In the spring of 1991, Glenn Davis was poised for greatness.
He was in the prime of his Major League Baseball career — or at least that’s what he and the Baltimore Orioles thought. The Orioles traded outfielder Steve Finley and pitchers Curt Schilling and Pete Harnisch to the Houston Astros for Davis.
In seven big league seasons, he hit 166 home runs, no small feat when half the games were played in the cavernous Astrodome. He was a two-time National League All-Star in Houston and finished second in MVP voting to Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt in 1986.
In 1991, when he arrived in Florida for spring training with his new team, he was in the best shape of his life.
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“There were some folks that thought I would hit 50 or 60 home runs a season over there,” Davis said last week.
It didn’t happen.
He got hurt before that spring training was over and spent just three seasons with the Orioles. He only hit 24 more home runs and was exiled to a two-year stint in the Japanese League to finish his career.
To make matters worse, Schelling, Harnisch and Finley all did well after the trade, which is now considered to be one of the worst in Major League history.
That is not fair to Davis, but sometimes baseball ain’t fair.
He still thinks about it, despite all of his off-the-field success.
“One day I am going to write a book — ‘How a Big League Deal goes bad,’” he said.
He played pro ball for 16 seasons, finally retiring in 1996 after playing 39 games for St. Paul in the independent Northern League. After that, he and his wife Teresa moved back to Columbus, where they met while he was climbing through the minor leagues. They raised their children in Columbus over the last two decades. And Davis is an elected Columbus city councilor and local hotel owner.
But this weekend he’s a ballplayer again.
Davis is in Baltimore, participating in the 25th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a place where he recorded the first Baltimore hit in 1992. He goes to reunion events in Houston, but this is the first time he’s returned to Baltimore since 1994 when his major league career effectively ended.
And it’s an important, emotional journey back into his psyche.
“I am going back to deal with the monsters, the mind monsters, the emotions that I have hidden in a box over the years,” Davis said this week.
To understand where Davis is coming from, you have to go back to the spring of 1991. The Orioles, a year from moving into a new park, had made a major investment in Davis. They didn’t have much power — and Davis was a slugger.
Davis can tell you the exact point when it went south — before he ever had a chance to go north with his team.
They were about halfway through spring training, playing the Texas Rangers in a night game.
“I was feeling good,” Davis said.
The kind of feeling that comes with being a ballplayer at the top of your game.
“Bobby Witt was pitching and it was a 3-0 count,” Davis said. “When he got behind on me, he liked to throw high, hard and across the middle. I said to myself if he throws a high fastball I am going to take a rip.”
The high heat came right on schedule.
“When I swung I felt two pops, like a chiropractor adjusting your neck,” Davis said. “I stepped out and tried to stretch. But I knew something happened.”
He knew he was injured, but athletes play through injuries and pain. He went back out in the field, but his neck began to spasm on the right side. He didn’t have much control of his right side.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” he said.
He iced it and limped through the rest of spring training.
“By the time the season started, it was getting worse and nobody could figure it out,” Davis started.
On April 13, 1991, the Orioles were playing the Chicago White Sox in the new Comiskey Park and Davis was scheduled to be the designated hitter.
Prior to the game, he went into a room off the dugout with some weights and started to lift.
“The room had mirrors on the walls,” Davis said. “As I lifted, I could see my back and my shoulder blade was all out of place.”
Davis immediately went and got the trainer. The trainer brought in manager Frank Robinson, Davis remembered.
“It was a closed-door meeting,” Davis said.
They made the decision to shut Davis down that night and get him back to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore the next day for medical evaluation. Davis was taken out of the lineup.
As the game he was scratched from progressed, Davis, wearing his uniform but still in his tennis shoes, sat on the bench. From time to time, Robinson would glance toward Davis.
“Finally, he walked my way and asked, ‘Can you swing a bat?’ ” Davis said.
Davis got his uniform in order, loosened up and hit a solo home run in the seventh inning.
“I don’t know what happened, but I hit it out of the park,” Davis said. “After that, people started saying, ‘See, there’s nothing wrong with Glenn.’”
But there was.
It took six months to diagnose. He went to clinics all over the country before a doctor at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles figured it out. Davis had damaged his spinal accessory nerve. The injury impacted the right side of his trapezius, a large diamond-shaped muscle that holds the shoulder up.
“I was basically paralyzed,” Davis said.
That season is a painful blur as he played in only 49 games, hitting .227 with 10 home runs. It was also the beginning of the end of his major league career.
“It isn’t easy to hit 30 homes runs and have a hundred RBI when you are broken,” Davis said. “It is hard to play when you are on painkillers all the time.”
But there were some good days in Baltimore. The second season, Davis got to play with pitcher Storm Davis, the son of his high school coach in Jacksonville, Fla., and someone Davis considers a brother.
“Also, the Baltimore fans were great, just great,” he said.
But all of that doesn’t erase the pain of Baltimore. Davis is looking to do that this weekend when he participates in the festivities, puts on an Orioles jersey, gets introduced to the crowd on Saturday and walks through a troubled chapter of his baseball life.
“I am going back there to make peace,” Davis said.
And that peace is not just with a city and an organization. It’s also with himself.
This weekend, Davis is not a politician. He’s not a hotel owner and a successful businessman.
He’s an old ballplayer looking for closure in Baltimore.
Here’s to hoping Davis, now 56 years old, finds inner peace in the inner harbor.