Davis listened, learned

New York

Rajai Davis spent Tuesday night on the most hallowed lawn in sports, the outfield at Yankee Stadium, happily advancing a professional baseball career that nobody (except him) ever saw coming.

Certainly not in the days when he was doing what so many kids in New London will do today: walk the halls of Bennie Dover and New London High for the first time.

Yes, this is the first day of school in the 06320. Some kids will walk about with purpose. Some aimless. Some hopeful, some not. Bet none of them realize that if the Toronto Blue Jays were to grant Davis holiday to visit his old school today, they'd see a guy who could say, without a hint of exaggeration, "I used to look just like that kid does and that kid does and that kid and that kid "

"Actually," Davis was saying Tuesday night in the Jays clubhouse, "I'd probably stand there and say, 'I looked worse than that kid, I looked smaller than that one, I looked weaker than that one and probably not as smart as that one.'"

And now Rajai, 32, is the leadoff hitter for the Jays, his locker perched between Jose Bautista and Colby Rasmus. There aren't many better beacons for the kids in the city he still loves. He was an anonymous, inconspicuous kid who looked like every other kid who wore the green gown on graduation.

And he has a message for you: It's not what you tell the guys around school or the locker room. It's what you tell yourself.

"You have to have some place you want to go. I knew what I wanted to do when I was 11 years old," Davis said. "But I didn't know how to get there."

So how did he find it?

"I'd pay attention," Davis said.

More specifically: "I'd hear words that would stick with me. If they lined up with where I was going I'd keep them. If not, I'd throw them away. My mom (Diane) said 'you can be whatever you want.' That stuck with me. In high school, Coach (Gil) Varjas said 'you have to get better every day. A little better every day.' That stuck with me. My elder at my church (Lloyd DeLong at Miracle Temple Church in New London) would say things on the platform that really stuck.

"One of the things he said," Davis said, "is that you have to conduct yourself in a certain way. Lloyd said, 'dress like something, dress like what you want to be.' That stuck with me. I used to wear jeans all the time. I started to wear khakis, button down shirts and shoes. It fits well now because we have a dress code. We have to wear shoes, slacks and a sport coat on the (team) plane. All those words got me ready."

They got him ready for a career that's still alive in 2012, 11 years after he was drafted in the 38th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Eleven years after he drove from New London to Pittsburgh in a purple Dodge Neon one night - the ride of his life, it turned out - and impressed the Pirates enough.

Now he has 39 stolen bases, second only to Mike Trout, and a permanent home on YouTube, scaling the wall at Rogers Centre recently, plucking Casey McGehee's sure home run.

It's the 39 stolen bases that has his old coach at UConn-Avery Point, Roger Bidwell, chuckling.

"All he ever did for us was get picked off," Bidwell said. "I turned to Varjas one day and said, 'Didn't you teach him anything?'"

Davis loved that one.

"Funny he said that," Davis said. "Every time I was getting picked off, I was learning something. They might not have realized it, because there weren't always short-term results. But every time I got picked, I learned. I never had a mentor that said, 'here's what you look for.' I had to learn on the fly.

"Coach Bidwell has a special place," Davis said. "He pulled me aside halfway through my freshman year and told me, 'hey, you're not doing what you need to do. You have to get better.' That stuck with me. From that moment on, there was a turnaround."

Rajai will be at the ballpark today for a day game when the kids of New London walk the halls for the first time. Remember, kids: No telling what you can be in 15 years.

Just look at the guy in left field at Yankee Stadium.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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