Surprise Mariner hitting whiz turns spring fling into starring role

Every so often it happens and when it does everyone acts as though it was a first. But the routine is familiar enough - a kid ballplayer with almost no experience is invited to spring training just to give him a taste of what it's like to work out with the parent club and he winds up winning a starting job. At least temporarily.

This is the story of rookie first baseman Alvin Davis of the Seattle Mariners , a 6 ft. 1 in., 190-pounder who bats left-handed with power. But it could just as easily be about Phil Masi with the old Boston Braves in 1939; Dick Groat with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1952; or Steve Howe with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980. None of these unheralded youngsters was expected to change from Confederate money into US savings bonds overnight, either.

Actually there is a little hook to the Davis tale. Although Alvin (after only two minor league seasons) had a fine spring training this year with Seattle, during which he impressed a lot of people in the organization, he was left behind when the Mariners broke camp in Tempe, Ariz.

''If we'd had one more spot open on our roster at the time, we problably would have kept Davis,'' explained Manager Del Crandall. ''He showed us in spring training that he was a very disciplined and very mature hitter for his age. In fact, we liked everything about him except his foot speed. He's not going to win any races for you, but with his power you really don't care.

''Anyway, Davis got a break when one of the players we were counting on was injured and had to go on the disabled list,'' Crandall added. ''There wasn't even much discussion as to whom we'd bring up. We were all thinking Davis, and because of his quick bat I decided to start him right away at first base. I just had a hunch that he'd do a job for us.''

With 8 homers, 16 runs batted in, and 3 game-winning hits in his first 15 starts with the Mariners, Al more than justified Crandall's faith in him. But even Del doesn't expect him to lug around a .350 batting average all year.

What has it been like so far for Davis?

''I keep thinking that with another organization less committed to young players, that while they might have added me to their roster, they never would have used me regularly so soon,'' Davis told me. ''I consider that I've been given an exceptional break. While I guess you can always learn something sitting on the bench, the chance to hit against good pitching every day is what makes you improve.

''I'm not fooling myself that I can keep going the way I have,'' Al continued. ''Most pitchers up here don't know much about my strengths and weaknesses yet, and that has been a big advantage for me. Right now I'm being pitched every which way. But I know if they ever start getting me out with a certain pitch, I'm going to have to deal with that every time I come to the plate.''

Davis says that despite his fast start he knows he'll be judged more on what he does his second time around the league, after teams have had the chance to study their scouting reports on him.

''That's when I'm really going to be tested - and don't I know it,'' Al grinned. ''As for my home runs, none of them have been planned so far. They went out partly because I got a lot of the baseball when I swung and partly because I taught myself to swing hard.''

To close whatever holes all batters are supposed to have in their wheelhouse, Davis stands as far back as he can in the box. His theory is that the farther back he stands, the more time he gets to look at the pitch - and to a good hitter, even a fraction of a second in such a situation can make a big difference.

So far he has avoided the temptation to pull every pitch. Instead, he says, he tries to use the whole field, unless of course the pitcher makes a mistake and the ball comes up to the plate looking like a grapefruit.

''Until Al joined us in spring training I had never seen him play, although I had read scouting reports on him,'' Crandall explained. ''I think the first thing that attracted me to him was his discipline as a hitter. Most kids are so anxious to impress the manager that they'll swing at almost anything.

''But Al was different. He'd stand there and wait for his pitch and then he'd drive it somewhere. Our long-range evaluation of him is that he can be an outstanding big league hitter with power. Even though he's a rookie, with his kind of discipline, I feel I can continue to bat him third and not have to worry about putting too much pressure on him.''

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