PEORIA, Ariz. — The man they call Mr. Mariner was on a back field Tuesday, watching intently as the team’s rawest minor-leaguers ran through their paces.
Afterward, Alvin Davis patiently helped an equipment manager load duffel bags onto a cart. And a few minutes later, when an infield drill had concluded, he dutifully walked around the field refilling the bucket of balls.
“A Hall of Famer picking up balls!” marveled one of the instructors.
That’s Alvin Davis, as solid a person as I’ve ever encountered in baseball, dating to my very first spring covering the Mariners as a fledgling reporter for the now defunct Journal-American in 1986.
Davis was in his heyday then, just two years removed from his breakout Rookie of the Year and All-Star season in ‘84. He was on the way to forging the career that made him the first inductee of the Mariners’ Hall of Fame.
His warmth and friendliness has always been Davis’ calling card, even as he endured one losing season after another. Davis was often the best thing they had going, until the Mariners finally reached .500 for the first time in franchise history in 1991. That would be his final season in Seattle.
And now Davis is back in a Mariners uniform for the first time since he left in 1992 to sign with the Angels.
With his three children grown and successful, the 52-year-old Davis decided last year it was time to return to baseball. He was experiencing, he said with a laugh, “a change in life.”
He talked it over with his wife, who prodded him gently by reminding him he wasn’t getting any younger.
“You’re not going to be able to run around out there pretty soon,” she told him.
Staying active with the Mariners in a variety of promotional functions had kept Davis connected with the team. Serving the past seven years as an assistant baseball coach at Martin Luther King High School in his hometown of Riverside, Calif., had kindled an affinity for teaching baseball.
Davis has spent much of his time since retirement from baseball in the ministry, serving as an elder at the Cornerstone Fellowship Bible Church in Riverside, where he is also in charge of their finances. His fellow parishioners gave their blessing for Davis to pursue this renewed dream.
The Mariners, it seemed, were calling him back to the game he realized he still loved.
“It just seemed like the right time,” he said. “I would have washed laundry to get back here.”
That wasn’t necessary, though he may well be doing that. In July, the Mariners hired Davis as a roving instructor, and during the offseason they made the hire permanent. He has been in spring training from the first day of camp, working first with the major-leaguers but now focusing on minor-league camp.
The official title is Minor League Coordinator, and Davis will rove around to all the minor-league affiliates during the course of the season. Chris Gwynn, Mariners director of player development, believes Davis’ presence will help the organization in myriad ways.
“He’s someone you can send anywhere to do just about anything, actually,” Gwynn said. “He’s still learning as far as development, but he’s seen a lot of things. He can help the kids. Certain situations will happen, and he’ll know how to handle it.”
When he started making his rounds last August, stopping first in Tacoma, Davis wasn’t even sure whether to put on a uniform. Jack Zduriencik told him it was up to him. The first couple of days, Davis remained in street clothes.
“I think the second day I was in Tacoma, Nick Franklin came to me after the game and said, ‘Are you going to put a uniform on tomorrow?’ I said, ‘OK, that’s my cue.’ So I put on a uniform.”
And now it looks as comfortable on Davis as it did during a seven-year run as one of the most productive first basemen in the American League in the 1980s. Still, Davis couldn’t help but wonder if today’s youngsters knew anything about his career.
When Tacoma manager Daren Brown introduced Davis to the players and asked if anyone knew who he was, Carlos Triunfel said, “Yeah, he’s in the batting cage,” referring to a poster of Davis that hangs in the cage.
Not many roving instructors have that kind of cachet. Yet Davis is wisely taking a low-key approach as he learns new players and soaks in the mechanics of player development. He will work with first basemen on the fundamentals of the position, and with hitters on their batting stroke. But Davis believes he can offer as much, if not more, on the mental aspects of baseball.
“There are certain principles and certain ideas that just don’t change over time,” he said.
He has found Mariners players ready to absorb knowledge.
“The kids are hungry, man. Even the young big-leaguers, they’re very open to having a conversation about hitting or anything,” he said. “It’s a great environment. It really is.”
Manager Eric Wedge, like just about everyone who comes into contact with Davis, has become enamored with Mr. Mariner.
“I’m so happy and proud for all of us he’s back in more of a prominent role in camp with us,” Wedge said. “Just what he means to the Seattle Mariners fans, what he means to baseball in general. How neat it would be to come full circle. He was one of the early stars with the Mariners, and for him to see us evolve into a championship caliber team and be a part of that again. It couldn’t be any better.”
That’s a dream for down the road, however. Right now, Davis has teenagers to help down the road to the major leagues. And balls to pick up.