OAKLAND, Calif. — Khris Davis spends his evenings hunting sweet spots. And here Oakland’s slugger is again, late night, applause still ringing in his ears…coiled…poised to strike…hands in the right spot…one of them firmly gripping a piece of another 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle and…boom! Found it.
Perfect fit as he carefully locks it into place.
It is another small triumph for Davis and his fiancee, Jill, in a season full of them.
This time, it is a puzzle that features a picture of succulent plants. Yes, plants. You were maybe expecting a photo of Monument Park in Yankee Stadium? Recently, they completed a Star Wars-themed puzzle.
“I like sci-fi movies,” Davis says. “It was a Star Wars Millennium Falcon, which was pretty fun.”
From jigsaw puzzles to the middle-away fastballs he regularly drives over the right-center fence, Davis has been hitting all the sweet spots lately: Only two men have slugged 40 or more home runs over three consecutive seasons in Athletics franchise history, Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx (1932-34) and Davis (2016-18). He is the first major leaguer to pound 40 or more homers and drive home 100 or more runs over three consecutive seasons since Philadelphia‘s Ryan Howard did it in four (2006-09).
Like the man he once handed bats to as a teenager, Ken Griffey Jr., Davis’ home runs exit to all fields, and the fact that he’s smashing them in what basically amounts to baseball’s Grand Canyon is even more dazzling. There are no cheapies in the Oakland Coliseum, not given the dimensions and the cool night air.
His is the kind of productivity that makes manager Bob Melvin look smart, and Melvin, one of the game’s best, needs little help there. It’s also the kind of productivity that gives little ol’ teams like Oakland the kind of turbocharge they need to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Yankees. Still, few outside the East Bay have paid notice.
It’s hard to blame them. Davis did not come pre-packaged with gushing words from scouts or screaming headlines from college exploits. Milwaukee selected him in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, and then shipped him to Oakland for two minor league pitchers in February 2016, even after he led the Brewers with 27 homers in ’15.
“We’ve all seen players that seem to be anointed with privilege and honor in the game,” says Rodney Davis, Khris’ father. “That Khristopher has earned all of this makes me super proud of him.”
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Now coaching high school baseball and serving at his church in Southern California, Rodney played minor league ball in the Dodgers organization and then spent time as a scout and rookie-ball hitting coach for Seattle and Arizona. It was while he was with Seattle that young Khris moonlighted at times as a Mariners spring training batboy, thus affording himself a front-row seat to watch Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Mike Cameron and Co. (When he is in a groove pounding home runs, Davis describes it as being able to “channel my inner Griffey.”)
“There are times in athletics where, for whatever reason, the game just gives some people a simpler road to success,” Rodney Davis continues. “Khris has paved his own road with hard work, and not necessarily by people recognizing what a hard worker he is and how talented he is.”
He does not draw attention to himself. He does not indulge in look-at-me fashion statements. Even his batting average remains consistent, coming in at .247 for each of the last four seasons. He goes out of his way to stay under the radar, which is one reason why Oakland is a perfect fit.
The loudest thing about him, by far, is his bat.
“I’m as basic as it gets,” Davis says. “Homebody. Low-maintenance.”
Not that Davis is boring, but…
“No, I’m boring,” he protests. “Write that down. I’m boring. Boring.”
This side of home runs and wins, his favorite times are at home with Jill and their son, Pablo, who turned one Sept. 15. They keep Pablo on a strict schedule, the puzzles often coming together while he sleeps. Always, they must be 1,000 pieces or more. Anything less is too easy.
“Jill is the better puzzler,” Davis says. “I’m just, like, her little sidekick.”
Sweet Spot No. 1: Of beans and broomsticks
So how does a guy who isn’t exactly oversized—Davis is 5’10”—develop wrists and hand-eye coordination quick enough to become a home run king?
Photo courtesy of Sonia Davis
While his father led him to the baseball field early in his life and his mother (who still works two jobs) instilled a work ethic Davis credits her for, it was while playing travel ball that Davis honed his swing.
The father of one of his teammates led a drill that he took to immediately. Davis even remembers his teammate’s name: Adam Bailey.
“[Khris] just out of the blue got out a bag of beans one day and says, ‘OK mom, you’re going to have to pitch beans to me,'” Sonia says. “I was like, ‘What?!'”
Soon, she regularly was sitting on a bucket in the backyard tossing pinto beans to her son, who used a broomstick to hit them. It is a drill he still uses today, especially in the winter.
“Pretty soon I said, ‘I need goggles, I’ve got all these beans buzzing by my ears,'” Sonia recalls. “I’d pitch and then turn my head to the side so I wouldn’t get hit in the face.”
In case you haven’t tried this at home, pinto beans don’t exactly travel far—at least, not with any kind of control. So the bucket had to be placed fairly close to Khris. Instead of goggles, she wound up using sunglasses for protection.
Still, she’d get smacked in the face with a bean a couple of times every session.
“It wasn’t too bad,” she says. “I didn’t mind. If it wasn’t beans, it would be throwing ground balls to him on the street and him working on defense. If it wasn’t that, it was tossing balls in batting cages. Which I did not mind, as long as I didn’t get hit.”
During batting practice today, he follows another routine with teammate Matt Chapman: During one round, Chapman, Oakland’s third baseman, will move over to second, and Davis will shoot line drives and ground balls that way, trying to beat the A’s defensive whiz.
“I think it’s really done wonders for his swing,” assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete says.
Davis plays pingpong and video games, which he says also keeps his hand-eye coordination sharp. Keeps his smack talk sharp, too. Like most clubs, the Athletics have a gaggle of gamers who gather on team charters, and catcher Jonathan Lucroy was crowing recently about dethroning Davis in Mario Kart.
“It can easily be taken back,” he vows.
“He’s like my brother, man,” says Lucroy, who was also Davis’ teammate in Milwaukee from 2013 to 2015.
The admiration Lucroy has for Davis, though, has not always been shared by fans. Davis, who is half black and half Mexican, has at times been the target of racial abuse.
Patrick Semansky/Associated Press
“Definitely, I’ve had to battle some racial stuff playing baseball,” he says. “It’s a predominantly white sport. I’ve had my situations, but at the same time that’s made me who I am today.”
He offers only one specific, that fans have “popped off about my hair being nappy.” But Davis admits he has encountered incidents from his teenage years in the minors all the way up to today.
“You’ve just got to take it for what it is and know that not every human on this planet is a good human,” he says. “I’m not going to tell you it doesn’t exist when it really does.
“I think as long as we keep growing, it’s going to get better. I think society’s gotten better, but the world is not ever going to be perfect.”
How he handles it, he says, mostly depends on the situation.
“I feel like racism today is very concealed,” he says. “Very concealed.
“You’ve just got to put on your smile and beat ’em with kindness, almost. Kill ’em with kindness.”
Sweet Spot No. 2: All the feels
Anthony Slocumb is having a pretty darn good day.
“I’m actually extra good, because I just got my progress reports and I have an A and an A-plus,” he gushes with heart-melting enthusiasm.
He’s just hopped into his mother’s car after another day of sixth grade, and the lucky kid suddenly is surrounded—in addition to his mother, father and two cats—by A’s. Hidden away in his bedroom at home is an autographed Khris Davis jersey.
Slocumb, 10, has a rare cancer called Langerhans cell histiocytosis. He was diagnosed on Jan. 1, 2015, came through chemotherapy like a champ and has been in remission for three years. Anthony’s condition is not terminal, but the kid was really sick.
Davis first spied Slocumb in August, when Anthony was with a group of Make-A-Wish kids on the field before the game. During batting practice, Davis often makes it a point to visit with fans gathered behind the plate—especially kids.
“If I see someone I feel I could touch,” he explains. “Just seeing [ill] kids in their innocence, that’s a tough situation. That’s the worst situation to be in.”
When Anthony saw Davis, he asked for his autograph. Anthony was nearly rendered speechless when Davis asked if Slocumb would like to sign his jersey.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Sanchez
“Sure, but I have bad handwriting,” Anthony said.
“Do you want me to put my full name?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Says Davis: “I thought I could make someone’s day better and say hi. I was just thinking about him being in my shoes. What it’s like for everybody to be asking for an autograph, and I thought maybe we should reverse roles. It just popped into my head.”
When the game started, the television cameras spied Anthony’s signature on the back of Davis’ right shoulder, but it wasn’t until Davis crushed a home run that things went viral.
Later that night, from her home in Arizona, Davis’ mother, Sonia, texted her son to tell him how proud she was of him, along with a reminder of the Make-A-Wish history in their own family: Khris’ cousin, Charles, was eight years older and grew up with sickle cell anemia. Charles didn’t have a big sports moment like Anthony, but he participated in Make-A-Wish camps that Sonia says she isn’t even sure Khris was aware of.
“Charles was kind of a miracle in our family,” Rodney says. “He was cured of sickle cell, underwent a bone marrow transplant, lived a lot of nights in the Ronald McDonald House and lived longer than he was supposed to.
“I like to say he lived to the ripe old age of 32.”
When Charles passed in 2012, it was the first time death struck so close to Khris.
“I feel that his cousin was talking to him through that moment [with Anthony],” Sonia says.
Meantime, the slugger’s tenderness sent ripples of kindness for a 10-year-old in remission that stretched far beyond the Oakland Coliseum. Television news cameras were at school the next day, Anthony was a hero and, playing off the “Athletics,” Anthony’s friends dubbed him “Anthletic.”
“It was his first week of middle school,” Natalie Sanchez, Anthony’s mother, says. “He had middle school jitters, didn’t know a lot of people, and this broke the ice and gave him a chance to meet new people.”
Sometimes, the right power hitter’s reach can far exceed the distances of his tape-measure home runs.
Sweet Spot No. 3: The parking space
It is the Bay Area’s excellent fortune to house two exceptional KDs: the Athletics’ “Khrush” and the two-time NBA champion who plays across the parking lot for the Warriors. Word is, Warriors fans can get possessive about theirs.
“This is the real KD to me,” Chapman says, nodding toward Davis’ locker. “[Warriors’ fans] might seem to be cranky, but they all seem to be cranky anyway, so let them be cranky.”
Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press
The A’s and Warriors share a common lot between the Coliseum and Oracle Arena, but a look at the spaces reveals just one of the differences between NBA royalty and MLB peasants: The Warriors have assigned spaces; the Athletics do not. Not even for their KD.
Chapman was blissfully unaware of this until he made the mistake of parking in the wrong spot in late March and a security guard showed up in the A’s clubhouse.
“Can we move your car?” the guard asked.
“Why?” Chapman replied.
“You parked in Kevin Durant’s parking spot.”
“It was just a random parking spot; how was I supposed to know it was his spot?” Chapman says. “He was pissed, though. I gave [a clubhouse attendant] my keys and let him move the car. KD wasn’t happy.
“So this is my real KD.”
Controversies like this—semi-serious and serious—Davis mostly sits out. For one thing, he’s barely on social media—Snapchat is all he does—so he’s unaware of much of it.
Teammate Jed Lowrie takes it back to the Make-A-Wish moment that the A’s all admired.
“That’s just a perfect example of a guy who’s humble and doesn’t pretend to be someone he’s not,” Lowrie says.
Sweet Spot No. 4: Oaktown (A breakfast story)
Around town, Davis sometimes is recognized. But not often enough to forget the time roughly a year ago when he wound up with a free breakfast at the Oakland Grill.
“One of the owners recognized me, is a big fan and ended up taking care of my breakfast,” Davis says. “I was grateful. That was the first time that happened.”
He keeps it real. There is no entourage. His inner circle, he estimates, is limited to five or six close friends. Most of his time away from the field now is reserved for Jill—they will marry this winter—and Pablo.
They’re a matched set, Davis and Oakland.
“He loves being here,” Melvin says. “We have a tough time finding players like him who want to be in Oakland. It’s tough for us to sign high-profile free agents here. So for him to want to be here is really important. And fans feel it, too.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
“He’s a guy who is not looking for his next contract someplace else. He’s looking for it here. Other places have a little more bells and whistles than us, but that doesn’t bother him.”
Davis, who becomes eligible for free agency after the 2019 season, has been vocal about his desire to stay in Oakland. No small part of that is Melvin. The slugger has grown exceptionally close with the manager in their three years together. Melvin helped talk him through his difficult decision to withdraw from the 2017 World Baseball Classic—he was set to play for Team Mexico, honoring the heritage of his mother’s side of the family, but felt “overextended”—has shielded him at times from the public eye when Davis needed privacy and provides pep talks when the slugger is feeling sluggish.
“BoMel on a daily basis reminds me I’m one of the best hitters in the game,” Davis says. “And for him to tell me that … I brush it off because I’m really hard on myself. It’s tough for me to believe sometimes because I’m so hot and cold. But he’s there to make sure I believe in myself. He instills that confidence, which is so cool.
“I’m lucky to be here. So lucky.”
During a vacation last winter in Hawaii, Davis even paused long enough to text Melvin videos of little Pablo on the beach.
“It took a little while for his personality to come out,” Melvin says. “But once it did, there are very few guys over the course of my managerial career that I feel as close to.”
Talk about sweet spots. On the field, Davis continues to khrush. Off the field, as he chills listening to J. Cole, Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar and assorted West Coast rappers (his favorites) and locks in puzzle pieces with Jill, it surely won’t be long until his mother is tossing pinto beans to little Pablo, her first grandchild. “I think that’s my next adventure,” Sonia says.
And at breakfast spots and on televisions throughout Oakland, it’s become difficult to miss Davis now.
“Can you tell Khris Davis I said hello,” Anthony asks, “and thanks for everything?”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.