When Superman roamed center field for the Tigers

Eric Davis centerfielder Detroit Tigers

The talented Eric Davis twice was named Comeback Player of the Year.

More than 17,000 men have played in the major leagues, most of them for a brief time. Only a small percentage enjoyed careers of at least ten seasons. Fewer still have earned election to the Hall of Fame – about 1 in 100.

But even fewer have been talented enough that they were ever considered the greatest player in the game at one point. Gifted players like that are rare, numbering in the dozens.

Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, and Rickey Henderson are some of the immortals to earn that distinction. Pete Reiser, Dick Allen, Bobby Bonds, Don Mattingly, and Dale Murphy are a few of the non-Hall of Famers who have earned “greatest in the game” status for stretches of time. Current players Alex Rodriguez and Valdimir Guerrero also carried that mantle at various times. And while the label of “greatest player in the game” isn’t an official honor determined by votes or stats, there are normally only a few players at one time who are in the discussion.

One player who rightfully deserved to be called the “greatest in the game” was an amazing outfielder who did eye-popping things on the diamond in the 1980s and early 1990s despite being one of the most fragile players of his or any other era. For parts of two seasons he roamed center field for Sparky Anderson’s Tigers, with mixed results. But after leaving Detroit he overcame incredible odds to forge a second career as a very productive player.

Eric Davis was as talented as any man to lace on a pair of spikes and walk between the white lines. the term “five-tool player” was invented for Davis. The southern California native could hit, hit for power, run, throw, and field. Despite a pencil-thin frame and a tiny waist that made him look more like Prince than the King of the Diamond, Davis had awesome raw power and speed. His 40-yard dash time was the fastest ever recorded by scouts from the Dodgers when they scouted him as a teenager in the City of Angels.

He was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds, and by the time he arrived in the big leagues to play under manager Pete Rose, Davis had secured a good understanding of the strike zone and could launch the baseball to all parts of the field with tremendous authority. But what made him so special, what made him like Superman in a baseball uniform, was his ability to combine speed and power in ways never seen before.

In his first full season, the center fielder hit 27 homers and stole 80 bases. No player had ever done that before. The next season he clubbed 37 homers and drove in 100 runs. But he also swiped 50 bases while being caught just six times. He was simultaneously the best leadoff hitter and cleanup hitter in the league. He had three more seasons of at least 20 homers and steals while also winning three Gold Gloves in center field. He was the fastest, most daring, and most exciting outfielder to come along since Mays, with whom he was often compared.

But like the Glass Man character in M. Night Shamalan’s Unbreakable, Davis was fragile. He was sidelined for days, weeks, and months with serious and nagging injuries. He dove for a ball in the 1990 World Series and ruptured his kidney. He missed the remainder of the series, which his Reds won.

By his eighth season he was missing so much playing time that the Reds dealt him to his hometown Dodgers. He never adjusted to playing there, and within two years he was in Detroit, acquired at the trade deadline in 1993.

On an aging Tigers squad, Davis took over in center field, performing well in September of ’93. In one game he hit a 435-foot homer at Tiger Stadium and also threw out a runner at home plate from 350 feet away. He hit six homers in 23 games for the Bengals that season. The next season he got hurt again, appearing in just 37 games and batting a miserable .183 with little power. He was granted free agency at the end of the season.

But in the spring he announced that his doctor’s had detected cancer. He would not play for more than a year. Once a superstar with incredible skills, Davis was 33 years old with seemingly no future baseball, and he was battling for his life. Long before Lance Armstrong, Davis faced cancer and fought it with courage.

By the spring of 1996, Davis was cancer-free and ready to get back into the game. He made a return to the Reds, many people thinking it was more out of sentiment than anything. But amazingly, the veteran Davis had a fine season – hitting 26 homers, stealing 23 bases, and playing center field again. The Comeback Player of the Year looked so good that he earned a two-year free agent contract from the Baltimore Orioles. In 1997 he got injured, but the next year he had one of his best seasons as a pro – batting a career-best .327 with 28 homers and 89 RBI. He set a career-high in doubles and slugged .582 for the O’s as their right fielder. Most impressively, Davis set a Baltimore franchise record with a 30-game hitting streak. For his efforts, he was named Comeback Player of the Year again.

Davis wound up his career as a fourth outfielder with the Cardinals and Giants, serving as an inspirational and valued veteran presence in the clubhouse. Occasionally he would show flashes of his amazing power, as well.

During the course of his career, Davis often startled opponents, teammates, and fans with his feats.

“He was the best hitter, best runner, best outfielder, best everything I ever saw,” teammate Paul O’Neil said.

Though he never attained the Hall of Fame status many predicted for him, when Davis was healthy and going right, he was as good as anyone in the game.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.