SAN FRANCISCO -- Consider Chris Davis and his 42 home runs a test of skepticism vs. cynicism. If you're a baseball fan who longs to see the arrival of a slugger threatening the 60-homer barrier and to believe that he is PED-free, while recent history tells you to hold off on calling anyone "clean,'' you lean toward skepticism. If you reject the subtleties of doubt and must dismiss Davis as dirty in the absence of evidence beyond big biceps and hefty stats, you've defaulted to cynicism.
Davis understands the skepticism and recognizes its roots enough to respond to it. All the Orioles' first baseman can do is explain why he thinks that six years of yo-yoing between the Rangers' farm clubs and the majors gave way to a 33-homer season for Baltimore in 2012 and then, at age 27, the surge that launched a thousand questions per home run.
"Once I failed a number of times in Texas, I think they formed a certain kind of opinion about what kind of player I was going to be,'' Davis said over the weekend. "… As soon as I was traded over here, [manager Buck Showalter] sat me down and said 'Look, this isn't an open-ended ticket; you're going to have to produce. But we're going to give you every opportunity to play. We're going to give you a chance to prove what type of player you're going to be over a full season.' That's huge for a hitter.''
Early in the weekend series against the Giants, Hunter Pence reached first and started chatting up his fellow Texas native. "He asked me 'How free are you right now?'" Davis said. "I said: 'I don't think I've ever felt this free.'"
In the same game, a fan sitting behind the Orioles' dugout reminded Davis that he was playing in the town that revered Barry Bonds. Davis experienced a variation on the PED heckling he has come to expect, if not accept, this season.
"I struck out, and when I went back to the dugout, he's still yelling, and he's wearing a Bonds jersey, and he's pointing at it like "Ya, Ya,'' Davis said, starting to grin, "and I was like, 'All right, if that's how you want to spend your Friday night, you paid for the ticket.'"
Davis must have stirred up Bonds' partisans earlier this season, when he had 37 homers at the All-Star break and said he viewed Roger Maris' 61 homers as the single-season record rather than Bonds' 73 in 2001 / (or Mark McGwire's 70 in 1998 and 65 in 1999, or Sammy Sosa's 66 in 1998, 63 in 1999 and 64 in 2001).
"I want people to understand that I was and still am a huge fan of Barry Bonds.
I've looked at tape of him this year at times when I was scuffling, because he was such a patient hitter,'' said Davis, who counts Ken Griffey Jr. as his childhood baseball idol. "But obviously, there were some questions surrounding what he did, and I'm still entitled to my opinion, that 61 is the record.''
Davis was still a teenager when the so-called steroid era was unveiled, in court proceedings for Bonds, in front of Congress for McGwire. He is very close in age to the eldest sons of both players, and he spoke from the perspective of a young fan when he discussed them.
Davis was only 12 years old when McGwire hit his 62nd homer to pass Maris, and Davis remembers "going nuts in my living room. I was thinking this is awesome, and then a few years later, I find out … and I was just disappointed.''
He also said of Bonds: "Would I want him on my team? Absolutely. But the thing I don't understand is, he was a Hall of Fame player before that [his connections to PEDs]. He's a 40-40 player. I mean, why? I think that's the fan in me speaking.''
This generation inherited the skepticism wrought in those days, and exacerbated by the fact that the introduction of drug testing didn't prove a cure-all. (It never has in other sports, and by itself, it probably never will.) The 14 players caught in the Biogenesis scandal revealed the shortcomings of MLB's testing, but the scope of the investigation gave observant skeptics a reason to stay put, and not cross over into the cynics' realm.
More than ever, doping athletes in certain sports have reason to believe that they will be caught. (Eventually, the other sports will probably be forced to catch up.) If Lance Armstrong could be busted, anyone can. An audience that cares about PEDs still can't trust what it sees, but it can believe that a cultural shift has begun, that the issue has become less opaque.
By itself, Davis' willingness to discuss the suspicions around his improvement, or maturation, represents a dramatic change. An ostensibly brief interview turned into a 40-minute one this weekend as he delved deeply into the topic. He never turned hostile or defensive. He laughed quite a bit.
Earlier this year, Davis answered a teenager's question on Twitter about whether he used steroids with a simple "no.'' He talked to ESPN's Rick Reilly, who began his piece by saying that a player would have stomped away in anger if a reporter had posed the same question that the kid did. In the past, that may have been true. Now, doubt has become so standard, the player is better off trying to claim the benefit of it.
When Davis first addressed the issue with reporters in mid-summer, he assumed that would be the end of it. Instead, he has had to repeat himself, over and over.
"I'm not surprised they would bring it up,'' he said. "I'm surprised they keep bringing it up.'' Yet he didn't call a halt to the interview. If anything, he extended it with expansive comments.
Davis said he had heard references to syringes in the past, "because I'm so big, but you just try to drown that stuff out.'' (He is 6-3, and he says his weight ranges from 230 to 240, depending on the time of the season.) The noise didn't turn truly loud until this year, when his batting average soared over .300 and the home runs, until recently, came at a Maris pace.
During his major-league stints with the Rangers, he had failed mostly because he couldn't make consistent contact. When he did connected, the ball flew. He hit 21 homers in 419 plate appearances in 2009, but he also struck out 150 times that season. He didn't match that level of playing time in the big leagues until last year.
"I've always had power, the problem was never power,'' he said. "It was: 'Can he consistently make contact to put the power into play?'"
In the summer of 2011, he said, before the trade to the Orioles, he thought about giving up baseball if he didn't make progress by the end of the year. He and his then-fiancée, Jill, were about to marry, and she was constantly commuting from her nursing job in Dallas to see him at triple-A Round Rock.
"She would basically work 12-hour shifts, drive four hours, stay six hours with me, then drive back and go to work,'' he said. "And it just got to the point where I was tired of being in Triple-A, I got tired of going back and forth. I know a lot of guys spend more time in Triple-A than I did, but I just started thinking that maybe I could be doing something that would be more productive and more beneficial to other people with my life.''
He considered becoming a youth pastor, and going back to school. He played for Navarro Junior College in Texas before the Rangers drafted him in 2006. Then Baltimore traded for him and committed to him. He has a lineup around him that would bolster any slugger, and he has a swing that, at its most potent, looks like a boxer's upper cut. He sent a ball deep into center at the Giants' notoriously unyielding park Saturday afternoon -- a shot measured at 466 feet and believed to be the longest of his career. This is why PED revelations are such a killjoy, because they cast suspicion on moments like this and leave so many athletes with no definitive way to defend themselves.
Davis seems to grasp why decency has an awkward footing in his sport right now, even if he doesn't like it. At one point this weekend, he started to say "I never failed a drug test'' (he estimated he has taken four this year) and then realized: "But that doesn't really make a difference.''
He deserves the benefit of the doubt, as does any athlete who has yet to be connected to a rogue personal trainer or a fishy clinic, or a bad lab result. That benefit doesn't silence the questions. It draws the line between them and condemnation.