Proving them wrong: Jonah Davis’ source of motivation

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff
Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

During the summer before his junior year of high school, Cal outfielder Jonah Davis traveled to Palo Alto, California where he attended Stanford’s high school baseball camp. At the end of the session, camp instructors evaluated each player by giving them a rating based off their performance. Like many of the other campers, Jonah anxiously examined his rating the moment it was handed out.

Four out of 10.

“They gave me a four out of 10 at the end of camp, which meant that I could definitely be a Division III baseball player with slight potential to be a Division-II player,” Jonah reflects. “Proving people wrong is probably the greatest thing you can do in any sport.”

An undersized outfielder who only hit five home runs in his high school career, it’s easy to understand why scouts and recruiters would question Jonah’s chances at becoming a Division-II outfielder, let alone a serviceable player at the Division-I level. When he attended camp that summer, he still hadn’t finished growing to the 5-foot-10 frame that he has today.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

But now as a sophomore utility outfielder for the Bears, Jonah has not only become an integral part of Cal’s baseball team, but his longtime dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player doesn’t seem as far away as it did just a couple years ago.

He isn’t satisfied with where he’s at. But in time — with a combination of hard work and doubters who continue to fuel his focus — he believes he will be. That’s the motto that has gotten him this far already.

Jonah Davis was born in New York City, to parents Anthony Davis and Cindy Aaronson-Davis, two prominent music teachers. Cindy is an opera and voice teacher, while Anthony is a composer and jazz pianist who teaches music at the University of California, San Diego. While Jonah ultimately prioritized baseball over music lessons, his family’s musical background became a big part of his identity too. At just 9 years old, he sang in opera created by his father, “Wakonda’s Dream,” and participated in a San Diego children’s choir — all while making it to baseball practice on time.

“He’s a very talented musician,” Anthony says. “He used to play piano and guitar, but sports sort of took over his life and he became more devoted to that the last few years.”

Before Jonah’s birth, the Davis’s were settled in New York City where they thrived as a part of the music industry. But after Anthony received a job offer to be a professor at UCSD, the family decided to move out west and raise Jonah — at the time only one — in one of California’s most beautiful cities. This is where Jonah’s baseball story began.

Despite not playing sports themselves, Jonah’s parents were in fact big baseball fans. While it was tough for Cindy, a Mets fan, and Anthony, a Yankees fan, to leave behind New York’s bustling baseball atmosphere, it helped that San Diegans not only embraced their hometown team — the Padres — but were also a part of a very competitive neighborhood baseball environment, something that Jonah learned to appreciate.

“For whatever reason, baseball just became my main sport, and it’s so competitive in San Diego,” Jonah recalls. “I think it was just natural growing up in San Diego and the fact that (San Diegans) love sports too, it was kind of a perfect match.”

While he was never the biggest or strongest player on the field, Jonah impressed his coaches and parents with his unusual toughness. During a youth travel ball tournament in Cooperstown, New York, he was hit in the face by a pitch that got away, scaring not only his parents but his typically stalwart coach as well.

“We were standing on the side and we saw him get hit and (he) went down,” Cindy recalls. “And when his coach ran over to him and screamed ‘Medic!’ that was the most panicked I’ve ever been … For months, his face made him look like an alien, but he continued to play.”

Jonah spent that night in the hospital with his worried parents by his side, but the next morning, he declared himself ready to play, swollen face and all. When the team offered him a special helmet with a mask in front to use while at-bat, he declined.

“That (incident) really showed me the desire and love of the game that he had, and how much he wanted to be a part of the team,” Anthony says. “And of course how tough he was. That type of thing has always been with him, that desire and motivation and will.”

All of those are traits that Cal head coach David Esquer appreciates seeing from one of his younger players.

“Jonah brings the competitiveness that we need (on this team),” Esquer says. “He continues to improve his game and is very diligent and works hard to go along with his talent. You can really see that he put a lot of preparation before he came (to Cal).”

As much as Jonah is determined to make himself the best player that he can be, he knows that the odds are stacked against him. Less than one percent of high school players will eventually be drafted by an MLB team, and only a slightly larger percentage of those players make it onto an NCAA team in the first place. To Jonah, those numbers don’t mean a thing.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve dreamed of playing in the major leagues and there’s always those numbers being thrown around,” Jonah says. “Look at our team now together. We’re all already a part of that small percentage.”

If one looks closely, there are stars across all sports who don’t look like professional athletes. Take Houston Astros infielder Jose Altuve, who is listed at just 5 feet, 6 inches tall, but has morphed into one of the best players in all of baseball, finishing third in AL MVP voting this year.

It’s no secret: Jonah doesn’t look like the next cornerstone of a professional franchise. His parents weren’t former players, he doesn’t have one particular skill that jumps out, and he devotes just as much time to his academics as he does to his baseball career. But like Altuve and others who didn’t look like stars-in-the-making, Jonah persists, satisfied with his work ethic to the point where he’ll be OK if he falls short of his ultimate goal — as long as he keeps up the effort.

“When I hear the numbers, I can’t listen to (them) because that’s never going to help me,” Jonah says. “When I hopefully look back in a few years, I can say that I tried my hardest and say that it’s time to move on even if it doesn’t work out.”

In addition to his fearlessness on the field, what made Jonah stand out even more in high school was his dedication to his academics in the classroom. At San Diego’s Francis Parker High School — where he helped the Lancers win the 2014 CIF San Diego Section Championship — he was on the honor roll for three years.

As an upperclassmen, Jonah committed himself to even more hours in the batting cage, weight room and of course, his academics. How he managed to balance his time so efficiently is remarkable, but his father attributes his time management skills to his incredible focus.

“He’s amazingly focused,” Anthony says. “When he devotes himself and fights to do something, he does it, there’s no doubt about it.”

The work has paid off. He finished his high school career with a .447 batting average, and was nominated for Francis Parker’s Athletic Hall of Fame. He was named team MVP during his senior year and was a Second-Team All-CIF selection. Finally, he spent time on the scout teams of MLB teams Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees. The more successful he became, the more others looked up to him as a leader, a role that Jonah embraced.

“He’s always been a leader and a mentor on his high school team,” Cindy says, proudly. “Kids looked up to him and he always took the time to work with them.”

He overcame the ratings of his Stanford camp counselors when he received an athletic scholarship to play baseball for the University of Nevada, Reno, which he proudly accepted. After Wolfpack head coach Jay Johnson left to accept the same job at Arizona, Jonah realized that he didn’t want to play for a team after coach that had recruited him wasn’t there anymore. He decided to reevaluate his options.

“The thing about Cal is that you can look at other schools with great baseball programs,” Jonah says. “But the thing that those schools lack that Cal provides is obviously the No. 1 public education in America and in the world. What I’m learning at the end of the day will apply to whatever I do in the future.”

Although Jonah received offers from several schools in California, choosing Cal is a decision that he hasn’t regretted at all. Since coming to Berkeley last season, his positive attitude and maturity have made an impact with his teammates. Coming into the year as a freshman, Jonah didn’t receive the majority of his playing time until the second half of the season, when he only received spot starts and pinch-hit appearances. But despite the big adjustment from high school star to collegiate spot starter, Esquer admires Jonah’s passion and energy that he brings to the ball club.

“Jonah’s effort level and his hard work is where it starts,” Esquer says. “He cares about his performance and the team’s performance, and based on how hard he always works, the team follows that as a result.”

His effort level landed him a spot as a role player for the Bears, a utility outfielder who received a huge note of confidence when Esquer penciled him into the lineup for his first collegiate start in May of last season. It was the first game of a critical series on the road, at a place that Jonah was all too familiar with.

Stanford. The site of his frightful review.

“For the first couple of innings, I was a little nervous, but everybody was making me smile and making me laugh out there,” Jonah recalls. “I realized then that I was there to play baseball and shouldn’t be nervous. (Cal) recruited me for a reason and all I have to do is play my game.”

On the same field where he was told that playing Division I baseball would be a long shot, Jonah did just that. In his four at-bats that day, he hit two singles, the second of which knocked in a run that added to the Bears’ lead. He was rewarded again for his successful debut with another start the next day, and finished the year with 16 appearances, including three starts in right field.

“Once I got that first hit and also made a pretty nice play in right field, you realize that it’s the same thing just on a bigger stage,” Jonah says, with a smile. “I was able to help the team out, help secure that win, and it was just a surreal experience that I can’t wait to continue during my sophomore year.”

As Jonah continues through the next chapter in his baseball career — now in year two of his time at Cal— he isn’t just putting in the work for himself. His maturity reminds him that he has hundreds of supporters back home in San Diego to be thankful for. Without them, his dream would be just that. A dream.

“When I go to the weight room and when I go to the field, I’m thinking of my parents, my friends and everyone back home,” Jonah says. “That includes my teachers, my old travel ball coaches, and anyone who’s ever helped me along the way to get to where I am today and as I continue to progress as a player and as a person. That’s why I’m working so hard, for them.”

The best stories in sports involve underdogs achieving the impossible. Whenever Jonah Davis steps onto the field, however, he’ll never seem himself as one — no matter how camp counselors rate him. No matter what anyone else says, he won’t be slowing down anytime soon.

Contact Josh Yuen at [email protected]