First pitch first step back for Stephens Farmhand with cancer still has big-league hopes

March 30, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

How many Orioles does it take to throw out the first pitch?

Three, when the cause is right.

Eric Davis, Boog Powell and Joel Stephens -- colon cancer victims, all -- shared honors yesterday at Camden Yards, before the Orioles' 4-2 exhibition loss to the New York Mets. A portion of the game's proceeds went toward cancer research at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical System.

Cancer struck each last year. Davis, the right fielder, and Powell, the former slugger, recovered. Stephens' case is more serious, not that you'd notice from the fastball the Orioles farmhand uncorked yesterday.

With family and friends in the stands, Stephens strode to the mound, waved to the crowd and fired a head-high pitch to catcher Charlie Greene.

Baseball wags were impressed.

"His ball had life," said Kevin Malone, assistant general manager.

"He's got some gas," said Powell.

"That was my high, hard one," said Stephens, a 22-year-old outfielder from Tioga, Pa. Altogether, not a bad toss for someone with a catheter piercing his chest.

"First time I've thrown in five months," he said. "Honestly, my goal was just to get it to the catcher."

From her seat behind home plate, Joyce Stephens watched her son, hands clasped. "This makes him feel like he still has a dream," she said.

He does.

Yesterday was, Stephens said, a first small step toward returning to baseball.

"I'd always planned to be in uniform for my first appearance at Camden Yards, but I'm enjoying every minute of this," said Stephens, who hugged Powell, jabbered with Davis and pocketed his souvenir baseball. "Most guys who throw out the first pitch have already played in the big leagues. Maybe I'll do it the other way 'round."

To that end, he has begun a rehabilitation program. Though still receiving significant chemotherapy treatments, Stephens jogs and works out in a hometown gym. He spent two weeks of spring training in Florida, hobnobbing with teammates from last year's Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds club. Next month, he begins training with the high school baseball team at his alma mater, where he made All-America.

At the very least, he hopes to play in one minor-league game this season. "With everything I've been through, to put on a pro uniform would be a great boost," said Stephens, down 45 JTC pounds from his playing weight of 220. "If I only get one AB [at-bat], I'll be happy."

Go for it, the Orioles told him. "I like Joel's attitude," Malone said. "If he says he's going to do something, I don't doubt him at all."

Nothing can alter his resolve, said Stephens, least of all a sign from above. Driving home from Florida in a thunderstorm last week, his pickup truck was struck by lightning.

"There was a loud bang, a bright light and a weird tingling sensation," said Stephens, undaunted by the incident.

"It was just the Lord saying, 'Hi.' "

Pub Date: 3/30/98

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