By Brad Spencer
A few weeks ago Jeff Davis kept his cool when umpires unexpectedly flip-flopped on a controversial call at third base during the playoffs for his River Forest Youth Baseball team. The moment affirmed exactly why Davis was recently bestowed the honor of having an annual award named after him by the organization.
The Jeff Davis Sportsmanship Award is handed out to players who are hard-working, honest, competitive, team-oriented and who love the game of baseball.
"Jeff is just that guy," said Greg White, president of the league. "He has been entirely devoted to providing a great experience for the kids. He's honest and fair and goes the extra mile to get the most out of every boy on his team."
Davis, a River Forest native and Fenwick High School graduate, has been coaching in the league for 32 years. He began when he was 17 years old. During his college years at Marquette, he would trek down from Milwaukee to coach. He's now 49 and hasn't lived in the area for years. Three times or so a week, he commutes from Aurora for practices or games. In those 32 years, he's only missed two or three games.
"I've always really thought of it as a privilege to coach in River Forest, where I grew up," he says. "The kids are great. They love to play and they love to improve."
Davis started out coaching in the Minors Division, which is made up of 9 and 10 year olds. He did that for three years before getting the call to skipper in the Majors, 11 to 12 year olds. He's been there for 29 years.
"It keeps me young," he says. "I don't mind traveling from Aurora to River Forest so much, although my wife calls herself the Little League Widow."
Davis has been married to Dora for 20 years, so she knows all about his devotion to River Forest Youth Baseball. He dragged her to a few games when they were just dating. "She's been wonderful about it," he says.
There have been plenty of highlights over the years, even a few from this season that will stand out in his mind for a long time. The no-hitter. The four-homers in one game, including back-to-back shots to start the game. In 2009, trailing in a playoff game when two of his less skilled players had game-changing moments at the plate. In 1994, when he drafted a 10-year-old who ended up pitching the team to the championship.
And maybe Davis had something to do with the future semi-pro players that were on his teams — guys like Blake Whealy (Indians, Mets), Vasili Spanos (Athletics) and Rob Bruce (Indians), although, he says he had nothing to do with their development.
"I hope all the kids I've coached just look back on the experience fondly," he says. "I hope they just remember having fun."
At a recent team party, a parent told him that her son's favorite part of the season was watching their coach keep his composure during that controversial call at third base a few weeks ago.
"That meant a lot to me," he says. "It's not just about coaching baseball. It's about providing life lessons as well."
Davis says he's still on the fence on whether or not he'll be back next season.
"My original goal was to coach for 40 years, but I'm not sure that's realistic. I have said this was my last year quite a few times over the course of the last 32, so nothing is set in stone."