SI glimpses a faith angle: The doubts, tears, anger and agony of slugger in an epic slump

If you’re a baseball fan, this is an amazing and historic day, with two extra games jammed into the National League schedule just to find out who plays where in the early stages of the playoffs.

Lots of people will be missing work today in Los Angeles, Denver, Milwaukee and Chicago. But the baseball fans here at GetReligion will have little to do with all of this, since Bobby Ross, Jr., is a Texas Rangers fan and my loyalties remain in Baltimore.

However, the sad, sad story of the Orioles and their journey into the shadow land called “rebuilding” did inspire a striking story the other day in Sports Illustrated, focusing on the epic disaster that the 2018 season was for slugger Chris “Crush” Davis. The headline: “Crushed Davis: Nobody Is Struggling With the Modern Game More Than Chris Davis.”

This is a story with two levels — sports and a man’s crushed spirit.

The baseball part is pretty easy to describe: No one has been affected more than Davis by the strategy called “the shift” (infielders move into shallow right field to frustrate left-handed batters). Davis has, like many who bat on the left side of the plate, spent his career molding a swing designed to produce hard contact pulling the ball. The shift has stolen a stunning number of his hits and RBIs.

Why not just change your swing to push the ball to left field or bloop it over the “shift” defenders?

This is where the baseball theme in this story morphs into matters of the mind, heart and soul. Trying to tinker with a player’s grooved swing messes with his mind. Here is the overture:

Baseball’s shortest walk feels like its longest. As Chris Davis trudges the 70 feet from home plate to the dugout, he has plenty of time to consider the people he has just let down. There are his fellow Orioles, of course, who will greet him with pats on the backside that feel more like condolences than encouragement. The coaches who sat on buckets to flip him thousands of balls over the years. His father, who coached him harder than anyone else. The organization that writes his paychecks and strings his likeness up on lampposts and sells dolls featuring grotesquely oversized representations of his head. His wife, who gave up her dream job without complaint when he got traded. His three kids, who seem to have grown two inches every time he returns from a 10-game road trip.

Davis, who has struck out 178 times through Sept. 13, knows baseball's walk of shame better than just about everyone else in the majors. But he forces himself to keep his head up, so pitchers can't see how demoralized he is. In doing so, he stares into a sea of fans at Camden Yards who tell him something he already knows, something that brings him to tears at his kitchen table: He sucks.

Now, if you have lived in O’s land, you know that Davis is also an outspoken evangelical Christian, someone who has been in trouble in the past because of tweeted Bible verses as well as his struggles with medications intended to help his ADHD problems.

Thus, there is more to his struggles than shame and depression. Davis wants to know what all of this pain is supposed to mean.

Well, the SI story includes a glimpse of this side of the story, the “religion ghost” hiding behind a slugger fears and tears.

That’s good. What’s bad is that there are no details about this angle.

Since this is SI, it’s clear that the baseball side needs to get the most ink. I totally get that. Still, the story absolutely nails down the fact that Davis is struggling between his ears, just as much or more than he is with the mechanics of his sport.

At SI, this story is about 95 percent baseball and about 5 percent faith. Something tells me that if Christianity Today covered this story it would be about 50 percent baseball and 50 percent spiritual, with the latter linked to the mental games sluggers deal with at the plate.

But, hey, let’s be glad that this story does include this chunk of content, linked to a mid-season decision by O’s management to pull him from the line-up in an attempt to punch “re-set” on the season.

They settled on an eight-game break during which Davis rose at 8 a.m., drove his four-year-old daughter, Ella, to school and headed straight for Camden Yards. Minor league pitchers who needed work were summoned for simulated games. … The pitchers rotated. Davis stayed in the box, swinging, swinging, swinging. He showered, ate lunch and watched the team take batting practice. He sat on the bench as Baltimore went 2–6. He returned, certain he was ready to contribute ... and he has hit .195 since, albeit with 12 home runs.

He finds himself turning increasingly toward his faith. As his struggles deepened this season, Davis occasionally questioned what exactly he was supposed to be learning. He didn’t exactly believe he was being punished, but was God pointing out some sin in him? Had he displeased Him somehow?

Finally, in late August, things came to a head. … Chris slumped at the kitchen table, pleading with Jill, a registered nurse who left her job to support him, to diagnose whatever moral disease had brought him here. "Am I blind to something that I'm habitually doing?" he asked. “Do you see anything in me that needs to be brought to light?"

"You're right where God needs you to be," she assured him.

“I just don’t understand,” he said, his words muffled through his hands. “How can I go out there every day and just not succeed? It’s baffling to me.”

“Your words carry a lot of weight,” Jill said finally. “In the clubhouse, in the community, in the city of Baltimore, your words carry a lot of weight. But your testimony speaks so much louder when you struggle.”

Chris threw his head back. “Tears just started coming down my face,” he says. Eventually he wiped them off and went to bed.

“One of the biggest misconceptions of the gospel, in my mind, is that you have to be perfect,” he says now. “That is the complete opposite of the truth. Christ paid for our sins on the cross knowing that we would never be able to measure up.”

Christianity is a game of failure, too, he says. The idea is to fall short, then wake up the next day and try again.

That’s strong stuff. The intimacy of that scene, shared by Davis and is wife, is crucial in this personal story.

What else is essential here?

Well, it’s clear that SI needed the voices of other players on the team. Check.

It was also essential to talk to O’s manager Buck Showalter. Check.

The story includes some harsh radio comments by Baltimore legend Jim Palmer, who questioned the slugger’s approach at the plate — while Davis was taking batting practice until his hands bled. Check.

There is fantastic material here talking about “the shift” and explaining how that impacts statistics and strategy. Check.

What else do you need? Well, if you do an online search for the words “Baltimore Orioles” and “team chaplain” you learn that there is such a man and, a few years ago, he was a Catholic priest. Davis is an evangelical Protestant.

Nevertheless, might the team chaplain know how to contact the pastor who works with Chris Davis and his family? That would seem to be a crucial voice to include in this story, if that pastor agreed to be interviewed.

This was a fine story and it showed that the spiritual side of this man’s struggle is real. Why not pursue that a bit more? Add a few facts and some depth?

Just saying.

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