Ed: I originally wrote this two years ago. Ron Davis, to me, is one of the more tragic figures in Twins history. I still maintain that the local media and the fans used him as an unfair scapegoat for the troubles of the Twins from 1982-1986. That is not to say that he was a great reliever – at best he was up and down. What I would argue, however, is that Davis wasn’t as bad as he is remembered, and certainly wasn’t the Twins’ top problem in the mid-80’s as he is still considered by many today. In fairness, however, it should be noted that I was three years old when the trade happened and had just turned eight when he was traded to the Cubs, so I have little to no memory of what it felt like to have RD as your closer – at least that is what I am often told by a former co-worker who maintains that Davis was the worst Twin of his lifetime.
April 10, 1982
The Twins traded veteran infielder Roy Smalley to the New York Yankees for relief pitcher Ron Davis and minor leaguers Greg Gagne (SS) and Paul Boris (P).
Ever since the mid-1960’s, the Twins have had a revolving door for players to fill the role of “bullpen ace”. The most recent was Doug Corbett, who filled the role pretty admirably in 1980 and 1981 (220 and 154 ERA+, respectively).
In early 1982, the Twins went into full cost-cutting mode (or “build for the future” mode, depending on your point of view), and unloaded a lot of veteran players. Roy Smalley was the first to go.
Smalley came into the league with Texas in 1975. He came to the Twins in 1976 as a part of the deal that sent Bert Blyleven to Texas. The second-generation ballplayer put up solid if unspectacular numbers in his first stint with the Twins (’76-’82); his best season being 1978 when he went .273/.362/.433 and had a 122 OPS+ and 10.4 WARP3.
In exchange for Smalley, the Twins got something they really didn’t seem to need and a couple of minor leaguers. With Corbett pitching so well in previous years, it seemed odd that Davis was the player the Twins went after. About a month later, a struggling Corbett was traded to California in exchange for a couple of young players (including Tom Brunansky) and cash.
Though Corbett had been good for the Twins, Davis had been even more impressive for the Yankees. As a rookie in 1979, he compiled a 14-2 record with 2.85 ERA (144 ERA+). In 1981, he was able to strike out 13 of 15 batters he faced in one three-game stretch of appearances. Davis did it all as a middle reliever, however. The role of closer in New York belonged to Goose Gossage.
The trade represented a chance for Davis to be a closer. This is what he had been waiting for. Instead, the trade in 1982 marked the beginning of the most miserable seasons of his career.
It wasn’t so much that his numbers were bad in his tenure with the Twins. They were actually pretty good until his final season with the team:
1982 3-9 4.42 96 3.8
1983 5-8 3.34 128 5.8
1984 7-11 4.55 92 3.5
1985 2-6 3.48 126 4.0
1986 2-6 9.08 47 -1.2
The numbers weren’t Davis’ problem. His difficulties seem to come from the fact that he tended to blow saves in memorable ways. He quickly earned a reputation for blowing leads in big games, a legend that seems to have been fanned by the local media. One of RD’s critics during his Twins years, Patrick Reusse, still seemed bitter years later when he recalled some of the memorable blown saves on the 20th Anniversary of the trade that sent Davis out of town to the Cubs.
RON DAVIS‘ TOP FIVE BLOWN SAVES
Two words: Jamie Quirk
Sept. 27, 1984: Davis relieved Mike Smithson with two runners on in the bottom of the eighth and the Twins leading 3-1 at Cleveland. Both runners scored and, with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, Davis gave up a two-out home run to Jamie Quirk, who was making his only plate appearance in a one-week stint with the Indians. The game basically eliminated the Twins from the AL West race.
Saturday the 13th
April 13, 1985: The Twins led the Mariners 7-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Davis came in with a runner on and no outs, struck out two and walked two, then gave up a game-winning grand slam to Phil Bradley.
Monday the 13th
May 13, 1985: The Twins led 8-6 in the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium. With two outs and a runner on, Ken Griffey walked and Don Mattingly hit a three-run home run for a 9-8 victory.
Roof collapses, then Twins collapse
April 26, 1986: The roof collapsed at the Metrodome, causing a delay in the bottom of the eighth inning. In the top of the ninth, with a 6-1 lead, Frank Viola gave up a two-run homer to the Angels’ George Hendrick. Davis relieved. Rob Wilfong singled and Ruppert Jones homered. Davis walked Reggie Jackson and, with two outs, Wally Joyner homered. The Angels won 7-6.
Ifs, ands and butts
May 19, 1986: The Twins led the Red Sox 7-6 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth at Fenway Park when Marty Barrett walked and Wade Boggs doubled. Bill Buckner was intentionally walked, loading the bases. Davis walked Jim Rice, forcing in the tying run, then hit Marc Sullivan in the butt, bringing in the winning run.
The fact that Reusse and the editors at the Star Tribune felt the need, 20 years later, to mark the Anniversary of the Davis trade by remembering his top blown saves is indicative of the strong feelings that still exist in this town towards Davis.
It is surprising, then, to learn that Davis was 106 for 134 in save opportunities during his Twins career, a 79% rate of success. Take away his miserable 1986 season, when he was successful in only two of eight save situations, and Davis converted 83% of his save opportunities. Not a great number, but it certainly seems high for a guy who, based on reputation, couldn’t save a game if his life depended on it (in 1987, Jeff Reardon was called the team MVP by many with only 77% of his save opportunities converted).
Whether he deserved it or not, most of the negative feelings of Twins fans over the course of some losing seasons fell squarely on the shoulder of Ron Davis. It was a relief to him when he was traded to the Cubs late in the 1986 season.
As for the other players involved in the 1982 trade the brought Davis to Minnesota: Roy Smalley ended up back with the Twins for the 1985 season. Paul Boris pitched in 23 games for the Twins, all in 1982, and that was the extent of his career. Greg Gagne became the everyday shortstop by 1985 and had a long and productive career with the Twins, including a big role on the two World Series teams in 1987 and 1991.