Davis finds inspiration has no season Home run for banquet is O's sweetest stop of circuitous off-season

Cancer fight brings spotlight

JumboTron best wishes in hospital still vivid

January 23, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

WOODLAND HILLS, Calif. -- No matter how much happens around him, to him and because of him, Eric Davis insists nothing has changed.

Sitting in the same San Fernando Valley home he bought 13 years ago, the Orioles right fielder and cancer patient says only perceptions are different. Once Davis was considered a talented but injury-prone -- even reluctant -- prodigy. Now, he tours the country as an inspiration.

New York. Seattle. Boston. Chicago. They've all booked him for various banquets, much like the Tops in Sports Banquet tonight at Towson University, where he will be feted as the most inspirational figure in the Orioles' memorable 1997 season. It's not his first stop on the banquet circuit nor will it be his last. It will, however, be his most heartfelt.

"People elsewhere are focusing on the here and now. The courage that he showed. The courage that he showed. The courage that he showed. But the people of Baltimore appreciated what I did before that," he says. "It's not like they jumped up all of a sudden to get on the bandwagon. They were there before."

Davis appreciates the attention he has received elsewhere. Visibility is important as he finalizes plans for the Eric Davis Foundation, a Los Angeles-based charity that will provide scholarship money to students whose family finances have been drained by their cancer treatment. Davis has contracted to tell his story in an autobiography. He's been approached about a made-for-TV movie recounting last year's battle with colon cancer. The producers of "Murphy Brown" have called about appearing on a segment dealing with cancer.

Once his detractors wondered why he never played more than 135 baseball games in a season. Now, he is celebrated for being alive.

"Once I went through what I went through, people started looking at me as having courage and heart and dedication. It was the same heart, determination and courage that I've always had. So now people look at me on a different level. It wasn't the illness. It's what I did after the illness," he says.

Davis returned to play in September after undergoing colon cancer surgery in June. He homered in the playoffs less than four months after surgery. But because Baltimore embraced him months before he became grist for "Good Morning America," tonight is special.

"I didn't feel any of this in Cincinnati, and I spent 10 years there," says Davis a day before leaving for Boston, followed by tonight's appearance. "They would give it to me if I hit a two-run homer to win a game. But to be sitting in a hospital room and having best wishes on the JumboTron and just seeing the reactions of the fans, it's unbelievable."

Davis previously established a foundation in Cincinnati to help youth programs. An active participant in Major League Baseball's RBI program, he is planning to debut a clothing line this spring with much of the proceeds devoted to reviving baseball in inner cities. His latest endeavor is inspired by his own ordeal and made possible by the spotlight it provided.

"I have walked that walk. I've had to deal with it. I'm more knowledgeable about this situation and how many people it affects," he says.

Davis never again will be viewed merely as a baseball player. His response? "If you can flip it around to help others, then why not roll with it?" he says.

Lowest of the low

Davis never succumbed to self-pity last year. His toughest moments came in a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hotel room Aug. 31, when he received word that his older brother, Jimmy, had died of a heart attack back home. The brothers spoke almost daily while Jimmy was restoring order to his personal life. Stoic and an inspiration to others throughout his own ordeal, Eric doubled over a bathroom sink and wept.

"That's as low as it gets," Davis says. "But something told me not to worry about it because he's gone to a better place.

"I just cherish the times I had with him instead of think about the times you're not going to have with him. He's not gone. I just can't see him."

Davis prefers to look forward. The constant media crush that accompanied him during the postseason only exaggerated fatigue brought on by chemotherapy. Before home playoff games, he spent much of his time secreted away in the first base bat room granting interviews to selected media. Each day manager Davey Johnson approached him about his availability, never sure of the answer.

Two years ago, Davis hit 26 home runs in 129 games during a second stopover with the Reds. Limited to 42 games last season, he intends to restore his role to everyday right fielder. "If I'm not playing, it's because they felt someone was better than me," he says.

New shape, old mentality

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