Wade Davis doesn't waste time with a postgame shower and shave. Daylight is burning, and he's hot on the trail of a 5-pound bass. "I've got it dialed in," the Rays pitcher says as he climbs into the cab of his Ford pickup. "I sneak out for a few hours after a game and catch a few fish. It's pretty much guaranteed." Davis, 25, grew up fishing the ponds and lakes of Central Florida. He knows bass about as well as he knows baseball. Maybe better. "Half the battle is finding the fish," he says as he fires off a text message to pitching pal Jeff Niemann. "That's the good thing about fishing ponds — they're not as big as lakes."
Niemann answers right away. "He went home to take care of his dog," Davis says. "Mind if I stop at Walmart?"
Davis goes straight to the fishing section. He has been there a hundred times. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits, topwater plugs? Not today. He goes right to the plastic worms.
His routine hasn't changed much since his days at Lake Wales High School. Everywhere he has played (New York, Carolina, Florida) he has gone head-to-head with the best in the game — brown trout, brook trout, smallmouth bass. You name it, he has caught it.
"I've fished anywhere and everywhere," he says. "If I am driving down the highway and see a pond, I'll make a note of it, come back after work and see if it has any fish."
A professional athlete such as Davis could fish with the best guides in the business. Instead, he's sneaking around golf courses, hunting "hawgs" like some 10-year-old who has lost a lure to a monster bucketmouth and is determined to get it back.
"You a mono man?" Davis asks as we pull up to the gated community where fishing pal Niemann rents a house during spring training.
Before the answer, Davis switches lanes and follows a local in before the guard can yell "Stop!" hoping the gate doesn't strip the paint off his F-150.
"We're in," he laughs and weaves through the streets, eyeing pond after pond, until he stops in front of Niemann's place.
The pitcher saunters out, spinning rod in hand, and ushers his dog back inside. "He's mad because he can't go," Niemann, 28, says.
Pond fishing is dangerous business. No place for a dog. There are gators in these fishing holes, and they like nothing more than a nice canine snack before bedtime.
"I like monofilament," Davis proclaims. "I don't think the fish can see it as well as that braided line."
Niemann shakes his head. He has a spool full of that new techno-line that looks good but tangles at the hint of a breeze.
Davis laughs and cuts his buddy, all 6-foot-9 of him, some slack. After all, he's from Texas, and everybody knows that those Lone Star boys stock their lakes with Florida bass because they don't know how to grow their own.
"You boys looking for fish?" a man in a golf cart asks as Davis pulls over to scope out a drainage ditch. "Try that pond down on the left."
Davis and Niemann don't know what to think.
"We're used to getting kicked out of every place we fish," Niemann says. "That guy was actually nice."
The players take the man at his word and try the 5-acre pond. Niemann and Davis cast in silence. The fish aren't biting.
Then fellow pitcher James Shields pulls up in a truck that looks like it has seen its share of four wheeling through the California desert.
"What's up?" Shields asks as both men hook up. "See, I brought you luck."
Shields sees a ripple in the water and points. "Cast there," he says as Niemann obliges.
A 4-foot alligator sees the lure and mistakes it for food. "Oh, no!" Shields yells as Niemann hooks the gator. "Now what do you do?"
He can't cut the line because it might get wrapped around a branch or log and doom the gator to a slow, agonizing death by starvation.
"You are going to have to bring it to shore and unhook it," I inform him.
"I'm not doing it," Niemann announces.
"Either am I," Shields echoes.
Since an outdoor writer's finger is worth a fraction of that of a major-league pitcher, I volunteer to climb into the water and unhook the beast. Armed only with a sweaty towel from the back of Niemann's pickup, I square off to battle the angry reptile. Luckily, before I lose any digits, the lure comes loose. A disappointed Shields climbs back in his truck and heads home.
"Don't waste your time here," advises a woman in another golf cart. "Come fish at my place. We stock the pond."
At first, Niemann and Davis suspect a trap. The hospitality seems a bit suspicious.
"What is this place, Pleasantville?" Niemann asks. "Are they going to make us dinner, too?"
The two men pull up at the house down the street. The sun is hanging low on the horizon. It's the bottom of the ninth, and Davis knows that it's time to put up or shut up.
The Florida boy scans the shoreline and smiles. "I like those cattails," he says. Davis casts along the weedline and works the worm, slow and deep. Then he feels a bump.
Full count, but he has got that bass right where he wants it. One more cast, a little to the outside. Strike! The reel screams. The game is his.
"Now that's a bass," he says.