Blue Jays’ Davis taking pride in preparation with opportunities uncertain

About this time last year, Jonathan Davis and his wife, Hannah, had their first child — six-pound, seven-ounce Kapri Dove Davis, who spent her first week in the world in intensive care.

As you might imagine, a lot about Davis’s life has changed since. There’s no more sleeping in. Really, there’s not much sleeping at all. Late at night, when he gets home from a long day at the ballpark, Davis tries to turn off the part of his brain that focuses on baseball and direct all of his energy into being a father. Compartmentalizing is everything.

And then there are the discussions he’s having at the ballpark; the new dad war stories being thrown around the Toronto Blue Jays clubhouse. Davis’s teammate, Hyun Jin Ryu, became a father around the same time he did. Ross Stripling had his first child last month in the middle of a generational Texas snowstorm. Marcus Semien had his third son over the winter, giving him three under the age of four. In one of MLB’s youngest clubhouses, with a half-dozen regulars aged 26 or younger, a dad gang has formed.

“It’s been a lot of parenthood talk,” Davis said, laughing. “We talk a lot about getting sleep.”

Davis is at a weird point of his career in that way. He was drafted the year Barack Obama began his second term. He made his MLB debut a half-decade later in 2018 but has accumulated only a little more than a year of big-league service over three seasons since. He’s no longer a prospect yet certainly not a veteran. He’ll turn 29 in two months, which makes him less than a year younger than Randal Grichuk, who’s played 734 MLB games to Davis’s 70. It also makes him less than a year older than Jordan Romano, whose MLB career has only just begun.

Yet Davis is one of the organization’s longest-tenured players. You can’t name a Blue Jays minor-league affiliate the right-handed hitting outfielder hasn’t worn the uniform of. As much of Toronto’s captivating young core made its climb to the big-leagues, Davis was there.

He played for the short-season Vancouver Canadians with Ryan Borucki in 2014. He hit in front of Rowdy Tellez and Danny Jansen at A-ball with the Lansing Lugnuts a year later. He shared a double-A clubhouse with Romano, Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio in 2018, when the New Hampshire Fisher Cats won an Eastern League championship. He was in left field for the Buffalo Bisons on the night Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made his triple-A debut. When Nate Pearson made his debut a year later, Davis was leading off as Buffalo’s designated hitter.

“I was having a conversation with Bo the other day. And just to hear him talk and speak like a man — it kind of excites me,” Davis said. “Because I remember Bo when he was sitting around with his flow and just being little Bo, you know?”

Davis watched these kids grow up, while growing up himself. He watched them put up standout minor-league numbers, while putting up numbers of his own. He finished second in the Florida State League in steals; he led the Fisher Cats in walks; he was second at the 2017 Arizona Fall League in doubles. He’s long been the organization’s best defensive outfielder; everyone who’s ever coached him has a story of some insane catch he made. He saved T.J. Zeuch’s 2019 no-hitter for the Bisons, laying out to snag a fading, ninth-inning flare in shallow centre field:

Through it all, he got on base at a .359 clip over nearly 2,500 minor-league plate appearances and he played stellar defence at all three outfield spots over more than 4,500 innings. He routinely won organizational end-of-season awards as this team’s MVP or that team’s best leader. He spent off-seasons working to better the Hattiesburg, Miss., community where he grew up, hosting free youth baseball clinics and speaking at schools. In January, he brought a Players Alliance Pull Up Neighbor event to Hattiesburg, handing out baseball equipment, food, masks and hand sanitizer. He is impossible not to root for.

But he does not share the same privilege as all those players he rose through the organizational ranks with, it must be said. While playing opportunity and leeway to make adjustments has come quickly and often for his peers, Davis’s chances been few and far between.

He’s spent the last three seasons on the fringes of the active roster. He was a September call-up in 2018, went up and down between triple-A and the majors three times in 2019, and he spent the final three weeks of the season on the roster in 2020. With another option year remaining and the Blue Jays outfield picture crowded, he’s almost certainly looking at a similar fate in 2021. Not that anyone’s ever heard him complain.

“I just want to be ready to play — simple as that,” he said. “I don’t want to get into the specifics of what I might be doing or what I could be doing. I know that I’m here to help the team win, as always. And when my name is called, that’s what I want to do — be able to step in and help the team win. Whether that’s laying a bunt down, stealing a bag, playing defence as always — and making sure that I can contribute at the plate, as well. That’s pretty much my role, man.”

Such is life as a very good pro ballplayer, but not one the industry considers capable of greatness or deserving of a full-time position on a contending team. So far, a career .258/.359/.415 minor-league slash line has only earned him 156 sporadic MLB plate appearances. All but 18 of the 70 MLB games he’s appeared in have taken place in September.

To that end, Davis spent the majority of the 2020 season — following a July COVID bout — at Toronto’s alternate site in Rochester, N.Y., diligently working through long days of live batting practice against developing pitchers, endless outfield repetitions and intra-squad scrimmages in an empty minor-league ballpark. It was a grind. There were only so many ways Blue Jays coaches could make the daily routines more novel and only so many ways for players to remain motivated while separated from their teammates, who were making a post-season push an hour to the west at another minor-league ballpark in Buffalo.

But remember what he said about staying ready to play? If Davis has learned one thing over nearly a decade as professional, it’s that preparedness is everything. That’s why, when a 2020 big-league call-up finally came his way in September, he was able to step to the plate in a live game for the first time in a year and do this:

“I believe without a doubt that if you prepare yourself the right way, the opportunity will present itself,” Davis said. “I knew that I had to prepare myself and continue to work in order for me to contribute to the team when the opportunity came.

“And so, when it did present itself, and I hit the home run, it was like, ‘wow, all of my work has paid off.’ And that’s just one at bat. But that’s the feeling that you get. Like, ‘man, I’m proud of myself for just grinding and staying with the process.’”

It was a joyous moment for everyone. You can see it in the Blue Jays’ dugout at the end of that clip — every player on their feet waiting to slap hands with Davis or pat him on the back. He’s a favourite of everybody in the organization — from management to coaches to players to clubhouse staff — who’s watched him work tirelessly and selflessly for years to earn the infrequent major-league opportunities he’s received.

He’s been at it so long that a whole new generation of top prospects — like Simeon Woods Richardson, who was acquired via trade in 2019 and spent 2020 at the alternate site with Davis — are now learning from him like Bichette and Biggio once did.

“JD gave me some really good battles at the alt site, man — some really competitive at-bats” Woods Richardson said. “And then getting to pick his brain and get feedback after was huge. He’d hit a double off me and then give me a compliment on a pitch I threw. He’d tell me to just keep being aggressive, keep being competitive. That whole experience made me a better ballplayer.”

Every team wants players like Davis. Every good organization needs players like him — unselfish role players who show up to work every day with a conscientious attitude, and who show up in games when you suddenly need them to contribute. That home run he hit last September ended up plating the game’s winning run. The next night, he hit a double out of the nine hole off Deivi Garcia. A couple weeks later, he made the catch of Toronto’s season:

But it’s not easy. Every player, no matter how altruistic, wants to play as much as possible. Every pro ballplayer, no matter how rational about their own abilities, wants to be a big-leaguer.

It wasn’t easy for Davis to even reach the pros out of the University of Central Arkansas — a school of less than 12,000 that has produced only two MLBers. It wasn’t easy to climb each and every rung of the Blue Jays minor-league ladder. It’s not easy earning only the league minimum on the rare occasions he’s been in the majors, spending most of his prime looking up from triple-A as a host of younger, less-experienced outfielders such as Socrates Brito, Alen Hanson, Derek Fisher and Billy McKinney, who were acquired via trade and awarded opportunities over him.

Those players are all gone now — off to other organizations or out of pro ball entirely. That the Blue Jays have kept Davis in the fold says something about the level of respect and esteem he holds within the organization. That the Blue Jays still view him as a down-roster contingency plan likely to begin the season back at the club’s alternate site says something else about their faith in his ability. Again, it’s not easy. It’s why Davis turns off the baseball part of his brain when he gets home at night to spend time with his young family. Compartmentalizing is everything. And all he can do is stay ready.

“I think, you know, just the things that have happened in my career, the things that have happened in my life over the past couple of years — it’s really allowed me to see life in a different perspective,” Davis said. “Me having my daughter Kapri was a moment that I think for anybody would change their perspective on life.

“I know with baseball, man, we’re only guaranteed a short amount of time. And who knows when that time will end. So, my thing is I want to be the best version of myself as much as possible. I know we’re all humans and we all make mistakes and we fall short. But at the end of the day, if we’re striving to be better people, better men, better baseball players — I think that’s the most important part.”

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