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.
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.