Cincinnati outfielder Eric Davis steps into the batting cage for pregame practice: 6 ft. 2 in. tall, and 175 pounds of whipcord and whalebone. First he lays down a bunt. Then he begins spraying hits to all corners of the field. That night Davis doesn't get a hit. But he beats the Dodgers anyway by walking against Fernando Valenzuela, stealing second and third base in the same inning (his 41st and 42nd steals of the season), and later scoring the decisive run. Defensively, Eric makes two outstanding plays on line drives to the outfield, twice cutting down runners with rifle-like throws.
Davis, one of baseball's brightest young stars, leads the major leagues in runs scored, is close to the top in home runs, and is among the leaders in several other categories including batting average, runs batted in, and stolen bases. His all-around play is a key reason the Reds have been in or near first place all season in the National League West.
Yet when Eric was growing up in Los Angeles, he dreamed of a pro basketball career. He used to work out on playground courts with Byron Scott, now a starting guard for the world champion Los Angeles Lakers. Remarkably, another youngster in that group was Darryl Strawberry, now a star outfielder with the New York Mets.
In high school Davis averaged 23 points a game and made All-Los Angeles. He was the kind who could run all day, jump high enough to make eye contact with the rim of the basket, and then hang there as though suspended by an invisible steel thread.
``Baseball was something I did for fun,'' Eric told me in the visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium. ``As a kid, basketball was my thing. I even dreamed about playing in the National Basketball Association, because I was sure I could do it.''
However, after Davis batted .635 with 50 stolen bases in 19 games during his senior year, a few major league scouts started coming around.
The Dodgers gave him a tryout at shortstop but decided not to sign him. Something they didn't like about the way he hit. At least two other big-league teams, California and Milwaukee, sent invitations and then ignored him when he came to their party.
Even the Reds didn't pick him until the eighth round of the 1980 draft. Then they kept him in the minors for almost five years - an unusually long time for a kid who could hit for both average and power, run, throw, and play defense.
When Cincinnati manager Pete Rose was asked about the 25-year-old Davis's odd timetable, he replied: ``I wasn't here when the Reds signed Eric, so I don't know why the organization didn't promote him sooner. But I'll tell you this: Eric Davis can be as good as he wants to be. Basically, I don't see any weaknesses.''
Added Cincinnati batting coach Billy DeMars: ``Remember Joe Louis when he was the world's heavyweight boxing champion? Louis had such powerful hands and wrists that he won a lot of his fights throwing punches that traveled no more than three or four inches. He just exploded against his opponents.
``Well, this kid uses his hands and wrists the same way when he swings. He has the fastest bat going through the strike zone of any hitter I've ever seen.
``In fact, he's able to stretch his swing so naturally that if the situation calls for it, he can reach out and drive almost any pitch into the stands. It doesn't necessarily have to be a strike. Only guys like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente in recent years could do that and make it pay.''
When Davis hit .297 with 23 homers, 63 stolen bases, 60 runs batted in, and 78 runs scored in the Reds' final 93 games last year, he was widely hailed as the game's next superstar. And when he hit three grand slam home runs in one torrid stretch this spring, some members of the news media started getting really extravagant with their praise. One national magazine, for example, has already just about conceded his eventual election to the Hall of Fame. But Rose says all this may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
``This may be the first kid ever to come along who could lead his league in home runs and stolen bases,'' the Cincinnati manager said. ``One of these years he'll hit 40 home runs and steal 100 bases.
One thing that probably made some teams cautious about Davis as a youngster was his undeveloped, pencil-thin body in those days, along with stories that he was strictly a slap hitter with no power. Another, of course, was his basketball reputation and the reports that at least two big-time colleges were on the verge of offering him scholarships. But eventually Cincinnati showed enough interest, and baseball won out.
Not that the Reds were falling all over themselves - as evidenced by Eric's signing bonus of just $18,000. Most kids today get that much if they can pick up a ball during a tryout and not throw it over the first baseman's head. Davis figured to be a prospect, not a guaranteed big-league performer.
Yet once in the farm system he did well. So why the long wait to reach the parent club?
``I have no idea,'' Davis said. ``I was just a kid then, trying to make it where I was. I didn't know whether I was ready for the majors or not. I don't think any kid that age does. One thing I did know was that the Reds had a lot of good outfielders ... But it's not something I was very concerned about.''
One of Davis's biggest boosters is Johnny Bench, the former great catcher, who is now a Cincinnati TV broadcaster.
``I love this kid,'' Bench said. ``I look at the speed in his hands and the quickness in his wrists and I think Hank Aaron all over again.''
One knock sometimes heard on Davis is that he strikes out a lot; he whiffed 100 times in 415 at-bats last year and will be well over the century mark this season. But Bench says he was the same way - and that this is just something you have to live with in the case of a free-swinging slugger like Eric.
``There are days when Davis is going to look like he's got a hole in his swing,'' he said. ``I don't know anybody who doesn't. A good pitcher is going to make a good hitter look bad once in a while. But overall, good hitters are going to come out ahead most of the time.''
How good is Davis in the field?
``Well, it's not enough to say that he gets to everything in the field or that he has a great arm,'' DeMars explained. ``Four times this year I've seen him go back to the wall on a ball, time his leap perfectly, and then reach into the stands to catch what everybody in the ballpark had already conceded was a home run. I've seen other outfielders do this occasionally ... but Eric makes it look easy.''
And then there is the blazing speed that gives Eric's game an extra dimension compared to those of most sluggers.
``Every time Davis gets a single, it's a potential double or even a triple because he can go out and steal that extra base for you,'' DeMars points out.
One team that won't soon forget Davis's speed is San Francisco, which saw Eric score all the way from first base when a pickoff throw rolled partway into right field.
``He scored standing up,'' DeMars said. ``You can't get much faster than that!''