Davis finds return is 'best rehab' Outfielder embraced by crowd in first game since cancer surgery

'More than massage, ice'

Oriole goes 0-for-3, but has stroke, glove

September 16, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

They raised the roof in the right-field bleachers yesterday. Naturally, Eric Davis was there to lend two hands.

A day long-anticipated but never completely assured came to pass when the Orioles right fielder reclaimed his position for the first time since undergoing June 13 surgery to remove a cancerous mass from his colon.

The long journey that has included chemotherapy treatments and the loss of an older brother ended when Davis jogged to the Camden Yards outfield at 1: 32 p.m. and swam freely within a wave of appreciation.

"It was better than what I imagined," said Davis, who responded with his familiar gesture of pumping his palms toward the sky. "When the fans saw me, they let me know they appreciated what I was doing. From the day I got here, we had a special relationship. When I raised the roof, that was for them."

Yesterday was for Davis, activated just before the game.

He hadn't faced live pitching since May 25 and hadn't started in right field since May 7. Only five days before he had undergone his latest session of chemotherapy. When he approached the plate in the bottom of the first inning, he couldn't remember such applause.

"That was the best rehabilitation than I could ever have had," he said. "It was more than a massage. It was more than ice. It was more than surgery. It was an emotional lift to my heart that made it gratifying.

"That was one of the main reasons I wanted to have my first game in Baltimore because I think the organization and the fans deserved that."

The Camden crowd stood. His teammates stood. Even the Indians dugout stood in respect, applauding. Not until Davis had tipped his helmet three times was he allowed to re-enter the box. He lined a 2-0 pitch that right fielder Manny Ramirez ran down.

"I was kind of numb from anticipation," Davis said. "It made me teary-eyed a little bit. That's when I tipped my hat to the crowd, to let them know I felt what they were giving me."

Davis pleased the right-field faithful with four putouts complete with his typical flair. He spoke to them. He blew kisses at them. And they embraced him.

Following his encouraging 0-for-3 day at the plate that included the first-inning drive to right-center field and a chop to third that he nearly outran, Davis attended a news conference alongside his mother, Shirley Frazier, and his wife, Sherrie. He would have loved nothing more than for his older brother, Jimmy, to be there also. But Jimmy suffered a fatal heart attack Aug. 31, costing Eric a friend as well as a brother. Davis penned Jimmy's nickname initials -- J.B. for "Jimmy Beam" -- on his cap.

Said the mother of her son's recovery, "God is so good. I praise him for letting my baby come back and pick up where he left off. My heart is very heavy, and seeing him brought tears to my eyes. I could only think about his older brother. If he could only see him and what he was doing."

Yesterday also marked exactly three months since Johns Hopkins surgeon Dr. Keith Lillemoe confirmed for him that surgery had revealed cancer.

"Satisfaction is just being alive and having the cancer out of my body and just being able to put the uniform on. This was just icing on the cake," Davis said.

The Orioles used the game to clinch a postseason berth. However, the accomplishment was muted by what Davis had done. Lillemoe said no one can say with certainty that Davis has beaten the disease. Such a pronouncement requires years. However, the speed of Davis' return and his obvious health represented a source of satisfaction for all connected with his recovery.

Lillemoe watched the afternoon game from the press box "just as a fan" then attended the post-game conference.

"This is sort of the end point to everything," he said. "I guess there is some satisfaction when there are no complications after surgery. Maybe in a way we can say that the surgery is complete. Chemotherapy goes on and follow-up goes on for years. But now that he's back to work I almost feel the surgical aspect is complete."

As for his status as a player, manager Davey Johnson was amazed. Davis swung with authority and was aggressive enough in the field that he and center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds collided on a fourth-inning fly ball. Davis came away with the ball.

"Any other day it would have been a problem, but since it was his day it was OK," cracked Hammonds, among those Orioles closest to Davis.

"He was on everything," Johnson said. "He just missed a few pitches. I thought he got a great jump on a ball in right-center and got there easy. That's what you miss. He's just a great player."

Within the first base dugout there was plenty of room for emotion but little reason for tears, according to Hammonds.

"It's an exciting time. It's not like he's on his deathbed and we don't think he can do anything. It's not a swan song. He's back," he said. "His bat is still flashing. And as long as he's smiling and having fun, no one here can know what that man can actually do.

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