Cancer again hits close to home team Orioles: Another member of this baseball family -- 21-year-old minor-league outfielder Joel Stephens -- is battling colon disease.

December 16, 1997|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

For the third time in eight months, the same disease has rocked the Orioles.

Joel Stephens, an Orioles farmhand, has colon cancer and is receiving round-the-clock chemotherapy from doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Though Stephens, 21, declined to comment on his prognosis, doctors said the case is more serious than that of outfielder Eric Davis or former Orioles slugger Boog Powell, both of whom had colon cancer surgery at Hopkins last summer and anticipate full recoveries.

Stephens, an outfielder and the club's ninth pick in the 1995 draft, underwent surgery twice within the past month in his native Elmira, N.Y., before being whisked to Baltimore by helicopter Dec. 8. His oncologist at Hopkins, Dr. Ross C. Donehower, said that Stephens' cancer is contained in the abdomen and is best treated with drugs at this time.

Stephens, who is receiving chemotherapy as an outpatient, left Baltimore yesterday to stay with relatives in Lancaster, Pa. Though he spends 12 hours at night in bed receiving medication, he is free to move about during the day, a backpack dispensing the drugs intravenously.

Colon cancer rarely attacks those in their 20s or 30s, said Donehower, who also treated Davis, 35. Fewer than one in 20 cases occur in people 35 or younger. "For the Orioles, it is an extraordinary coincidence," he said.

Stephens batted .224 for the Delmarva Shorebirds, champions of the Single-A South Atlantic League. He hit his first professional home run July 7 in Salisbury, where the strapping 215-pounder was one of the team's most popular players.

"I can still see him standing there at the ballpark, one night in August, signing autographs," said Mike D'Aloisio, his high school coach. "Girls offered him their telephone numbers. Little old ladies handed him bags of chocolate chip cookies. The whole place was dark except for one light shining down on Joel, because the rest of the team had gone home."

Stephens, who is deeply religious, said faith will see him through his cancer and possibly win some converts.

"If this hadn't happened, people wouldn't be reading this story about how strong one's faith can be," he said. "I always thought baseball would be my platform for sharing that. But God works in mysterious ways, and now I can spread his word through my cancer.

"If I touch one person's life, it'll be worth it."

Stephens' hometown has rallied behind one of its most celebrated athletes. Dozens of schools and churches in Elmira (population 35,300) have held prayer vigils, said D'Aloisio, athletic director at Notre Dame High School, where Stephens starred in baseball, basketball and football. On Dec. 22, at St. Charles Roman Catholic Church, a Mass will be said for Stephens, who is Protestant. "Joel cuts across all religions; that's how beloved he is," D'Aloisio said.

In high school, Stephens, an All-America tailback, once rushed for 240 yards, then vanished during the post-game melee. "We finally spotted him off in the distance, giving the game ball and a hug to a 10-year-old in a wheelchair," D'Aloisio said. "The boy had MS [multiple sclerosis] and the biggest grin on his face."

D'Aloisio visited Stephens before he left for Hopkins. Stephens hugged his mentor and said, "Coach, it's second down and 2 yards to go, and I've been pretty good at getting you first downs in that situation."

D'Aloisio gave a thumbs-up.

"Doctors don't know Joel Stephens like we do," he said. "He knows his opponent, how to prepare and get another 'W.'

"This kid is not through touching people's hearts."

The Orioles have pitched in, managing Stephens' medical care and lodging his family. Kevin Malone, assistant general manager, offered the use of his home -- VIP treatment for Single-A ballplayer.

"Joel is the kid next door, a wonderful, upbeat human being," said Orioles general manager Pat Gillick. "Fighters like that, you do everything possible to show you're behind them."

Last week, the phone rang in Stephens' hospital room. It was Davis, who rebounded from colon cancer surgery in June to hit a home run in the American League Championship Series.

During their 30-minute talk, Davis said, Stephens never asked, "Why me?" "He's a stand-up guy dealing with this the only way he knows how -- with character and determination," Davis said.

Another day, another phone call, this one from former Oriole Dave Dellucci, who played beside Stephens in the minor leagues. "I called him in tears," said Dellucci, who was buoyant afterward. "Joel had me convinced that I could beat this thing."

In Elmira, Stephens broke 37-year-old citywide high school rushing records set by Ernie Davis, who starred at Syracuse University and won the Heisman Trophy. The NFL's top draft pick in 1961, Davis was stricken with leukemia and died at the age of 23.

Three years ago, before Stephens signed with the Orioles, Syracuse offered him a football scholarship. This fall, the Orangemen reiterated the offer.

The coincidence is not lost on Stephens' supporters.

"It took 40 years for the second coming of Ernie Davis," D'Aloisio said. "I hope the parallel ends there."

Stephens remains undaunted. "This is a blip in the road," he said. "In two weeks, I'll have less hair and more aches, but I'm up for that challenge.

"God is going to win out. He always does."

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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