Rajai Davis deserved better from Tribe fans during his return

Rajai Davis stepped foot in Cleveland for the first time since Game 7 of the World Series. He deserved much more than he received.

November 2, 2016. 11:13 p.m. EST. All of our lives were about to change forever.

Roughly 27 hours earlier, Indians fans everywhere were on Cloud 9. Our boys headed home with a 3-1 World Series lead over the darlings of Baseball, the Chicago Cubs. Sure, North Side fans were going to be headed to Cleveland in droves, but our Wahoos seemed like they too were a team of destiny. Give the Indians bullpen a lead and the game was over. Nobody was touching the great Andrew Miller-Cody Allen combo.

I went to 811 on Prospect before Game 6 and had dinner with three of my oldest friends who were in from out of town to witness history. That pregame meal ended up, until 11:13 the next night, being the peak of my World Series experience. Being with friends, eating and drinking and laughing and getting fired up for the World Series ring I had been waiting more than 40 years for. It was incredible.

Then the first inning of Game 6 happened. Kris Bryant’s homer and Cubs fans screaming in my ear as the moon shot seemed to never land. The Tyler Naquin misplay in center which caused two more Cubs to score directly led to my mini-panic attack where I had to go into the concourse to collect myself and control my breathing again. The pregame tequila did not calm my nerves one bit. I didn’t think I could get any lower than watching Addison Russell’s second inning grand slam off of Dan Otero. Game 6 was over right then and there. The rest of the night was a slow death march to another sleepless night.

To say the day of Game 7 was torturous would be putting it mildly. The weather was absolute perfection for any day in May, let alone November 2. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t do anything. So I walked. I just put on headphones and walked for hours outside. Anything I could do to calm myself before the biggest sporting event of my lifetime, I had to try. It’s not hyperbole to say World Series Game 7, Cubs vs. Indians, was the single biggest Baseball game of this century, if not of the last 50 years. The stakes for the two most cursed franchises in the sport couldn’t have been higher. One would exorcise its demons for the organization and its fans, the other would have to sit and wait and wonder how it all went bad yet again.

On December 16, 2015, the Indians made a small signing to shore up their outfield, adding veteran Rajai Davis on a one-year deal for just over $5 million. At age 35, it seemed as though Rajai would be insurance in case All Star Michael Brantley wouldn’t be ready after his offseason shoulder surgery. Davis would also battle for the center field job, which looked to be up for grabs. He seemed like the ideal fourth outfielder. Davis still had the wheels and could play all three spots. As we came to find out, Rajai would be needed far more than the Indians anticipated.
Brantley only played in 11 games and could never overcome the shoulder problems that popped up the previous year. Davis would become a regular, playing in 134 games, starting 80 games in centerfield and 66 in left. His numbers, outside of leading the American League in stolen bases with 43, were modest. .249/.306/.388, 0.4 WAR, an 85 wRC+. In other words, Davis was an easily replaceable player. The intangibles, however, were there.

Davis’ speed gave the lineup something it hadn’t had in the first four years of the Terry Francona era—a guy who was a threat to wreak havoc every time he reached base. He was beloved in a clubhouse that had finally found its stride thanks to veterans like Davis and Mike Napoli showing guys like Jason Kipnis, Corey Kluber, Francisco Lindor, Yan Gomes and the rest of the core group how to lead and how to win. That’s exactly what they did. All the way to Game Seven of the World Series.

Trailing from the first batter of Game 7–Dexter Fowler took Corey Kluber deep to start the game–made it feel as though the Indians and the fans inside of Progressive Field (who weren’t Cub supporters) feel like they were going to have to climb Mount Everest to overcome this situation. But as we saw all during the magical 2016 season and postseason, this particular Indians group never gave in. You need 27 outs to win a baseball game (in this case, more), and the Tribe made you work all the way to the end.

I was absolutely beside myself as I sat in my customary seat in section 157 for the 51st time in 2016 with my brother sitting next to me as the calming influence I needed. He was just as bad as I was as the Indians were down to their last four outs, trailing 6-3. But he never showed any outward negativity. I have to give him credit. Your boy on the other hand? I was a basket case. I won’t lie. I have zero recollection of how Jose Ramirez got on base in the eighth inning. But the door to the bullpen opened and out came Aroldis Chapman, the Cubs flame-throwing closer. Brandon Guyer greeted Chapman with the two out RBI double, which brought the 35 year old Davis to the plate for the biggest at bat of his life.

I turned to my brother and said “How about a gapper Rajai?”

My brother’s response: “He’s going deep.”

Not enough has been said about just how great the actual at bat against Chapman was. The tension in the stadium was unlike anything anyone who was there, the players included, had ever felt before. Davis entered the at bat 3-for-20 in the series and 0-for-3 in the game. He fouled off a 1-0 fastball, and we all collectively were biting our nails. Chapman, who had worked way too hard with a big lead the night before, was throwing nothing but fastballs to Davis. He fouled off a second pitch to fall behind 1-2. That’s when Rajai really went to work. He choked up on his bat more than you would normally see. He laid off a 1-2 outside fastball before fouling off a third Chapman fastball in. Rajai wasted another 2-2 fastball foul to the right side. He seemed to be looking for that fastball in that he could drive. And then…It happened.

I have two children. My son is 10; my daughter is seven. Both are being raised diehard Tribe fans. When asked if we found out what we were having ahead of time when she was pregnant with my son, my wife likes to say “You didn’t hear Todd screaming from where you were when he found out it was a boy?” It was one of the great moments of my life. The birth of both of my children, I mean—you can’t top those moments of seeing something you created come into this world. But from a pure natural high standpoint, nothing in my life, and I mean it, NOTHING, can top the feeling I had watching Rajai Davis put that ball over the 19-foot wall in left.

I saw it go and I literally leaped into my brother’s arms, wrapped my legs around him, and yelled “OH MY GOD!” over and over and over again, as tears began to stream down my face. That is a feeling I have never had and may never have again. I assume it’s the same feel diehard Cavaliers fans had when Kyrie Irving hit “The Shot” in Oakland to beat the Warriors in Game 7. But the majority of those fans were watching on TV. This happened in front of me, in Cleveland, in our home stadium. The place just shook. The pure adrenaline high and energy of that stadium is sensational. The only thing I can imagine topping that would be the Indians clinching a World Series title at home. Don’t take it from me, take if from the best the Indians have to offer, All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor just before Monday’s game: “I don’t remember the World Series. I just remember that,” he said.

This winter, the Indians made a big splash in signing the biggest bat on the market, Edwin Encarnacion, to a free agent deal worth $60 million over three years. The “All In” mentality of the front office in going for Encarnacion and the rising salaries of the likes of Allen, Bryan Shaw, Kipnis, and the addition of Miller had the Indians stretched further than they ever had gone with their payroll. Because of it, and young outfielders Naquin and former first round pick Bradley Zimmer in the pipeline, the now free agent Davis wasn’t going to have a spot in Cleveland at the price he could find elsewhere. So Rajai signed a one-year deal with Oakland for $6 million.

Like with Napoli, it was better that Davis’ time in Cleveland was just the one, magical year. No matter what he does going forward and no matter what he did up to that moment at 11:13 p.m. on November 2, 2016 matters to me. What Rajai Davis gave me in one swing was the greatest moment of my life. You can call me crazy if you want—I know my wife certainly would agree with you—but that home run was a feeling of euphoria I’ve never had before or since. So when the 2017 Tribe schedule came out, I made sure I wouldn’t miss when Rajai came back to Cleveland for the first time. I had to pay my respects and give him the standing ovation he richly deserved.

[Related: What is your Rajai Davis Home Run Story?]

There I was Monday, Memorial Day, with my wife and both my kids, watching as Davis walked back into Progressive Field for the first time since Game 7. Ironically, two days before Rajai’s return, the Indians retired the number 20, worn by Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. The number Rajai last wore as he gave us all that incredible feeling, would never be worn again by an Indian. As they always do, the Tribe organization was all class. They had a nice video tribute to Rajai about 20 minutes before first pitch and gave him his AL Championship ring. The stadium at the time had about 10,000 fans in it. After the fact, Rajai walked out to the outfield where he exchanged hugs with Lindor, Kipnis, and Ramirez among others. I won’t lie: It choked me up a little.

I had expected a huge standing ovation as Rajai came to the plate to leadoff the game. I had this vision of a crowd in full throat and unison, rising as one to give Davis his due. I figured he’d step out of the box, tip his cap, and that would be that. Instead, while my family stood and cheered loudly, I’m guessing maybe a couple hundred others stood with us and Davis was politely cheered.

Wait, what?

I couldn’t understand it. This is a man who gave all of us—heck, all of baseball—one of the great moments in the history of the sport, and this is the reception he gets? The wave and the t-shirt toss got more people on their feet than Rajai’s first at bat. I’m sorry Tribe fans, but that was Weak with a capital W.

Maybe the narrative changes for some on Rajai if the Indians go on and win Game 7. Maybe it was because Rajai was replacement level player and not a Lindor or a Kipnis type. But to me, the man can do no wrong in my eyes and gave us something that we’ve never experienced before as Tribe fans. Rajai Davis deserved more than what the fans gave him in his first at-bat Monday. Napoli will return with the Texas Rangers on June 26. I’m guessing he will get the well-earned hero’s welcome that Davis also deserved.