By DJ Sixsmith
Cleveland Indians outfielder Rajai Davis is the last guy you’d ever expect to play over a decade in Major League Baseball. Davis played six years in the minors, has never hit more than 10 home runs in a season and is on his sixth team in 10 years. The 35-year-old played with a young Jose Bautista in Pittsburgh, an old Barry Bonds in San Francisco and peak Miguel Cabrera in Detroit.
Davis sat down with me to talk about why the Cleveland Indians are World Series contenders, how Miguel Cabrera became the best hitter he’s ever seen and the keys to being a top flight base stealer:
You grew up in Connecticut as a football, basketball and baseball player. Why was baseball ultimately the most appealing sport to you?
Rajai Davis: “I was a little bit too short for basketball. I could shoot and was a three-point specialist, but I was the shortest one on the court. Football was probably my best sport. I was naturally talented, but I didn’t like hitting. In baseball, the playing field was even. I knew how to swing the bat and run like the wind.”
Baseball has taken you on quite on a ride. You were picked in the 38th round in 2001 by the Pittsburgh Pirates and played six full seasons in the minors. What was the most challenging part of that journey?
RD: “My first year was the most trying because I had to establish myself as a guy who could potentially play in the bigs. It was tough because you only get one shot when you come out of the 38th round. I got demoted shortly after I was drafted. Playing rookie ball at age 21 wasn’t a great start.”
What specifically did you do to prove to the Pirates that you could be an everyday player?
RD: “I had to do something that everybody else was failing to do, which was getting on base and stealing bases. Stealing bases was something that came naturally to me. I’m aggressive by nature. I needed to be that guy who could cause havoc and score a lot of runs.”
What was it like when you got the call to the majors after six years in minor league baseball?
RD: “It was like going to a stratosphere in heaven. I didn’t know where I was and I didn’t come down for four days. Getting to the big leagues was truly a dream come true. I was now playing against guys I admired growing up and watched on TV. That was a little overwhelming for me at first until I told myself I was just like them.”
You’ve played with a lot of interesting teammates in your career. In Pittsburgh, you played the outfield with a young Jose Bautista. How surprised are you that he has become Joey Bats and one of the league’s best hitters?
RD: “I played a whole year with Joey in Double A before getting to the majors. He had a great swing then. I think he hit like 20 home runs and hit .305 that season. He hasn’t really changed that much, he’s just hitting for power more consistently. He knows a lot more, he’s more experienced and he knows what pitchers are trying to do. He has great discipline.”
After Pittsburgh, you played in San Francisco. Barry Bonds was one of your teammates. What was it like watching Barry break Hank Aaron’s home run record in 2007?
RD: “That was amazing. That’s the first time I ever witnessed a baseball game stop for one man. We took a 20-minute break and Barry gave a speech! I got a front row seat as Willie Mays was being wheeled out. I witnessed a special night and it is something I will always remember.”
You played some of the best seasons of your career with the Oakland Athletics. What was the biggest reason behind your success?
RD: “I finally got an opportunity to start. At first I was platooning and only playing against left-handed pitchers. I took advantage of my opportunities. That’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole career. When I was in high school, I always came off the bench. I would always be the guy to get a spot start if somebody was hurt. I played well in those games. You have to be ready when called upon.”
In 2010, you stole 50 bases. You’ve stolen 30 or more bases six times in your career. How have you become such a prolific base stealer?
RD: “It all starts with desire. You really have to want to get to the next base. That’s one thing I’ve always had. You also have to know tendencies. I study how quickly a pitcher throws over to first and how quick they are to home plate. I can get down to second base pretty quick. It’s going to take a perfect throw from the pitcher and catcher to throw me out. In my mind, more pressure is on them.”
During the next season, you tore your hamstring. What was the most grueling part of that time in your career?
RD: “That was tough. It was definitely a learning experience for me. That injury could’ve been avoided, but I didn’t know better. I didn’t think that would ever happen to me. I can still remember the game. I was sitting on the bench all game and came in to pinch hit. I hit a ball in the hole and started to run full speed. However, my muscles weren’t ready to do that. Now I take the proper precautions to stretch before I get out there.”
Let’s talk about the Cleveland Indians. Your squad has exceeded everyone’s expectations. You’ve played on a lot of different teams. What makes the 2016 Indians special?
RD: “First off, we have great starting pitching. Then we have a good offense that can score for our pitchers and a defense that can back those pitchers up. We have a lot of young talent and it just seems like the right combination of players as far as personality, character and talent. The additions of Mike Napoli and Juan Uribe were really helpful for this younger team. Those guys have so much postseason experience and have taught us a lot about going about your everyday business.”
Speaking of postseason experience, your manager Terry Francona has plenty of it. Why is Tito one of the best managers in baseball?
RD: “He knows how to keep guys who don’t play everyday satisfied with playing time. He knows how to keep his players fresh. Even your everyday starters need a break at some point. Tito gives guys a day of rest and it helps them play better down the stretch. Terry looks beyond the stats and has a good eye for putting the right pieces on the field to win games.”
Who is the best hitter in baseball today?
RD: “Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter I’ve ever seen. I’m really impressed with him. You wonder how Miguel goes out there every year and hits like he does. It doesn’t matter how he starts the season, you know he’s going to finish strong. The game doesn’t speed up on Miguel, he slows it down.”
Who is the toughest pitcher you’ve ever hit against?
RD: “Relief pitchers are the toughest pitchers to face. You don’t see them everyday. Andrew Miller from the Yankees is pretty tough. The Yankees relievers Miller, Dellin Betances & Aroldis Chapman are the toughest in the game. You only get one at bat against those guys. The velocity and change of speed is difficult to deal with. Chapman has a 100mph fastball and a 90 mph slider. It’s like a video game. That’s not even fair.”
Finally, Ken Griffey Jr. is going into the Hall of Fame this weekend. What will you remember most about Junior’s impact on baseball?
RD: “It was really awesome when I was able to meet him for the first time at batting practice. He was such a nice guy. A superstar like him talking to a little guy like me early in my career doesn’t happen everyday. Guys used to flock to him every time he was around the batting cage. He was such a great player.”