Royals reliever Wade Davis carries memory of stepbrother to the mound

08/16/2014 4:15 PM

08/16/2014 4:46 PM

He still does not understand the loss, why death would claim the stepbrother he considered his closest friend. Each day at the ballpark, Wade Davis slips into a Royals jersey bearing No. 17, the digits of Dustin Huguley. When Davis toes the rubber, he converses with the sibling who once doubled as his catcher.

“Stay right here with me,” he says. “This will be something we can both enjoy.”

Last August — amid a season marked by the upheaval of a trade, a cross-country move and a discouraging stint in the starting rotation — Davis lost his brother. Huguley was 25. His friends recalled him as a kind, effervescent presence, a man unencumbered by the genetic heart defect he lived with.

Before this season began, before the Royals converted Davis into their set-up man and turned him loose on the American League, Davis opted to ditch his No. 22. Dustin wore No. 17 in high school, where he was a part-time contributor as a sophomore while Davis starred as a senior. Davis is unsure what jersey he will sport next season — the Royals could trade him in the winter to clear his $7 million salary.

But for 2014, at least, he is wearing the number to honor Huguley. The wounds from last August still ache, and Davis and his family members are reluctant to open them. When Davis agreed to discuss their relationship with The Star, he asked that he not be painted as a seeker of sympathy. He merely sought a way to honor his brother.

“Everyone has lost something,” Davis said. “You feel sorry for people who have lost people. The biggest thing is just moving on. For me, it was for him. Like, ‘Hey, man. I always wanted you to be out here. I want you to be next to me out here.’”

Davis, 28, appreciates his privacy. Inside a boisterous clubhouse, he is a striking, taciturn figure. His voice does not rise. On the mound this season, in making his case as the American League’s most dominant reliever, he has trafficked in silence.

His 0.86 ERA was the lowest among qualified American League relievers heading into Friday’s games. He has struck out nearly 40 percent of the batters he has faced. In his first 50 appearances this season, he yielded one extra-base hit, a sprayed double on July 31. Davis’ dominance has been “surreal,” his father, Ben explained. Ben prefers not to discuss the statistics, fearful of jinxing his son.

“With what he’s done this year, how could you not be really thrilled with that?” Ben Davis said. “All starters have ups and downs. All of them do. And it’s difficult to sit and watch a kid struggle. I haven’t had to watch that this year.”

Instead, he has seen Wade devastate opponents. Ben follows along each night, waiting for the eighth inning. He estimates he has not missed “more than one or two pitches he’s thrown in his whole career,” not since Davis stormed out of their hometown in central Florida.

The family lived in Lake Wales, a landlocked outpost more than an hour south of Orlando. The heat was oppressive. The social options were limited. As he grew older, Davis chafed at the repetition of small-town life.

“How many times can you go to Perkins?” Davis said. “How many times can you show up at the McDonald’s parking lot? How long is this going to go on for? Because I don’t want to be 50, still hanging out in the McDonald’s parking lot.”

Davis and Huguley filled the void with activity. They hunted and fished while batting aside winged pests in mosquito-infested swamps. Baseball also forged their bond. On the diamond, the duo shared a razor-sharp focus, recalled Jasone DeWitt, their coach at Lake Wales High. Off the field, their personalities diverged.

“Dustin was well-liked by everybody,” DeWitt said. “Walking down the halls, at school, he was that happy, go-lucky guy. He was always happy.”

He was, his stepfather explained, “the most outgoing person you ever met.”

Wade was more reserved. As scouts flocked to see him during his senior season, he shied away from the attention. Once, when a reporter from Orlando visited to write a story on him, Davis insisted his teammates be included in any photographs. His father instilled humility in his son with an axiom: “It’s easy to talk trash,” Ben told Wade. “It’s hard to swallow crow.”

Davis committed to the University of Florida, part of a recruiting class that featured a hitting savant from Jacksonville named Billy Butler. Tampa Bay selected Davis in the third round of the 2004 draft. A $475,000 signing bonus simplified his decision.

“When the area scout with Tampa wrote down a number, it was a done deal,” Ben Davis said. “(Wade) didn’t want to debate it. He didn’t want to argue it. He just said ‘Show me where to sign.’”

As Davis ascended the pro ranks, his brother forged a more conventional path. Huguley played some college ball, first at junior college and then at Warner University in Lake Wales, where he impressed coach Jeff Sikes with his adventurous spirit, his easygoing attitude — and his ability to counteract the chronic armadillo infestation at their home ballpark.

Armadillos can wreak havoc by burrowing into holes and scarring the playing field. One day, Sikes recalled, the team gathered inside the dugout as one of the critters trotted into right field. Sikes offered his players a reward. If anyone could eject the armadillo from the diamond, they would receive an exemption from condition drills. Ten players bolted into right, with Huguley near the front.

“They get out there, and some of them are a little apprehensive around the armadillo,” Sikes said. “Dustin just flies by them, and kicks the armadillo into the wall. It bounces off the wall. He picks it up by the tail, slings it over the fence and puts his hands up in the air. ‘Yeah, I’m the man.’”

As a senior, Sikes explained, Huguley sat out so he could focus on finishing his degree. He stayed in town, and worked for an electrical supply company. For the first four seasons of Davis’ career, his brother could come see him play in St. Petersburg. Then the Rays shipped him, along with James Shields, in a franchise-altering maneuver for Kansas City.

On Aug. 2, 2013 in New York, Davis survived five rocky innings against the Mets, giving up only two runs on eight hits. It was his best start in a month. The next day, his phone rang. His father was on the line. Wade heard a scenario he could not envision, a reality he hoped was false.

After a softball game that Saturday, Dustin had collapsed. Ben called as he drove to a local hospital. Wade flew home that night. He collected himself in order to say a few words in remembrance at the funeral three days later. The outpouring of affection stunned him.

“He was my best friend,” Davis said. “Hands down. But the crazy thing was that I bet there were 10 other people there that would have said the same thing. I’ve only got a couple friends. This guy has always had 10 people who were like ‘This is my best friend right here.’”

That night, Kauffman Stadium held a moment of silence for Huguley. Ben Davis wrote a letter of thanks to general manager Dayton Moore for his compassion, and for another subsequent gift. The Royals commissioned a No. 17 jersey with Dustin’s name on it. The players inked autographs along the cloth, and the team framed it. The family hung it inside of their home, part of a still-growing tribute.

Dustin’s older brother, Ronnie, was a catcher at the University of South Florida. He wore the same number. Ben hopes to frame one of Ronnie’s jerseys, along with one of Wade’s from this season, to align a trio of No. 17s.

Over the phone, as he recalled learning of Wade’s decision to wear the number, Ben choked up for a moment. His words were halting. “When I found out that he changed it, it meant a lot,” Ben Davis said. “I was proud of him for that.”

A gesture cannot repair the loss. Davis may never understand why his brother died. He does not think he ever will. But on the mound, with No. 17 on his back, Dustin does not seem as far away.

“I talk to him,” Davis said. “It feels like he’s standing there with me.”

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