Last night, the Tampa Bay Rays clinched postseason berth for the first time since 2013 with a win over the Toronto Blue Jays. One of the late additions to the club is 29-year-old rookie Johnny Davis. Johnny is one of the fastest men in baseball, and a throwback to the days of a Vince Coleman or Herb Washington (who was baseball’s “designated runner”). But, it’s been a long and arduous path for #73.
Never a top prospect and not gifted with the best baseball skills in the world, Davis could do one thing especially well above average: run. That’s what got him to the Majors at 29 years old. Davis has 1 total at bat on the season, a triple in his hometown of Anaheim, but has played in 5 games and scored 4 runs.
Though Anaheim was his hometown, there were many nights that Davis went to bed without a home. As a kid, Davis father was regularly incarcerated and his mom and brother (alongside him), were in and out of homeless shelters throughout most of Davis’ childhood.
When Johnny spoke with Bob Nightengale of USA Today, he was quoting saying that “when you’re a kid in Compton, you know you don’t have money, but you don’t feel the effects of being poor.” Compton is an area full of poverty, and Davis’ family was no exception. But they were different, however, as Davis continued saying “the difference in my situation was I knew how bad it was. I knew how poor we were. When you’re in and out of homeless shelters, that’s not normal. There were times when we just didn’t have food.”
He made it through high school going to 3 different schools and eventually junior college, and became so normalized to Ramen that he still eats it regularly despite being on a roster in Major League Baseball.
For Johnny, baseball saved his life as he feared that he’d be imprisoned or dead by the time he was old enough to drink. But at 29, he’s proudly drinking as on the 27th of September.
Johnny played one year in his entire life of organized baseball, at age 13, in little league before trying out for his college team at West Los Angeles College. He made it and went on a tear, slashing .336/.374/.549 with a .923 OPS and 22 swipes on the basepaths. The next year, after only one year of baseball since age 13, he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers.
He did really well in his first 2 seasons within the organization, but like everything else in life, it just wasn’t that easy for Johnny. 10 games into the 2015 season, Johnny tore his ACL. Johnny Davis bounced around the Crew’s farmsystem before being released in April of 2018.
Johnny decided that the next in his life was to continue to pursue a career in baseball, and he sent out feelers. Eventually, the speedy switch-hitter inked on to play for the Kansas City T-Bones of the American Association, an Independent League with no MLB affiliation. He would only play 11 games for them before flying out to the Mexican Leagues and playing for the Tecolotes de los Dos Laredos.
His agent told him he shouldn’t go to the Mexican Leagues because he’d be forgotten and never receive an opportunity. He went anyway, where he finished his 2018 campaign. He hit .312 with 4 homeruns and 28 stolen bases his he continued to chase his dream that seemed to slip further and further away from potentially becoming a reality.
He returned to the same club in 2019, and stole 48 bases in 92 games. He also played in 14 games for the Guerreros De Oaxaca. But then, as he thought he was done playing baseball until next year, he got a call.
The call was from the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays had an extra roster spot and wanted to fill it with a running-dynamo. The Rays, however, had just lost out to the Braves on the Billy Hamilton sweepstakes. Scouts Kevin Ibach and Ryan Bristow, as well as farm director Jeff McLerran frantically searched for speed, and they thought they had found it in Johnny Davis. Davis’ speed had been compared to that of an Olympic runner and the Rays made a phone call. They snagged Davis from the ultimate bargain bin like he was a movie at Walmart, and gave him a minor league contract on August 26th.
It was only 6 games in the Tampa Bay system when he was playing Call of Duty in his hotel room with 3 teammates. It was late at night, but a phone call interrupted their game. Davis removed his headset, and answered it. It was then that AAA Durham Manager Brady Williams told him that his dream had become a reality.
Oozing of unbridled exaltation, he let out a massive scream. Davis, in the same interview with Nightengale, stated that while everybody in the hotel heard him scream, they didn’t hear the proceeding weeping. Davis texted his fiancée, tried to reach his mother (whose phone was unfortunately out of battery) and called his brothers. He was a Major League ballplayer.
The final person he reached was Gerald Pickens, who Davis says he “owes everything to.” Pickens founded a baseball academy and league in Compton that even saw 10 of his players get drafted; one of which was multi-time Major League All-Star Eric Davis. He played baseball that summer under Pickens, but never wanted to pick up a bat again. Davis was a troubling youth, who claims to have gotten poor grades as well as gotten stuck with the wrong crowd; but Pickens never gave up on him and continued to mentor him. Pickens would feed him when Davis would go without food.
When scouts wanted to see Davis’ brother Tyree, Tyree responded “you should see Johnny run.” He made it to first out of the box in 3.4 seconds. From then on, he was back in the game and Pickens would work with him every night into the wee hours of the morning, molding him into the player he’d become.
Pickens was in attendance to see Johnny’s first Major League hit. Johnny has already agreed to speak at a plethora of different events for the Compton community this offseason.
For Johnny, who scored a run in the clinching game after Travis d’Arnaud got on late and was lifted for a pinch runner, tonight was the culmination of an odyssey.
This is what it's all about. 🔊 pic.twitter.com/0t2aQxc5o6— MLB (@MLB) September 28, 2019
Not only is Johnny Davis a Major League ballplayer, but a little over a month ago he was in Mexico amidst obscurity. Now, he’s popping what Chris Jericho would call “A Little Bit of the Bubbly” as the Rays head into the wild-card game on Wednesday. Johnny Davis got a little bit wild tonight, but it is well deserved. This is Johnny’s night of celebration.
As Johnny told Tricia Whitaker in the clip above, let’s go.
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