Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The best pitch is pure heat

When Goldeyes closer Matt Davis passes on some of life's harsher lessons to inner-city kids he doesn't waste time with fancy curveballs and changeups

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Matt DAVIS is a closer.

It is his job to enter the game only in the most pressure-packed of situations.

He works only in the final inning of the game and only when his team is in the lead, or at least tied.

And he has a unique task when he enters the game. While other pitchers 'win' games, the job of the closer is to 'save' a game.

Put simply then, it is the job of the closer not so much to make good things happen, but to prevent bad things from happening.

And Davis is very good at his job. His 18 saves with the Goldeyes in 2007 represent the third-most in a season by a Goldeyes closer.

After a year in organized ball, Davis is back as the Fish closer again this season. He has picked up right where he left off and will carry two saves, earned during a season-opening five- game road-trip, into tonight's home opener at Canwest Park.

But for all those saves, it is the save Davis didn't make that occupied his thoughts this week.

"He was a nice kid. He was just trying to fit in," says Davis. "What a shame. It's sad, so sad."

*  *  *

Danny Crawford was 14 years old when he moved in 2006 from Virginia, where he'd been living with his mother, to Columbus, Ohio, to live with his father.

It was an awkward time for a young teen to start a new life and it was made more difficult by the difficult conditions of the inner-city neighbourhood into which he had moved. The place was tough, American- city tough -- a news story would later describe it as "a struggling neighbourhood of century-old homes plagued by poverty and drug abuse." And Crawford was the new kid on the block.

Davis met Crawford in a sports program he was mentoring. Crawford's school had fallen victim to the budgetary axe and the phys-ed program had been cut, so Davis was brought in to run a free sports program to give the kids at least some kind of physical outlet.

"Basically, I was running a gym class outside," recalls Davis, 27. "Organizing football, basketball. It was an inner-city school so they needed a lot of leadership there. 'This is how the games are played, this is good sportsmanship, this is what we're going to do now...' stuff like that."

There were maybe 100 or so kids in the program and Davis never really got to know anyone very well. But he remembers Crawford. "He was around quite a bit. He was big, a big kid for his age. A pretty good athlete.

"He was new. If someone wanted to hang out with him, I'm sure he would have hung out. He was just looking for his place."

He never did find it. On Dec. 2, 2006 -- about six months after moving to Columbus -- Crawford was hanging around with some friends in a church parking lot a few blocks from his father's home.

It was after midnight and someone showed up with a carton of eggs. The kids were bored and so they started to toss them at each other. It was harmless, childish fun in a neighborhood where guns, not produce, were often the weapon of choice.

But then someone decided to toss an egg at a passing vehicle, a Jeep. And thus ended the short and tragic life of Danny Crawford. "The guy turned around," Davis recalls, "cornered him in an alley and shot him."

Crawford died of multiple gunshot wounds, fired by the driver of the Jeep. A police detective would later say that it was another boy who threw the egg that struck the Jeep.

*  *  *

Davis still lives in Columbus. He substitute-teaches and coaches.

He tells the Danny Crawford story to his students back home -- and he's been telling it to school kids in Winnipeg this spring. "I tell them that story so they appreciate how fortunate they are, that they come from good homes with both parents, nice area, good school system. I just want them to understand not everyone has that situation.

"I'm not trying to scare them. I just think most kids can relate to his story and grasp it. It's good for them to hear."

Davis says the message underlying the story is the same one from which he draws strength when the call to the bullpen comes late in the night, the game on the line.

"It's all about surrounding yourself with good people and putting yourself in good situations," says Davis. "If you do that, good things will happen for you."

Danny Crawford never got the chance.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2009 C1

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