By Maureen Mullen
BOSTON A little more than 24 hours into his new job as hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket, Chili Davis was given his first challenge by manager Arnie Beyeler.
I called him and told him I used to have a Chili Dog t-shirt and asked him if he could remember why, Beyeler said. He goes, Oh, we must have crossed paths somewhere but I cant remember where.'
I told him, I was your hitting coach once upon a time.
It was in 1998, while both were in the Yankees organization. Davis was on a rehab assignment with Double-A Norwich, where Beyeler was the hitting coach.
I reminded him of his great quote, Beyeler said. He goes, I hate this league. I dont have any hits here.
While Davis hit just .243 in 11 games for Norwich that season, there were plenty of hits in the American and National Leagues over 19 seasons and 2,435 games. The outfielderdesignated hitter played for the Giants, Angels, Twins, Royals and Yankees and hit .274 with 350 home runs and 1,372 RBI. Among switch-hitters, Davis trails only Mickey Mantle, Eddie Murray, and Chipper Jones two Hall of Famers and a likely future Hall of Famer in career home runs.
Davis knows the challenge issued by Beyeler will be just the first of many he will face as he makes his full-time coaching debut this season. Hes up for it, he said, joining first-year manager Beyeler and pitching coach Rich Sauveur in Pawtucket.
The most important challenge will be getting to know the players and gaining their trust.
I dont know if I know any players in the organization, Davis said by phone from his home in Arizona. On the big-league team, yes, I do. But Im not going to be with them. But getting to know the players . . . is probably the first step, because to gain the trust of the players youre going to be working with, youre going to have to get to know them and theyre going to have to get to know you. So, thats going to be the biggest challenge. And just keeping them working day in and day out during the course of the year.
"I talked to Arnie. My job there is to help him do his job, and to help him develop these players for their major-league careers.
Davis, who moved to the United States from Jamaica as a 10-year-old in 1970, was drafted by the Giants in 1977 out of Los Angeles Dorsey High School. He made his big-league debut in 1981 (the first Jamaican-born player to do so) and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting the next season.
A three-time All-Star, Davis won World Series championships with the Twins in 1991, and the Yankees in 98 and 99, his last season.
While playing baseball was never his boyhood dream, hes most proud of the length of his career.
Not only proud of that, but surprised, he said. I saw baseball played for the first time in L.A. when I came to the States and just fell in love with the game. Decided a couple of years later that I was going to try to play on a team. Five years later Im drafted, and three years after that Im in the big leagues. It wasnt like I woke up at age 4 and said I want to be a professional player and my dad or my uncle took me to ballgames all the time. It didnt happen that way.
"I was very blessed, being able to do something for a living that I loved, and not only that but playing that long and winning the three world championships.
When I really look back at my career, I think one of the lessons that I would like to bring to young players is that it wasnt like a career where everything went smoothly, every year was a good year. I had some down years. And as I got older in my late 20s, early 30s, I was written off a lot by people wondering if my career was coming to an end. In 1990 I left the Angels and went to Minnesota. I heard rumors: Maybe his careers over. Maybe hes done. And I went to Minnesota and won a championship. And after 92 I heard rumors again: Maybe the guy's done. Hes 33 years old, 91 was his best year. He made a comeback. He tried. And I stuck around till 99.
"So one of the things that Im proud of in my career is just my perseverance as a player and as a person. I persevered. Theres some regrets. Theres some things I wish I would have done differently. But the biggest thing Im proud of is the perseverance as a player.
He remembers what it was like playing against the Red Sox, coming into Fenway Park for the first time, (he hit .313 with six home runs and 34 RBI in his career at Fenway), the rivalry with the Yankees. His second-inning solo homer on Sept. 10, 1999, was the only hit Pedro Martinez gave up in the Sox 3-1 win in Yankee Stadium, which was one of the best pitching performances of Martinez' career: A complete-game with 17 strikeouts and no walks, facing one batter over the minimum -- Davis.
Facing guys like Bruce Hurst, Roger Clemens, Bret Saberhagen, Tim Wakefield. It was great for me being with the Yankees, he said. Playing in those meaningful games was a great way for me to end my career.
When his playing days ended, Davis, who turns 51 on Monday, decided to stay home to spend time with his three sons. He began working for the Australian baseball academy in 2003, spending eight weeks for the next three years working with both hitters and coaches. It allowed him to stay in the game without having to be away from home as much as the grind of a regular season schedule would require. This fall he worked for the Dodgers in their instructional league, an experience that let him know it was something that I felt that I was designed to do. And his boys are older now, 14, 16, and 25, busy with their own activities. It was time for Davis.
I think Im ready for this situation now," he said. Last year I decided that it was time for me to try to get back into the game.
He interviewed for a major league job with the Dodgers. When he didnt get that, he thought he might take a minor league job with the organization. He figured hed have to start in the low minors if was going to get back into coaching.
But, some news caught him off guard.
Actually, the Red Sox was a total surprise to me and it was a good surprise, Davis said. I got a call from the Dodgers' minor-league director and he asked me if I was interested in working on the East Coast. He told me who it was and I thought, Wow, thats great. If this pans out, the Dodgers are a class organization and so are the Red Sox.' "
When Red Sox minor-league director Mike Hazen called to tell him hed gotten the Pawtucket job, Davis emotions ranged from super excited to anxious to cautious. But, it gave him a sense of purpose, he said.
I think the gratitude Im going to get out of this and thats what I got out of instructional ball with the Dodgers is to feel like I was helping young hitters understand themselves, understand the game, understand what they need to do to be successful at hitting, he said. And in a way my selfishness comes from the gratification that Ill get from watching these guys become better players.
Its an organization thats built to win. The team is built to win. Theyve always been a strong organization, and their minor league system has always been great with some really good players. For me, its just such an unbelievable opportunity. I dont know if I can describe it. Just ready to get going.
Davis likely wont get to Pawtucket until Opening Day, April 7. It will be his first appearance in the Ocean State.
Ive never been to Rhode Island, he said with a laugh. Im going to see some states that Ive never been to in all my travels, North Carolina, Rhode Island. I do have family in Buffalo, New York . . . I dont know where all the teams are. Im sure Im going to see some cities that Ive never been to before and thats exciting, also.
After being away from the day-to-day workings of baseball for more than a decade, some of the things hes most looking forward to are baseball basics.
Theres a lot of things that Im looking forward to, he said. But the spring, the season, getting back out there. Hearing the balls go crack. Listening to guys talk about whatever they talk about out there.
"Basically, I think for the first couple of weeks, or week, I think its just observing and trying to find where I need to fit in in this program. This is a program thats been going on for a long time without me involved. Im new to it. Im going to have to learn it. But also being able to inject the things that I know into this program. So, Im looking forward to the whole thing. Im feeling anxiety.
"Im so anxious now. Its like when I first found out that I was going to major league camp as a player and I couldnt wait for spring training to start. Im going to major league camp, and this is that feeling all over again. Im ready to go.
Maureen Mullen is on Twitter at http:twitter.commaureenamullen