Kent, Steve Carlton, Ripken) and happy-go lucky blacks (Sosa, Ernie Banks).

Chili may have misidentified a particular MVP/HOF/Cy Young crimes and the victims, but he isn’t mistaken that rascism skewed coverage hurt compensation, reputation and awards.

LionoftheSenate
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LionoftheSenate
4 years 10 months ago

Blacks can be racists too.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

i agree with you on reputation and compensation but disagree with you on two key points.

first, that racism actually changed the outcome of awards in the 80s, directly or indirectly. you nor chili hasn’t shown a single, credible example of when this was the case.

second, ernie banks, who–and i don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it sounds like you just called him an uncle tom in so many words–received hate mail and death threats in his time. his degree of blackness didn’t seem to matter to racists.

look, i think chili davis is right about the media playing favorites. but the reasons behind who/why they give favorable coverage to aren’t some great mystery nor are quite as sinister as he would have you believe. to misapply a great wire quote(s) “the gods/job will not save you”. in the entertainment/sports industry, it’s not enough to just be good, you have to be likeable, even if it means kissing the ass of some reporter making 1/100 of your salary.

Steve Balboni
Guest
Steve Balboni
4 years 10 months ago

Will Clark, McGwire, Kent and other clenched, nasty red asses got written up as intense, gamers, grinders, etc., a characterization not afforded Belle, Smith, Bonds and similar Black players. I doubt that attitude somehow stopped when submitting ballots.

At no point was I or Chili talking about people who write hate letters, so I’m not sure who you’re responding to.

joshcohen
Guest
joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

as i said, i agree with much of what you said. where i lose you when you say it changed these ballots. i mean, these awards aren’t theoretical. they’ve been voted on. we can actually go back and test your claim. i don’t think it holds up. show me an example from those pre-strike years when someone like that was jobbed of a postseason award because of race. chili cited a few, and they’ve all been wrong.

the reason i brought up banks was to show that degree of “blackness” or whatever doesn’t matter to a racist. if a racist dislikes black people, he does so whether it’s albert belle or wayne brady. so it’s tough for me to accept this notion that race is the main motivator in these postseaon awards. it seems much more likely that it’s something else–mainly, ability to play nice with the media–is in play.

Telo
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Telo
4 years 10 months ago

Really great interview. Gotta love stories about guys doctoring up balls, and stealing third to get back at pitchers. And I had to look it up, but surprisingly that Gibson MVP wasn’t a bad choice at all.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

not a bad choice, no, but strawberry also would have been fine, and the close vote reflects this. although straw trailed in WAR, that voters figured this out from the counting stats would be surprising (straw had a slightly higher wOBA). for what it’s worth, i’m surpised that strawberry was rated a -6 fielder and gibson was a +6 fielder, especially since the subsequent two years for straw were +18 and +19.

in any case, if some well-heeled mets fan wants straw to have it, the award recently sold at auction for 113K.

really great interview!

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 years 10 months ago

With all due respect to Mr. Davis, Eddie Murray never got “cheated” out of an MVP, even though he finished second two times. There is only one year where Murray had a superior year to the person that won, 1984, but Cal Ripkin had huge year (based on WAR) and finished 27ththat same year!! Speaking of getting cheated.

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
4 years 10 months ago

Dave Stewart in the HOF?? Except for the four years in Oakland when he won 20 games each year he was a .500 (84-45 during those years, 84-84 before and after) picher with high ERA. He almost had the “Bautista surge” mid career and rapidly dropped off after.

BG
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BG
4 years 10 months ago

I hope Fangraphs features more of these interviews; very interesting and entertaining.

I thought it was cool Davis retired at age 39 after hitting .269/.366/.445 and winning a World Series. Talk about going out on top!

Davis has a point about Dave Stewart not getting Cy Young consideration due to prejudice.

I remember reading a Baseball Digest column about 20 years ago regarding Dave Stewart’s Cy Young candidacy. The column explained how some sportswriters didn’t think Stewart was worthy of consideration because they felt he was tainted by: 1) poor play in Texas and Philly; and (mainly) 2) getting arrested with a transvestite prostitute.

Considering what attitudes were like in the 1980s, it wouldn’t surprise me if reason #2 would have prevented Stewart from getting all the votes he was due even if he had the strongest stats in every category.

joshcohen
Guest
joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

“#2 would have prevented Stewart from getting all the votes he was due even if he had the strongest stats in every category.”

nonesense. the problem is that he didn’t have the strongest stats in every category. or any category…and it wasn’t close. in fact, my contention is that stewart actually received *undue* attention for his efforts during that 4 year stretch.

davis’ argument re: stewart hinges on accepting win totals as the be-all-end-all for starting pitching (which is, at best, a stretch). but even using that argument, stewart doesn’t deserve to win the cy any of those years because he has fewer wins (and win %age) each time compared to the person who won. so his own argument is defeated by the facts.

second, it’s also not like stewart was unlucky with win totals and had superior peripheral stats (like era, K/9, era+, fip, etc etc). he routinely had the worst peripherals of the top 5 cy young vote getters in that 4 year stretch and, yet, he often found himself close to the top. i do agree with davis re: bob welch winning the 1990 cy going, however, IMO the person who was jobbed wasn’t stewart but clemens, who had a 216 ERA+ compared to 126 (welch) and 145 (stewart).

Nate
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Nate
4 years 10 months ago

As thought of in the time frame, the late 80s, players would think of Dave Stewart as one of the best pitchers in the game. He was on the top team, won lots of games, pitched a lot of innings, his team would beat Clemens’ team in the playoffs, plus Davis had trouble hitting him. Looking at modern stats, hindsight is 20/20.

Looking at the standards of the time, Gibson’s season seems like the outlier. And, all the players he mentioned had equal or much superior careers than Gibson, so asking why those players didn’t win an MVP isn’t outlandish at all.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

as i noted earlier, he has a completely valid claim that racism existed/still exists in baseball.

but not for the reasons he mentions. and that should at least be pointed out.

joshcohen
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joshcohen
4 years 10 months ago

as a sort-of aside, we FG readers often fall into the trap of thinking of pre-sabr era HOF/CY/MVP voters as complete neanderthals when it comes to what they value in their voting. this is, in fact, generally not the case. without the aid of the “modern” sabr facts and figures we now take for granted, voters of yesteryear (or at least the 80s years I’ve been looking at today) seem to pick award winners that correlate very highly with WAR rankings. i suspect that most of the mvp/cys match up fairly well with what we’d be pulling for in this day and age.

Mike B.
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Mike B.
4 years 10 months ago

“It’s shithouse or castle, the whole at bat.” Never heard that one before. Great quote.

Not sure about the “Dave Stewart in HOF” thing though. How about we put him in the late 1980s HOF? Do agree about Lee Smith.

Barkey Walker
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Barkey Walker
4 years 10 months ago

I thought that was funny too. However, I live that Jim Thome’s hits homers with two strikes. His most recent 490 foot homer was on a full count.

When Thome comes to bat, there is only one type of hit everyone is thinking about. He hits one ever 15 AB, and points that big black bat at the fence every pitch, so it makes sense.

gdc
Guest
gdc
4 years 10 months ago

quick tracer on this, in his SF days I could not find him stealing twice in one game in Retrosheet without going into depth of who he was playing against. In his AL days he didn’t have any double-digit steal seasons and wouldn’t be a young guy getting put in his place anyway.

Steve Balboni
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Steve Balboni
4 years 10 months ago

gdc’s comment captures what’s great and what sucks about the Internet.

Joe
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Joe
4 years 10 months ago

Uhm, yeah, Dave Stewart in the HOF off of a 4 year stretch playing in Pitcher-Heaven Oakland just because he won 20 in front of a Juicers All-Star club? …well, yeah, uhm, no.

mike wants wins
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mike wants wins
4 years 10 months ago

Very entertaining read. That’s what I want out of these, entertainment. Insight is nice, accuracy of recollections almost unnecessary. Thanks to CD for the fun interview (and the baseball memories).

Tim Daven
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Tim Daven
4 years 10 months ago

I think everyone should take a look at the bigger picture here. What he is as a man. Go to AZ Republic Chili Davis, Lawsuit (2) Google down. She got out as quick as she could, barely. He is a sick man covered by up by baseball, and fans more so reporters should research before doing an interview. Thats the story not his complaints and past ability to hit a baseball. Fans should take a look at themselves before overlooking what they would never want to happen to their own daughters, mothers or friends. Why not highlight the deserving people in sports. Do your research, it’s not speculation, it’s fact. Read the documents, it’s public then form your opinion.

Atom
Guest
Atom
4 years 10 months ago

“Nolan Ryan drilled me as a rookie, so I went to first. My way to get back at him? He didn’t have a good pickoff move, and I could run, so I stole second and third.”

Never happened! Looking at Baseballreference’s game logs, the first time Davis was HBP and stole a base in the same game was 1987 against the Reds!

Ryan and Davis faced each other 87 times in their careers and Ryan never hit him once.

Atom
Guest
Atom
4 years 10 months ago

Though I should backtrack a bit and say it is entirely possible that incident happened in spring training.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 10 months ago

Not sure how it worked in ’82, but Houston and San Francisco are in completely different leagues for Spring Training, with San Fran in the Cactus league and Houston in the Grapefruit.

Atom
Guest
Atom
4 years 10 months ago

That never occurred to me. It seems like I’ve read multiple interviews in which a baseball player has gotten memorable moments of their career flat out, 100% wrong. That’s what made me want to look this up. It just makes me wonder what cluster of events he is getting confused to turn into HBP and 2 steals off of Nolan Ryan. Obviously, in 9996 PA’s, you’re not going to remember most of them with any clarity.

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 10 months ago

Same thing goes for Canseco’s “Juiced” book. Doesn’t he claim hitting a double in spring training against the M’s and talking to Bret Boone at the second base bag about how big he’s gotten? Similarly, doesn’t he describe a game 6 (or something to that effect) PH appearance with the Yankees in the World Series in a game that went four or five games?

I mean I know they’re players so they’re not always historians of the game, but most of them should give writers/fans more credit than that!

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 10 months ago

Sorry, minced my words a bit. A “series” that went….not “game.”

Brandon Warne
Guest
4 years 10 months ago

I’ll say this much, after listening to the entire interview:

Davis was equally infuriating and refreshing in his views.

Anthony
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Anthony
4 years 10 months ago

They just mentioned this article/Q&A on the D’Backs broadcast……Frangraphs is blowing up!

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