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Unbroken Spirit It took Orioles rightfielder Eric Davis's heroic battle with colon cancer to make fans appreciate that he's more than just a hugely talented player plagued by injuries

March 16, 1998
March 16, 1998

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March 16, 1998

Unbroken Spirit It took Orioles rightfielder Eric Davis's heroic battle with colon cancer to make fans appreciate that he's more than just a hugely talented player plagued by injuries

Cancer. The word, the disease, doesn't fit in these surroundings.
Torn medial collateral ligament. That fits. Rotator cuff. That
fits. Cancer doesn't fit onto the usual postcards, into the
usual poems written from spring training. Poems about young guys
who walk into a clubhouse, double numbers on their backs, fresh
from their first dance with the big leagues, bulletproof and
headed toward immortality. Poems about Cal Ripken Jr., never
misses a game, made of iron. Cancer?

This is an article from the March 16, 1998 issue Original Layout

"There was a persistent stomach pain," says Eric Davis. "Not a
pain like you knew, a pain that doubled you over. Nobody seemed
to know what it was. Finally, I left the team in New York. I
went back to Baltimore, to Johns Hopkins. It took them about
half an hour for them to tell me what it was. Just like that...."

It's a Tuesday afternoon in Fort Lauderdale, and Davis, the
Baltimore Orioles' outfielder-DH, had gone 1 for 3 in the
sunshine against the Minnesota Twins and been lifted after five
innings. He's sitting at his locker in his underwear with a big
ice bag taped to his sore back, and he tells the story of what
happened to him last May. "They said I could take some time
before the operation," Davis says. "I said there wasn't any need
for that. Let's get it done. They did the operation a few days
later."

Who has cancer in the big leagues? Look at Davis, 6'3", 200. He
was playing great. He was leading the American League in
hitting, .395 on May 8. The news of this disease--colon
cancer--was a sudden draft from a door seldom opened in pro
sports.

"You thought you had some gas," outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds
suddenly says from the next locker. "Wasn't that it? You thought
you had some gas?"

"I thought I had some gas," Davis agrees.

"Then you disappeared," Hammonds says. "Everyone was like,
'Where's Eric?' Then after a few days, the word started to get
out. It was like this whisper...."

"You tell the story better than I do."

"Cancer."

The word still is spoken almost in a whisper.

"Here's the shame of it," says Ray Miller, the Orioles' pitching
coach last year and their new manager. "The shame is that it
took cancer for people to realize what a good guy, a good
person, Eric Davis is."

Who knew? Who paid attention? He was a good player, solid,
sometimes spectacular, lots of promise as a kid, held back by
injuries. The public reserves most of its attention for
skyrockets headed toward the Hall of Fame. This skyrocket had
never achieved total liftoff.

There was a moment of celebrity with the Cincinnati Reds in the
1990 World Series--Davis hit a two-run homer in the first inning
of Game 1, launching the Reds on a sweep of the Oakland
A's--followed by controversy. After lacerating a kidney trying
to make a diving catch on a ball hit by Willie McGee in Game 4,
he was angered when Reds owner Marge Schott refused to pay for
the private plane Davis needed to return to Cincinnati when he
left an Oakland hospital five days later. Because of injuries he
played as many as 90 games in only one of the next four seasons.
He even retired after the '94 season, following surgery for a
herniated disk in his neck.

"I just didn't want to be cut on anymore, you know?" he says.

The players knew about him, knew his talent, knew his character.
Baltimore catcher Lenny Webster remembers meeting Davis during a
long-ago spring, when Webster was a minor leaguer. Davis was
kind, offering encouragement. Hammonds remembers wearing Davis's
number, 44, in high school. Eric the Red. "He's just blessed
with talent," Hammonds says. "You look at him, at his size. He
hits, hits with power, has all that speed for a big man. Plus he
has a clue. That's probably the most important thing. He has a
clue how to play this game. You look at most guys, they have no
clue whatsoever."

Davis returned to baseball in 1996, after a year of "just doing
what I wanted, swimming if I wanted to swim, taking my two kids
to school, whatever." The encouragement of friends and the
feeling that he still could play brought him back. He played 129
games with the Reds, the most in six years, hit .287 with 26
home runs. A 34-year-old free agent after that season, he moved
on to Baltimore.

Stomach pains knocked him out of the lineup by May 25. Two days
later he left the Orioles for Johns Hopkins, where his cancer
was diagnosed. On June 13, Friday the 13th, not superstitious,
even though the doctors offered to change the date, Davis had
the operation. A tumor the size of a fist and three feet of his
large intestine were removed. "All I could do was follow what
the doctors told me," he says. "This was a situation where I had
no control. I'm not a person who says, 'What if?' because that
gets you nowhere. I can't control what happens with the cancer.
I can control what I eat. I can control how fast I drive a car.
There are things you just can't control."

Starting with the response to his message on the Camden Yards
scoreboard four nights later, thanking the fans of Baltimore for
their get-well wishes, he realized how much his public life had
changed. He watched the moment on TV from his bed in Johns
Hopkins, the fans cheering and cheering. He felt a love that he
had never felt from any crowd anywhere. He had been injured and
cheered, but never cheered like this. He tried to figure out
why. "I was supposed to be heroic, but I wasn't being any more
heroic than I had ever been with any injuries," he says. "The
thing was, people could relate to cancer. Most of them had never
known anyone with a lacerated kidney or a ruptured cervical
disk, but everyone knows someone who has cancer."

From that point on, Davis's life was played out in front of
these people. After he went home to Los Angeles, there were
stories about his recovery, about the soothing effects of the
herbal teas prepared by his wife, Sherrie. There were stories
about the sudden death of his brother Jimmy, one year older than
Eric, on Aug. 31 from a heart attack. How much can one man
handle? There were all the stories of his grand return to
baseball at the end of last season, a succession of emotional
moments capped by his pinch-hit home run to win Game 5 of the
American League Championship Series against the Cleveland
Indians. All the while he was still taking his weekly two-hour
dose of chemotherapy, sitting in a hospital room and letting
poison drip into his body.

"What mattered was that he came back," Webster says. "It
wouldn't have mattered to any of us if he came back and struck
out every time up. To have him come back.... "

"He played," Hammonds says. "Do you know what I'm saying? He
played."

There was no better story in baseball. None.

The chemo is done. The final treatment was Feb. 11, six extra
weeks added onto the original schedule as insurance. The cancer
apparently is gone. There are still regular checkups--there was
one last week, a CAT scan, negative--but life can be normal
again. No, that's not true. Life can never be normal again.

The word cancer has been written across Davis's back as surely
as if it had been stitched on his black uniform shirt in Orioles
orange letters. He's a spokesman, a voice, a picture of a patron
saint enclosed in a pack of trading cards. "I don't mind talking
about this," he says. "I'm not forced into doing this. Don't use
that word. The only two things I got to do in this life are stay
black and die. I want to do this."

In the winter he went to a succession of banquets to accept a
succession of awards, most of them named for departed,
courageous athletes. The Roberto Clemente Award. The Tony
Conigliaro Award. The Fred Hutchinson Award. The Bob Chandler
Award. He was tired, didn't want to be away from his family, but
he went and accepted the awards with honor and dignity. He also
made public-service announcements about cancer prevention. He
talked with groups and individuals. He didn't ask for this--any
of this--but he accepted it. "This is real," says Davis, a
religious man. "I like baseball, but I've known for a long time
that baseball is a game. It is when baseball stops that life
begins."

He calls 21-year-old Joel Stephens. An outfielder with Delmarva,
the Orioles' Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League,
Stephens watched the drama of September and Davis's return with
everyone else, on television. Less than a month later, suffering
from stomach pains, he was in Johns Hopkins, same grim diagnosis
but without the publicity. He is recovering from his operation
for colon cancer at home in Tioga, Pa. "You think all the time,
when someone gets cancer, this will never happen to you,"
Stephens says. "Then it happens to you. You look at Eric--he's
called me a couple of times with inspirational words and some
tips on how to handle the chemo--and you see what he has done.
You have someone to make you think you can beat this thing."

Check the spring lineup. Eric Davis feels good. He's no more
tired than he normally would be at this time of the year. Miller
thinks Davis probably will play "around 100 games, maybe more."
That doesn't sound unrealistic.

The cancer patient is batting third, starting in right.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [Eric Davis batting]COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA IN THE SWING Davis, whose dramatic pinch homer won a playoff game in October, showed this spring he's still a smash. [Eric Davis and fans]
"It wouldn't have mattered," says Webster, "if he came back and
struck out every time up."