May 20, 2020

Overcoming Injury to Star for PU Baseball; Davis Heading to Duke to Continue Career

BATTLING BACK: Princeton University baseball player Chris Davis displays his batting form in a game last spring. After dealing with a series of injuries early in his career, outfielder Davis emerged as a key contributor for the Tigers, hitting .281 in 2019 as a junior and leading the Tigers in slugging percentage with a .407 mark. With his final season getting cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Davis is headed to Duke University as a graduate student in its Fuqua School of Business and will be playing for the Blue Devil baseball program. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Resilient gets thrown around a lot in these uncertain times, but few befit the adjective better than Chris Davis.

The Princeton University senior baseball star will graduate this June after having his final season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, the third season he has missed out on in his career. He’s been through a lot in the last five years, yet still has his sights on playing pro ball.

“He’s just as resilient a young man as we have ever had,” said Scott Bradley, the Tigers head coach the last 23 years. “It’s incredible what he’s done.”

Davis, a 5’9, 175-pound outfielder from Avon, Conn., was set back by a shoulder problem in his first year at Princeton, a life-threatening freak injury the next year, and now after two promising seasons, his final campaign was erased by precautions taken by the Ivy League and NCAA due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Losing a baseball season doesn’t match some of the loss and hardship some of the people across the world have had,” said Davis. “It’s crazy how much it has escalated with the reasons I’ve missed seasons.”

Returning from the first two years off to enjoy strong seasons, Davis is looking forward to his next opportunity on the diamond that will come next year as a graduate student in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. This spring, he had been hoping to build on a 2019 season that saw him start every game, batting .281 and leading the Tigers with a .407 slugging percentage as well as 16 extra-base hits. He had a hit and two walks this year in seven games as the Tigers went 0-7 before the remainder of the season was canceled.

“It’s definitely difficult to move on from a place that I love so much and not be able to play anymore with my teammates who I have so much respect for and I’ve grown so close with,” said Davis, who posted a .248 batting average over his career with 88 hits, 16 doubles, four triples, two homers and 26 RBIs in 89 games.

“The experience of having a couple years that I didn’t play has certainly helped me from a mental standpoint. I guess I know the drill. From a baseball training standpoint, it’s helped to understand I can make things work, I can train well on my own. That was a large part of my experience in that first year where I had to take a year off and had to do a year of training on my own.”

Davis tore his labrum in his shoulder in the summer before he arrived to Princeton in 2015, but he still came to campus that fall. He would withdraw before that spring semester when the injury did not respond well enough to physical therapy, yet his impact was immediate.

“He came in in the fall and literally changed the culture of our team in terms of work ethic and everything,” said Bradley.

“That’s not something that freshmen normally do. The way he went about his business, the way he went about his work, the way he attacked the weight room was literally like no other player we’ve had.”

Davis’s actions continued to speak volumes when he showed up to every Ivy weekend to support his teammates while he was out of school. Surgery repaired his shoulder, and he trained on his own to return to form for 2017. But that season only lasted eight games before he was injured in a collision after tracking down a fly ball in a game at Maryland. After passing out later that night, it was discovered that he had suffered a ruptured spleen. He required six pints of blood as doctors worked to save him.

“It was touch and go for a while, he’d lost so much blood,” said Bradley. “They were really trying to save the spleen and they couldn’t get it to stop. He was in the hospital for a week or 10 days.”

Missing the remainder of the season, Davis was able to play that summer close to home for the Bristol (Conn.) Blues of The Futures League, a college baseball summer league.

“That was one of the most fun summers of my life because I had the opportunity to do something on a daily basis that I hadn’t been able to do in so long,” said Davis.

“It taught me that I could overcome a lot and it taught me that I have an incredibly strong network of people that I can rely on in incredibly difficult times. It also instilled in me a deeper gratitude in me when I get to step on the ball field.”

While Davis was grateful for the opportunity to be on the field, his recovery wasn’t complete. He was still dealing with some of the mental affects that stemmed from his serious injury.

“I never considered that I wouldn’t play again,” said Davis. “That was kind of non-negotiable for me. I figured if I was going to make it through healthy enough to walk around, I was going to make it through healthy enough to play again. I’m so thankful for the doctors in [Washington] D.C. who got me healthy enough to walk around and then I was going to take care of the second part. Once I got back, there was a lot of doubt. I struggled early on in that summer with the Blues with a lot of doubt and fear.”

Davis kept envisioning another serious injury and was scared before every play. He worked with sports psychologist Sean-Kelley Quinn at the Moawad Consulting Group to overcome those fears. He was on the field and made it through an entire season in his third year at Princeton.

“I’m grateful to Coach Bradley for sticking with me during that time,” said Davis.

“It would have been easy for him to push to the side a player who struggled so much in his career and instead Coach Bradley continued to trust in me and believe in me. Through a lot of difficulties he continued to have faith in me and I’m grateful for that.”

Bradley is only one part of a support system that helped Davis get back to lead the Tigers in runs scored while making 33 starts in his sophomore season.

“The network of people, whether it be my family or my teammates at Princeton or other people involved in Princeton athletics, anyone involved in the baseball program that I’ve been able to rely on,” said Davis.

“And I attribute it to hard work and everything like that. I also attribute it to a lot of the research that I’ve done and a lot of the seeking out knowledge that I’ve gone about doing. If you want to play baseball at a high level, if you want to do anything at a high level, hard work is a prerequisite. The people who are able to overcome obstacles or set themselves apart, are people who are going to get knowledge and go out and research and find the best ways to do things and might be new or risky or might be unpopular sometimes.”

Davis found Driveline Baseball in Seattle, a data-driven baseball training program, that next summer and honed his skills before playing back-to-back seasons and showing its benefits when he had his best season as a Tiger last spring.

“He had a chance to play ball that summer and came back last year and had a very good year for us,” said Bradley.

“The leadership that he displays every day with what he had to fight through and everything he had to do is unparalleled in my career here at Princeton.”

Not only was Davis a leader on the field for the baseball team, but he also represented the squad on the Varsity Student-Athlete Advisory Committee for three years and served as VSAAC president this year. Davis is proud to be a part of the group that implemented No Tiger Too Tough, a program that connected students to mental health resources and encouraged those needing them to seek help.

“It was an experience that I was incredibly grateful for to be able to connect with other student-athletes and connect with the athletics administration,” said Davis.

“I was grateful to the athletic administration how they handled that committee. Molly Marcoux Samaan, our athletic director, was present at the majority of our meetings. I’d like to think we accomplished some good things for the student body and the athletic community as a whole.”

Now Davis is at home preparing to bounce back from another lost season that is out of his control. He’s been working with his father, ESPN Anchor Rece Davis, to be ready for his next chance on the diamond.

“We’ve got a barbell and weights and been lifting in the garage and my dad and I have been throwing,” said Davis.

“He’s been throwing me whiffle balls and bottle caps that I’ve been hitting to try to develop some tools there, not only bat speed or some of the training I’m doing with under-loaded or overloaded bats and some of contact quality stuff. The bottle caps are small and move around a bunch and they’re hard to square up. You get creative. It’s been a good opportunity to work on some different things training wise.”

Next year Davis will be playing for Duke, a path that former Princeton teammate Ben Gross used to go from a 34th-round pick in 2018 to a 10th-round selection in the Major League Baseball draft last year. Davis will petition the NCAA for two years of eligibility at Duke after losing one season to his spleen injury and now a second to the coronavirus pandemic before he hopes to continue his playing career at the next level.

“It’s been a goal of mine ever since I was a little kid, ever since I started playing ball, to play professional baseball,” said Davis.

“That goal is honestly a big part of what got me through a lot of the obstacles I faced in my Princeton career, having that goal and that desire to play professional baseball. I would love to get the opportunity to do that. I’ll do everything in my power to be able to make that a reality.”

Getting another season or two of college baseball and the chance for pro scouts to see him in a Power Five conference should benefit Davis. While he doesn’t have stats that jump off the page, he’s shown professional potential and ambition over two full seasons at Princeton.

“He’s a guy that I would like to think has earned the right because he’s such a high character kid that an organization would be lucky to have him, to bring him in and let him play for a couple years and see what he’s capable of doing,” said Bradley.

“Worst-case scenario, you have a kid to move into front office work, development, anything, because he’s that type of personality.”

It will be hard to overlook Davis because of his persistence. Despite all his setbacks, he is grateful for his Princeton career, even if it looks so far like nothing he would have envisioned.

“The facts of the matter are this has been the journey, the lot that I’ve been dealt, and I know that anything I’m going to do to succeed will come from my ability to make productive that lot I’ve been given,” said Davis.

“To accomplish that goal that I’ve still got of playing professional baseball, and doing so successfully for a long time, that’ll be a heck of a story if I’m able to do it. It won’t just be a story about me, it’ll be more of a testament to the people who supported me along the way. I think it’ll be a great story when it’s all written. It’s certainly a unique story already. I think it’ll be a great story when it’s all said and done.”