Davis tests our new outlook on HRs

It is as if Chris Davis has arrived at exactly this time, in precisely this manner, to see if America still believes in the home run.

Maybe he’s convinced us already.

How else can we explain that Davis – an unknown to many fans one year ago – will bat cleanup for the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game on FOX?

Davis received 8,272,243 votes in the fan balloting, more than reigning Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and everyone else in the Midsummer Classic. Clearly, fans across the world have fallen in love with his power: 37 home runs in the first half, which tied an AL record. He’s on pace for 62.

Yes, 62.

How do you feel about that? Are you ready to wipe the names of Sosa, McGwire and Bonds from your consciousness and embrace the 27-year-old Davis as an authentic threat to The Real Home Run Record? Or are you some combination of cynical and disinterested, after a decade of performance-enhancing drug revelations in the sport?

Davis shouldn’t have to prove the legitimacy of his performance. But Monday, when the loaded questions came his way –  1998 … people question your performance … how do you explain it – Davis didn’t flinch.

“There’s no reason not to believe in me,” Davis said, before a crowd of reporters at the All-Star Media Day. “We’ve talked about the drug testing system. It’s super sophisticated, in my opinion the most strict in all of sports. I don’t understand really why anybody would try to cheat it. At the same time, I know it’s happened. For me, all I can do is continue to do what I’ve done and try to give the people a little bit of hope to look for in the future.

“For me, it’s never really crossed my mind. I’ve always been a strong guy. I’ve always had power. It was more about consistently putting the bat on the ball, not swinging at balls 14 feet out of the strike zone. It’s honestly never crossed my mind.”

I’ve interviewed Davis numerous times over the past few years. I like him personally. But I was especially impressed with him Monday, while he faced a sensitive line of inquiry. He never once snapped at a reporter. He was witty and funny, remarkably at ease. He chose not to brag about his 33 home runs last year – proof that this isn’t, contrary to popular belief, a one-year aberration.

“It’s something you kind of have to expect,” Davis said. “If you would have told me this was going on in spring training, that I would be having this kind of year, I wouldn’t even have thought about it. But it’s here and it’s now and something I’m obviously willing to talk about. It doesn’t bother me to talk about it. In a way, it’s a backhanded compliment because it means I’m doing something right.”

This is more than an issue of fairness. It’s a litmus test for how we view the sport. Davis’ status as the top vote-getter suggests that fans don’t view home runs as incriminating evidence. That, to me, is progress. To doubt Davis now is to profile him.

When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa filled ballparks while chasing Roger Maris in 1998, we saw them as ambassadors who brought back the sport following the ’94 strike. Years later, we found out those emotions weren’t real even if the revenues were. With Davis, the opposite could be true.

Maybe this handsome Texan has been dispatched by the baseball gods – with the sport in the throes of the Biogenesis investigation – to reaffirm the existence of guilt-free home runs. He may not receive the unbridled adulation of McGwire and Sosa, but history will judge him kindly so long as his reputation remains squeaky clean.

Which, by the way, it is.

“The chase in ’98, at the time, was one of the most exciting things in all of sports,” Davis said. “It was disheartening to find out down the road what came out about all that. In my opinion, 61 is the record. I think most fans agree with me.”

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maris’ 61 in ’61 remains the single-season home run record among players not linked to chemical enhancement. Bonds, McGwire and Sosa account for the top six single-season marks of all-time.

Are we willing to give ourselves over to an older, wiser home-run chase?

“I think baseball fans are,” said Adam Jones, Davis’ Baltimore teammate. “At the end of the day, chicks dig the long ball.

“(Jose) Bautista was the last (to hit) 50. We got questions about what he was doing. Nothing! He started pulling the ball. That’s all. He hit the ball out front. … They were going crazy up in Canada when he was approaching 50. For us, that would be awesome.”

If Davis is sitting on 58 or 59 home runs in late September, what kind of story will it be? Will you want to watch every one of his at-bats? Or would he need to make a run at Bonds’ 73 – which seems unlikely, even at hitter-friendly Camden Yards – to garner widespread national acclaim?

“I think he’s going to hit 60,” Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson told me Monday, and I’m inclined to agree. From there, it will be up to us – the fans, the media – to interpret it as we choose. In that sense, it’s not Chris Davis who’s on trial.

It’s us.