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Willie Davis was a signature star

A couple of years ago, I was cleaning out some old trunks in the basement and found a familiar small tan box that I had kept in a desk drawer as a kid. Originally, it had housed a fishing reel that my grandfather had given me, but in time, I took out the rarely used reel and replaced it with a keepsake that didn't quite fit in the box, slightly bowing out its top and bottom.

On Sept. 29, 1974, the Expos played host to the Philadelphia Phillies at Jarry Park in Montreal, and among the 23,326 fans that day were the members of the Central Vermont Little League. We boarded a bus that morning, and I carried with me that baseball, and a mission: I wanted to get Willie Davis' autograph.

I was crazy for the Dodgers and Davis had played 13 seasons for Los Angeles, and some of my first baseball cards were of him in a Dodgers uniform. Before the 1974 season, he was traded straight-up to the Expos for reliever Mike Marshall. But to me, he was still a Dodger, and wore the same uniform number that I did -- No. 3 -- and I went to Jarry Park that day devoted to the idea that Davis would sign my baseball.

But as with most things in life, I really had given no thought to the question of how that would happen before we all settled into our seats on the third-base side, about 25 or 30 rows behind the Montreal dugout. Our family was chained to our dairy farm by the twice-daily milking cycle of the cows, and I had been to only one other major league game, at Fenway Park in September 1972, and I never even thought of procuring autographs at the time.

And besides the questions of how to best position yourself for an autograph -- Along the foul lines? Near the outfield wall? -- I was a shy kid, and major league baseball players to me were nothing less than gods; to ask someone like Willie Davis for an autograph, for me, was like the Cowardly Lion approaching the Wizard of Oz for a wish. I was completely overwhelmed, which is why I remained rooted in my seat before the game, and then right on through the first six innings.

I do recall specific moments in that game, such as Ken Singleton launching a first-inning grand slam, something he remembered clearly when I asked him about it many years later. But mostly I sat in my seat and tried to summon the courage to go to the railing behind the Expos' dugout and ask Davis for an autograph.

Now, 36 years later, I know that the notion of going to the edge of the dugout during a game and asking for an autograph is completely absurd, out of the question, a nice way for you to be intercepted by security. But at 10 years old, I had no idea that there was autograph protocol. I figured if a player had a free moment, he would sign a baseball. This is what my expectation of a benevolent god was at the time.

The Phillies batted in the top of the seventh. The records show that Del Unser grounded out to first base to end the inning, and then as the Expos ran off the field, I made my move, bouncing down the aluminum steps of the grandstands and reaching the railing quickly, just as Davis approached the steps in front of me.

I probably said something along the lines of "Mr. Davis, can I have your autograph?" and extended my baseball and a pen.

And Willie Davis reached up and signed my baseball, in a swirl of blue ink.

I turned around and there was a line of kids forming behind me, but Willie Davis was gone, off to do his work; in fact, the play-by-play record from that day shows that he led off the bottom of the seventh.

When I got home, I took the reel out of its case and replaced it with the ball that Davis had signed, where it remains, his signature faded.

I never spoke with Willie Davis again, never met him in person. But on at least one day, he made a dream of a 10-year-old kid come to life, fulfilled hope, and I presume there were many moments and days like that for him. What power he had in his life.

Willie Davis passed away Monday, at the age of 69.

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There were few players more exciting than Davis, writes Jerry Crowe. Davis was the coolest player that Bruce Jenkins ever saw.

Davis was a great player in his own right, writes Steve Dilbeck.

Strasburg

Our Jayson Stark has some great lines from Miguel Cabrera after Strasburg's outing Tuesday. Here is more on the strong debut from Adam Kilgore. Tom Boswell wonders: Could Strasburg be on the fast track?

If Strasburg continues to dominate hitters all through spring training the way that he did Tuesday, throwing all of his pitches for strikes, then it would make sense for him to be in the big leagues early in the year. You get the feeling that his time in the minors may be as short as it was for Tim Lincecum.

Elsewhere ...

• Had an interesting conversation the other day with a couple of pitchers who talked about a neat little trick that some veterans like to use: In a big spot, when there are runners on base and the pitcher needs just a little extra fastball, you will see him set his foot a couple of inches in front of the pitching rubber -- rather than against the rubber, which is what the rules say that you must do. "It doesn't take that much to make a difference" in the timing of the hitter, one of the pitchers said.

Alfonso Soriano grew up in the Dominican Republic, learned how to speak Japanese when he played in that country as a teenager, and speaks English well now. So what language does he use when he plays alongside Kosuke Fukudome and needs to call for a fly ball? "English," he said, laughing. "Definitely English."

The first time that Soriano played against Ichiro Suzuki, in 2001, when Soriano was with the Yankees, the Mariners outfielder said hello to him after reaching second base in three different ways -- Spanish, English and Japanese. Soriano said that he and Fukudome once went to dinner and spoke only in Japanese -- but in general, Soriano feels like his Japanese is on the wane.

By the way: Soriano says the knee that bothered him so much last year is back to 100 percent, and now the only hurdle is making sure he drives himself mentally to push his knee to its maximum potential.

• The difference in Geovany Soto's body from last year to this year -- he dropped a bunch of weight -- is absolutely striking when you see him in person. Looks like a different guy, and the Cubs need him to play like a different guy than he was in 2009, when he struggled terribly.

Dings and dents

1. The Twins don't pay a lot of guys big dollars, and so if Joe Nathan is out for the year with his elbow trouble, the hit is deeper than just a closer going down; he is one of Minnesota's core players. Imagine the Tigers losing Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander or Rick Porcello, or the Houston Astros losing Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt or Lance Berkman. Now the Twins will move along, keep some fleeting hope that Nathan might come back, but prepare for the worst. On Monday and Tuesday I spoke with some rival evaluators who said they thought Ron Gardenhire's best option at closer might be Matt Guerrier, who allowed only 16 walks in 76 1/3 innings last year. But a question that Gardenhire would have to ask for himself is whether the Twins would be better off letting Jon Rauch close, and keeping Guerrier as a set-up man, a role in which he has thrived. There are no easy answers, for sure.
Guerrier is excellent against left-handers, Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information notes. He is one of the top righties in the league when it comes to limiting the OPS of lefties. Here's the company:

Jonathan Broxton - .414

Tyler Clippard - .443

Andrew Bailey - .470

Huston Street - .492

Mariano Rivera - .511

Matt Guerrier - .525

Jim Leyland says that Nathan's injury is a shame, and if you know Leyland and his respect for players, this comes from the heart. The ninth innings for the Twins might be tough to watch, writes Jim Souhan.

2. The Orioles are worried that Brian Roberts might not be ready for the start of the regular season, writes Jeff Zrebiec, and Andy MacPhail might start looking around at trade options.

3. Jose Reyes got encouraging news from specialists, writes David Waldstein.

4. Amid concerns about Huston Street and Rafael Betancourt, the Rockies are preparing Plans C and D, Troy Renck writes.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Chipper Jones says flatly: The Braves need Jason Heyward on Opening Day.

2. Hank Blalock says he signed with the Rays because he didn't have any other choice, writes Joe Smith.

3. The Orioles renewed a bunch of contracts.

4. The latest example of how unpredictable baseball can be: the Rangers' catching situation. Fifteen months ago, they were viewed as an organization with unbelievable depth at the position, and given Jarrod Saltalamacchia's issues, the team now is scrambling for catching. Wrote here last year that rival evaluators were convinced that Saltalamacchia had developed a Mackey Sasser-like problem in throwing the ball back to the pitcher. One way or the other, he's not right.

5. Coco Crisp is getting closer to playing center field, writes John Shea.

6. Tim Wakefield continues to be spotless this spring.

7. The Astros are trying to identify a fifth outfielder for their roster.

The McCourts

Frank McCourt wants Jamie to pay for herself.

Tuesday's games

1. A couple of Dodgers relievers got knocked around, Dylan Hernandez writes.

2. Felix Hernandez looked sharp in a simulated game, writes Bob Condotta.

3. Johan Santana looked rusty on Tuesday.

4. Hideki Matsui got to swing the bat.

5. Garrett Jones hit a monster home run, Dejan Kovacevic writes.

6. Roy Halladay provided more evidence that he is going to be ridiculously good this year.

7. Nick Johnson had a very good day, John Harper writes.

8. Rick VandenHurk had a nice outing, Joe Capozzi writes.

9. Adam Wainwright says he wasn't mentally prepared.

10. Justin Upton hit a bomb.

Other stuff

Vladimir Guerrero appears to have healthy legs, writes Evan Grant.

• Nolan Ryan is a little like Jerry Jones, writes Randy Galloway.

• Rich Dubee says you can't ignore Jamie Moyer's track record. He's right.

• There's no quit in Tim Byrdak, writes Richard Justice.

• Richard Justice reminisces about Brad Ausmus.

Evan Longoria is a unique commodity, writes John Romano.

• The Phillies have the best infield in the modern era, writes Bill Conlin.

• Boston hopes that Jeremy Hermida continues to grow, writes Michael Silverman.

Hideki Okajima is happy doing what he does, and where he does it, Daniel Barbarisi writes.

• The Tigers could be good for a while, says Dave Dombrowski.

• A-Rod says he's at ease, no matter what happens in the situation with the FBI. Hal Steinbrenner had no comment on A-Rod.

• Ernie Tyler plans a comeback at age 85, writes Peter Schmuck.

And today will be better than yesterday.