Davis revels in sharing triumph with all

September 16, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

A woman in her 50s raced down the aisle in the right-field bleachers, stopped at the rail with her camera and pleaded with Eric Davis to pose for a picture.

The second inning was about to begin, and Davis was trying to position himself for Jim Thome, Cleveland's left-handed slugger.

The fans in right field didn't care.

"Turn around, Eric!" they screamed. "Turn around!"

Davis looked back, spotted the woman, pumped his fist.

And a love affair unlike any in this city's sports history continued.

There have been more popular Orioles. There have been more visible Colts. But there never has been anyone like Davis, returning as much affection as he receives.

His return from colon-cancer surgery yesterday would have been inspiring if all he did was play his five innings in the Orioles' 6-5 victory over Cleveland.

What made it more special was his ability to make people feel that his triumph was their triumph, his willingness, even eagerness, to serve as a symbol of hope.

Davis repeatedly "raised the roof" for the fans in right, gesturing upward with his right arm. He nodded and waved. He even blew kisses.

"Looking good, Eric. Looking good, baby!" one man yelled.

"Welcome back, Eric. We love you man!" another screamed.

Davis, five days removed from his latest round of chemotherapy, seemed to recognize everyone, like a guy returning to his old neighborhood.

"Actually, they were trying to keep me from focusing on the game," Davis said, smiling. "They all wanted to talk and wave and for me to blow kisses at 'em.

"From the first day starting out in right field, it's like they adopted me. When I raised the roof, that was for them. We have that special bond out there."

But it's more than just the fans in right.

Anyone who has ever lost a loved one to cancer -- which is to say, almost all of us -- could draw strength from what Davis has accomplished.

Heck, anyone facing adversity could.

A young woman at the far end of the bleachers held up a sign that said, "I'm with you, Eric, all the way. Love, Joy." Davis waved in acknowledgment. He actually knew the woman -- Joy Hall, 20, of Baltimore.

Hall was born with cerebral palsy.

"I met him in the parking lot [earlier this season]," said Hall, a junior paralegal major at Villa Julie College. "I asked him to sign my ball. I told him my name. And he remembered."

Hall said she gave Davis a pendant when he first stopped playing, "and he wore it all the time." She gave him a plaque when he rejoined the Orioles. They hugged outside the dugout, and the photo appeared in Baseball Weekly.

"He told me I was an inspiration to him. He's an inspiration to me and a lot of other kids," Hall said. "The doctors told my mother I'd never walk. Watching this man come back with what he has gone through, from cancer to his brother's passing he's so spirited, so giving to the fans. And what he gives, we give back to him."

It is a distinctive, Michael Jordan-type charisma, and on a team of stone-faced professionals, it makes Davis stand out like a blowtorch.

But Davis, 34, doesn't just have a rare personality.

He has a rare perspective, too.

Scouts called him the next Willie Mays, but injuries always held him back. He sat out '95 because of a herniated disk in his neck. And then, after a splendid start this season, he faced his biggest physical challenge of all.

Other professional athletes have come back from cancer. But Davis, more than most, grasps the greater meaning of it all.

"We're all in this together, not just from a professional athlete's standpoint, but a human being's standpoint," Davis said. "I can identify with what some other cancer patients have gone through. I'm no different than any of them. I just happen to play baseball."

His visibility gave him a platform.

Forced each of us to reflect.

Brought tears to thousands of eyes.

Orioles manager Davey Johnson nearly broke down for the second straight day recalling the death of his father, Frederick, from bone-marrow cancer in 1984.

Johnson said that doctors told his father that he could live as little as one month, or as much as 10 years.

"He didn't make it out of a week," Johnson said.

And when Davis received his diagnosis, Johnson couldn't help but imagine the worst.

"I thought he was going to die," the manager said, his voice cracking before yesterday's game.

Then there was Chris Ely, the Orioles' public-address announcer, who lost his wife, Priscilla, to breast cancer in 1994.

Ely said he was touched by Johnson's remarks about his father, and Davis' comments about being one of millions suffering from cancer.

"My mind sort of flashed back to Priscilla, how unfair it was that she was taken," Ely said. "I'm very happy for him. I'm happy for anybody that beats it."

Ely, a sportscaster at WJZ-TV 13, donates much of his time to cancer-related events and educating the public about the disease.

He took special care introducing Davis in the first inning.

"I know how how much it meant to him, how much it meant to the team, to everyone who has followed this story for the last few months," Ely said.

"It was a very dramatic moment. It wasn't something where I could just casually throw out his name and say, "Here it is.' "

The crowd rose in a standing ovation. The Orioles applauded from the top step of their dugout. Davis stepped out and tipped his helmet.

Such a simple, wonderful, enduring lesson.

It's better to give than receive.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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