Chili Davis: Giant with 2-way power

Major league baseball teams are always on the lookout for hitters who swing well from both sides of the plate, like 23-year-old outfielder Chili Davis of the San Francisco Giants. There is even something a little mysterious about their ability, as though they have been twice favored.

What makes Davis different from most switch-hitters is that he maintains his power whether he's batting left-handed or right-handed. Reggie Smith, now playing in Japan, probably was the last major leaguer to answer that description. And the greatest was undoubtedly Mickey Mantle during his glory years with the Yankees.

''Basically there isn't a whole lot we can teach Chili about hitting that he doesn't already know,'' said Tom McCraw, the Giants' batting instructor. ''He's got a natural swing; he knows the strike zone; and he has the ability to adjust against all kinds of pitching.''

''Mostly, when we work with him in the batting cage, it's with the idea of getting his hands or his body into motion at precisely the right time,'' McCraw continued. ''Every hitter needs something to get him going. Some guys do it with quick hands, others with a rocking motion that is tied to their body. But however it's done, it is a part of hitting that you have to master.

''The power thing - you know, the ability to hit the long ball from both sides of the plate - is something that can't be taught. Either it's part of a kid's makeup or it isn't. Smith did it very well and Mantle, of course, was exceptional. Yet what usually happens is that the kid who has power batting left-handed will often get a better piece of the ball batting right-handed and vice versa.''

Although the majors produced a number of fine rookies last season, Davis led all first-year players in run production, meaning runs scored (86) and runs batted in (76). He also set a club record for rookies in stolen bases with 24. And by the end of the season his play in center field was the equal of most veterans.

The one thing Chili did have trouble with early in 1982 was his base stealing. Despite his speed, he was thrown out eight times in his first nine attempts.

''Pitchers hold runners on base a lot better up here than they do in the minors, and although Davis probably thought he was getting the same jump with us , he obviously wasn't,'' explained Manager Frank Robinson. ''But after we showed Chili some films and improved his take-off technique from first base, he then stole successfully 23 times in his next 28 attempts.

''My feeling is that with the physical and mental tools Davis has, he probably can be as good in the future as he wants to be. Last year, to take advantage of his speed, I batted him first. This year to take advantage of his power, I'm hitting him third.''

Even in the No. 3 spot, though, there are times the Giants also benefit from his speed.

For example, any time San Francisco's first two hitters make outs to start the game and Chili follows with a single, Frank now has someone who can get himself into scoring position by stealing second base. Or if the next batter drives the ball into an outfield alley, he could score all the way from first base.

Davis, whose given name of Charles got lost years ago when neighborhood kids decided his hair must have been cut using a chili bowl, is an imposing figure at the plate. Up close, his 6 ft. 3 in., 195-lb. frame looks like a piece of flexible lumber. And any pitcher who makes the mistake of getting the ball up even a little to him is probably going to regret it.

One home run that Davis hit this spring in Chicago is still a topic of conversation among his teammates. It left a lasting impression because, on a day when a stiff wind was blowing in and nobody else could even reach the fences, Chili put a ball into orbit. It was his fourth home run of the year, suggesting that the 19 he totaled as a rookie might become a mere footnote in his career. ''What we think we have in Chili,'' Robinson says, ''is a player who is consistently going to hit for power and average. That kind doesn't come along very often.''

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