Davis' recovery more significant than any game

October 19, 1997|By John Steadman

Instead of a civic celebration, with bands playing and cheers reverberating, there was regret, remorse and, finally, resignation. A city was left suffering in aftershock. The Orioles had been eliminated. No pennant, parade, acceptance speeches, rings for the players or chance to win the World Series, the most acclaimed achievement in all of sports.

The frivolity that goes with gaining such a distinction would have to wait for at least another year. Yet there was something far more important than any of the feel-good superficial rewards that come with winning, this almost frivolous scenario of what might have been. The story of the year, transcending the normal fun-and-games category, is represented in the presence of Eric Keith Davis, who proceeded to deal with cancer because of his personal resolve and strong faith in God. He gave the impression that what he was doing was no more eventful than chasing down a soft fly ball.

Cancer threw him a knockdown pitch. Quickly, he gathered himself from the dirt and came out swinging, an action that captured the attention of America and, without Davis even realizing it, served as a momentous demonstration for cancer patients everywhere. He wouldn't give up, back off or contemplate surrender.

"I'm a competitor," he said in a soft yet firm voice, as if the world needed to be reminded. And then he added, "I firmly believe the good Lord never gives you anything you can't handle."

As Davis sat through his final treatment at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Oncology Center at Green Spring Station and spent part of the afternoon with a visiting reporter looking on and asking questions, he was almost casually reflective of all he had been through and what it meant. He'll soon return to his native Los Angeles, to be with family and friends, and while there will make six more hospital calls as an outpatient to complete the chemotherapy.

His normal playing weight is 203 and he faded to 178 after the abdominal surgery for removal of a cancerous mass from his colon. He has climbed back to 193 and adds, with a smile, "between my wife and mother, they'll fatten me up in no time."

What sustained him, he says, more than any force, were his strong religious beliefs, originating with his Baptist upbringing. "My father would tell me: 'No church, no ball.' So we went to services first and then the playing field. I've always prayed before and after every game. Look outside right now. Check the trees, the grass, the air -- all gifts from God."

When the pain first attacked, in late May, he attributed it to the wrong kind of food or, as a baseball player, because he was involved in so many late-night games followed by eating meals at unusual hours. During a series with the Yankees in New York, team trainer Richie Bancells answered his continuing complaints of pain by feeling Eric's stomach and sensing that some organs might be swollen. Davis was told to come to Baltimore for an examination and he returned immediately by train.

The early diagnosis, he remembers, suggested the trouble was caused by an abscess and he took antibiotics. There also was some speculation the problem might be a hernia. Pain would increase, then relent, and the same condition would repeat itself.

"I mentioned that if it was an abscess, I wanted to know how it started or if it was a hernia to find out where it was located," Davis says. "I asked for a second medical opinion and this led to the operation and the tumor -- causing a section of my colon to be removed."

Were you alarmed, in a state of emotional panic or upset after hearing results of the surgery? "No, I didn't have time to be frightened. Dr. Keith Lillemoe told me after I came out of the anesthesia that it was cancer. Then, seconds later, he said, 'I got it all.' "

Davis says he wasn't dejected and didn't regress into a feeling of self-pity. "Never, in any part of my life, have I worried about things I couldn't control. You can decide what kind of clothes you want to wear, the car you drive or when you are going to eat, but in things you can't control, why use up good time being

negative? I feel being negative is being selfish. A smile and a positive attitude will take you a long way."

Mail from all parts of the country has overwhelmed him. He says his mother takes charge of reading every letter and trying to answer same. But there's a backlog, dating to when he lacerated a kidney diving for a batted ball during the 1990 World Series and was left in the hospital for 11 days. Messages are still piled up from that regrettable occasion -- when his team, the Cincinnati Reds, returned to celebrate and Davis, virtually abandoned in Oakland and left alone, ultimately had to pay his own way home.

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