Rajai Davis wears low-top cleats because he likes his ankles to breathe. “It makes me feel faster,” he says. “I’m convinced.” The stats certainly support his theory. Last season, while playing for the Oakland Athletics, Davis and his size-10 Nikes swapped 50 bases, third-most in the majors—and just eight shy of the entire Blue Jays roster.
It was an impressive feat, considering the feet. Davis, one of Toronto’s key additions for 2011, was born with “pigeon toe,” a deformity that left both his feet pointing inward. “When I was a baby, I couldn’t walk right so I had to wear braces on my legs,” he recalls, after a recent round of batting practice. “My heels were connected like Forrest Gump.”
In truth, the device wasn’t quite as elaborate as the movie version. But it was depressing enough that his mother, Diana, couldn’t bring herself to snap a photograph. “I hate that I never took a picture,” she says now. “But it was a difficult time for me. It was hard to see your kid in such a thing.”
Following doctor’s orders, Diana started each day by slipping her son’s warped toes into the corrective contraption: two white boots, fastened at the soles to a flat metal bar. Until his first birthday, baby Rajai’s feet were essentially screwed to either end of a ruler. “You’d think it would slow him down because the brace became a weight,” his mom says. “But it didn’t stop him. As a matter of fact, I think the weight increased his speed. I would run around the house trying to catch him.”
People have been trying to catch him ever since—with scant success. In Little League, his teammates dubbed him Rajai “the Rocket.” In high school, when he wasn’t robbing bags on the diamond, he was dodging tackles on the football field. And after two years at Avery Point junior college in Groton, Conn., Davis’s refurbished feet landed him a pro contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Today, at age 30, he is arguably the most potent base-stealing threat the Blue Jays have ever possessed, minus the three months Rickey Henderson spent with the club in 1993. “It’s the total package: speed, work ethic, drive,” says general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who traded a pair of minor league pitchers for his new centre fielder, and then promptly signed him to a two-year, US$5.25-million contract. “We believe in his ability and we thought he was an undervalued player.”
Davis is anxious to prove his new boss right. “I don’t know if anybody is faster in the league now,” he says, without a shred of cockiness in his voice. “I know a lot of guys who have the ability to steal more bases than they do, but they don’t have the desire. Desire brings you to another level.”
If Davis sounds like a throwback to another era, it’s because he is. The Blue Jays’ newcomer is infatuated with an aspect of the game that, over the decades, has become an almost forgotten weapon. A hundred years ago, when Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb were the pastime’s biggest stars, an average major-league game featured 1.31 steals. By 1950, that number had plummeted to an all-time low of 0.26. Even by 1982, when Henderson snatched a single-season record of 130 bases, the average per game was still only 0.75. Last season, it was down again, to 0.61.
The Jays were well below that, with only 0.36 steals per game (58 in all). If Rajai Davis has his way, that stat will soar with him batting leadoff. “Just the threat of stealing is enough for some pitchers to lose their focus,” he says. “And if they lose their focus, chances are the guy behind me is going to get a real good pitch to hit.”
Davis is careful to point out that he’s not just a one-dimensional player. “Speed doesn’t do anything for you if you can’t swing a bat,” he says. “It doesn’t do anything if you can’t catch a ball. And it doesn’t do anything if you’re not a good teammate.” But spend a few minutes talking to him, and the discussion inevitably returns to his feet—and their ability to sneak 90 feet closer to home plate. “You can’t be lazy,” he says. “It is definitely something that takes a determined mind.”
Like all devoted thieves, Davis conducts his own form of reconnaissance once he reaches first base. Which side of the rubber does the pitcher stand on? How far apart are his legs? Does he offer a clue—a twitch of the hip, a blink of the eye—that exposes his pickoff move? “Sometimes the pitcher does something, sometimes the catcher does something, and sometimes you just know he’s going to throw over because that’s what they’ve done in the past,” Davis explains. “It’s like a game of cat and mouse. You throw the bait out there and see who’s biting.”
At first, his lead is always the same: 3½ steps. Sometimes, if the pitcher isn’t paying as close attention as he should, Davis will inch a little further toward his target. “I’m always on the balls of my feet,” he says. “I get better push—more explosion—from being on the balls.”
If he makes up his mind to run on the next pitch (sometimes it’s his choice, sometimes, he’ll get the signal from the dugout), Davis always crouches as low as possible during those crucial first steps. Henderson did the same thing, decreasing resistance and shredding valuable milliseconds off his trip to second. “When you see a sprinter, they come out of the box and stay low,” says Davis. “That is the same idea with stealing bases. I get more push, more force into the ground, and the ground returns that force to me.”
And the slide? “Headfirst,” Davis says. “And I try to go straight in.” During his minor league days, he learned the hard way that trying to sneak his hand into the edge of the bag—around the tag—doesn’t always work. “I had a problem stopping,” he laughs. “Now I use the base to stop. It’s my brake.”
Maclean’s spent an hour chatting with Rajai Davis. He talked about the influence of his older brother and sister. He reminisced about the uncle who taught him to play. And he dissected, frame by frame, his base-stealing strategies. But it wasn’t until the very end of the conversation that he mentioned the feet. Until now, those childhood braces were never part of his public biography. “It’s unexplainable,” he says, when asked how a baby with distorted toes could grow up to be one of baseball’s fastest men. “For me, it’s a great testimony for God. It’s something I couldn’t have done on my own strength.”
As for the actual brace, it’s long gone. Not only did his mom never take a photo, she tossed it in the trash after the doctor shared the good news.