The dining hall for Alabama student-athletes hosts all shapes and sizes. Some of them are easy to pick out: the seven-foot basketball player, the 300-pound lineman or the slight silhouette of a cross country star.
Davis Vainer often suffers from a case of mistaken identity.
“I always get asked in the dining hall, they’re like ‘Are you on the swim team?’” the right-handed pitcher said. “I get it.”
Like some of Alabama’s swimmers and divers, Vainer is completely bald. Unlike the swimmers and divers, it isn’t by choice.
Vainer has alopecia, a medical condition which results in hair loss. His type of the condition, alopecia universalis, means he has no hair on his body, including no eyebrows.
Alopecia is just a fact of life for Vainer, whose hair started falling out when he was in kindergarten. His older brother already had the same condition when it started to appear for Davis as well. When Davis was in second grade he decided it was time to shave his head. The hair never came back.
“I wasn’t scared. It was just kind of normal,” he said. “It was like ‘OK, this is happening now. This is who I am.’ I guess my older brother kind of normalized it a little bit, in a sense. I was like ‘OK, this is what my brother looks like. I kind of just look like my brother.’ And I just went from there.”
Vainer’s father was also a doctor, so there wasn’t much anxiety when his hair started to go. Alopecia is rare but doesn’t have other effects on an individual’s physical health. It still catches others off guard, though.
“When I was younger they’d ask if I had cancer, because I wasn’t as big and filled out,” Vainer said.
It’s not nearly that serious. Alopecia is mostly cosmetic. Vainer even finds ways to make it comedic.
It’s become a little more common for people to be aware of alopecia in recent years. Former NBA forward Charlie Villanueva has alopecia. Former Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has it as well. Former Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs also has it.
Vainer is comfortable with it, but it can still be difficult for others. Junior outfielder Gene Wood was connected to a family with a son who has alopecia, and he met with Vainer after a game last season. The boy was struggling with his confidence – something Vainer has in abundance.
“I guess just being able to make someone’s life easier, because to me it really isn’t anything,” Vainer said. “To me, it’s nothing. For someone who might be struggling with that, just to show them that you can get over it, I guess that’s helped me gain some perspective.”
That’s not to say it’s always been easy for Vainer. Other children thought he was intimidating when he was younger. He was occasionally picked on. As a relief pitcher at Alabama, he’s had opposing fans who try to hassle him as he warms up in the bullpen.
“I’ve heard every joke in the books,” he said. “So it doesn’t really get under my skin. I embrace it. … It kind of made me who I am.”
Vainer has been an important piece of the Alabama bullpen as a redshirt junior this spring. He’s pitched in 15 games with a 3.42 earned run average, striking out 37 batters in 23 2/3 innings. He’s on pace for his best season yet after posting a 4.71 ERA in 2017 and a 4.46 ERA in 2018.
“He just has made tremendous, tremendous strides from last year to this fall to this spring,” coach Brad Bohannon said. “He’s had a great season.”
He’s come a long way from when he arrived on campus in fall of 2015. Vainer drew the eye of Alabama’s coaching staff at a camp when he was still a junior varsity catcher. He pitched a little and the coaching staff liked what it saw.
“I don’t know what got into me but I was just throwing strikes,” he said. “I was just dealing.”
He had so little pitching experience when he arrived that he required a redshirt. He did have one weapon: a breaking ball that could cause cartoonish swings-and-misses. It has the velocity of a slider but breaks vertically, appearing more like a curveball.
Vainer bristles at the idea that it’s a curveball. He prefers to call it a slider.
“Occasionally, we refer to it as a dragon when it’s really good,” Bohannon said.
The issue had been command; Vainer had 12 wild pitches as a freshman and hit three batters as a sophomore. As a junior, he’s thrown two wild pitches and hit one batter so far. His confidence is coming through in his command on the mound.
“I’m not afraid to throw it in the strike zone,” Vainer said. “If they hit it, they hit it. If not, whatever happens, happens.”
Some of that confidence stems from the condition he’s had almost his whole life.
“To me, alopecia is no big deal,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m confident because I’ve always had to be a little bit more confident by having (alopecia), but it has given me a perspective. This is not a big deal at all. If you just simplify it, I’m just bald. That’s it.”
Reach Ben Jones at email@example.com or 205-722-0196.