This time, Davis better than expected

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eric Davis says he is never satisfied. The correct word, he said, is ''content.'' The outfielder who never reached his perceived potential has at last succeeded in exceeding expectations, and the irony is indescribably delicious.

Davis has flourished when he was thought finished. He has caught up to the fastball that was believed to be beyond him. In his second coming with the Cincinnati Reds, Davis inspires less awe but more appreciation. This time around, he is judged for what he still is instead of what he never was.

''I think the perception has changed,'' Davis said the other day, ''because I didn't give up. Because the odds were so much against me even making this team. To overcome all that is gratifying.''

One man in his time plays many parts, and Eric Davis' baseball roles have already ranged from can't-miss to the-next-Willie Mays to has-been to back-from-the-dead.

He sat out the 1995 season and was presumed retired until the Reds sought his services as a reserve outfielder. He returned as if from a time machine, nearly as good as new, the comeback player of the decade. He has reinvented himself so often that it is hard to say for sure where he really fits in.

Herein lies the problem. Davis is disappointed that the Reds did not include him in their recent round of contract extensions.

He was perturbed by a recent quote attributed to manager Ray Knight that suggested his future might be as the Reds' fourth outfielder. He is a proud man who has humbled himself this season to prove he could still play.

Having provided the proof, he awaits the payoff.

''I would like to stay here,'' he said. ''I would like to end my career here. And I would like to do something with this organization (afterward). But I won't be here as a fourth outfielder. I don't think I played that bad that I have to go sit down and watch someone else play. There's no outfielder here who put up the numbers I put up.''

Cheap at twice the price

Entering the Reds' season-ending series in St. Louis, Davis was hitting .290 with 26 homers, 83 runs batted in and 22 stolen bases. These are his strongest statistics since 1989 and call for consistent playing time and a significant raise from a $500,000 salary.

Trouble is, Reds General Manager Jim Bowden is not sure he will be able to offer Davis what he's worth. Until interim CEO John Allen can get a budget approved by interim exile Marge Schott, Bowden's payroll is a sand castle at high tide, and Eric Davis is adrift.

''Obviously we'd like to bring Eric Davis back if we can,'' Bowden said. ''But it comes down to dollars, and we do not have our budget number right now.''

Bowden knows he must trim the payroll this winter. Davis' future with the franchise could depend on how deep and how quickly the cuts are made.

According to several sources, Bowden has already attempted to trade outfielder Reggie Sanders and first baseman Hal Morris for Florida slugger Gary Sheffield. Morris' salary nearly doubles next season - from $1.6 to $3.1 million - and Sanders is scheduled to make $3.7 million.

He's stronger than some

Though Davis still bears the reputation of being brittle - witness his self-effacing Steinberg's commercials - he is seen in the Reds clubhouse as a relative rock compared to Sanders. When compared to the prodigal Kevin Mitchell, Davis comes off like Cal Ripken Jr.

''I heard (negative) things about Eric Davis,'' Knight said. ''They are erroneous. He's a team player. He's a complete professional.''

He proved that in spring training, amid daily rumors of his impending release. On days Davis looked overmatched, he never looked overwhelmed. He understood the distinction between rust and ruin, just as he does satisfaction and contentment.

''I've always said I'll never be as good as they say I am,'' he said. ''And I'll never be as bad as they say I am.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 28, 1996.