On the day after he was traded, Wade Davis left his offseason house and walked down to a duck blind set up near a small pond in New York’s Hudson River Valley.
The trip was more practical than emotional. It was Thursday afternoon, and Davis and some company planned to go hunting the next morning. He figured he might try to call some birds and see if they might stay in the area overnight. But as he sat in the quiet of the blind and took in the scene, his thoughts drifted back to the news that had jolted his offseason, to four years spent in Kansas City, to a new future that awaits in Chicago.
“It’s a lot to take in, you know?” said Davis, now officially the former closer of the Kansas City Royals.
You are never quite ready for the phone call, of course. Even if change is in a baseball player’s DNA, even if you know the possibility awaits each offseason, even if you understand the economic realities of the sport, you are never quite ready for this. You aren’t ready to pick up the phone and learn that you’ve been sent to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jorge Soler. You aren’t quite ready for the emotions that come next.
“Having to be introduced to a new team and a new city and everything like that,” Davis said. “But on the other side, you got to keep moving, you got to keep enjoying baseball and embrace whatever is to come.”
In four seasons in Kansas City, Davis had a reputation in the clubhouse as a pitch whisperer of sorts, a reliever with an innate sense for mechanics and sequencing and how the human arm was supposed to function. On Wednesday, in the hours after the trade became official, he internalized the news in the same cerebral manner.
Davis said he understood that his name might appear in trade rumors this offseason. He heard that the Royals were interested in cutting some payroll. He knew he would make $10 million in 2017 and become a free agent after the year. He had heard the same rumors back in July, when a forearm issue surfaced just days before the trade deadline.
“I’d only heard some rumors that they might be trying to find other ways to save money and still improve some parts of the team,” Davis said. “So I wasn’t sure what that meant. But I also knew that anything is possible any winter.”
For Davis, it was the kind of news that can come with complicated emotions. He had been traded once before, of course, by the team that drafted him and reared him. But even this was different. He is headed to the defending World Series champions and will play for his former manager, Joe Maddon. He is going to a team that will be favored to win the National League pennant again in 2017. But he is leaving the franchise that changed his career, the city that embraced him in a way he can’t quite explain, the stadium that bore witness to his greatest nights in baseball.
The 2014 Wild Card Game. The exhilarating run to the World Series the same October. The Great Escape in Game 6 of the 2015 American League Championship Series, when Davis outlasted the rain and stared down Most Valuable Player Josh Donaldson of Toronto with two on and two out in the ninth inning.
“Good memories,” Davis said.
For the last year — and perhaps his whole life — Davis has downplayed the individual moments. He has called Game 6 a performance that “just worked out.” He usually shrugged at his insane numbers.
So, as his Royals career came to an end, he preferred not to dwell on the moments that definied his tenure. For Davis, the enjoyment came from the journey. When he arrived in Kansas City before the 2013 season, the Royals had not won a World Series or appeared in the postseason in 28 years. When he departed last week, the club had been transformed — even if his trade recalled some dark moments in the franchise’s history, when expensive fixtures were jettisoned because of cost.
The Royals say this is different. The trade of Davis, while in part motivated by budgets, is about setting the course for the future, general manager Dayton Moore says.
Davis will not be part of that future. At least not in 2017. But on Thursday, he sought to reflect on all the work it took, all the little moments, all the players that bought in, all the moments that just worked out. You can’t distill this feeling into one night or one game, Davis said. Instead, he looked back on the struggle.
“Just being a part of a system that took such a huge transition,” he said.
In the same way, of course, the Royals’ transformation cannot be reduced to the stories of one or two players. But few players experienced a more extreme individual evolution than Davis. He came to Kansas City alongside starting pitcher James Shields, the second piece of a blockbuster trade that sent prospects Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi and Patrick Leonard to Tampa Bay. Davis struggled in the rotation in 2013. He came to spring training in 2014, his confidence dwindling.
“I wasn’t sure what the future was looking like,” Davis said.
The rest, of course, is Royals history. A spring-training elbow injury to reliever Luke Hochevar presented a need in the bullpen. Davis took to the role with a vengeance. In 2014 and 2015, he recorded a 0.97 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings. In the history of baseball, no relief pitcher had logged more than 100 innings across two seasons with an ERA under 1.00.
“I knew I could get guys out, no matter the situation,” Davis said. “It just eased my mind.”
Despite a mild regression in 2016 — and two stints on the disabled list for forearm issues — Davis posted a 1.31 ERA in 182 2/3 innings as a reliever during 2014-16. He was even better in the playoffs, allowing just two runs across two postseasons, including a perfect run in 2015.
“I spent three years with (Mariano) Rivera,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said before the 2016 season. “And as great as he was, and not to take anything away from him, I never saw Mariano have a run like this.”
Now the run moves onto Chicago. All things being equal, Davis says, he’s comfortable with the change. At least, more comfortable than he would have been with a lot of destinations. He is leaving Kansas City with his former teammates lining up for another run in 2017. But at least he’s headed to an organization with an expectation of winning. He won’t have to adjust to another manager. He already knows the culture of Maddon.
The Royals will miss Davis in 2017, and he will miss Kansas City. But he has been through this before. In the winter of 2012, Davis, a Florida native, prepared to leave the only franchise he’d ever known and head to Kansas City, a franchise and city he knew little about.
Four years later, the time changed his life. He and his wife, Katelyn, had their first child here, a daughter named Sully. His career took off in the bullpen. His franchise won a championship. The Wade Davis Experience became a permanent fixture in the lexicon of Kansas City sports.
Now it’s time to move on. The next part of the journey awaits.
“Everything’s been a little bit of surprise,” Davis said. “All in good ways.”