Survivor, and a lot more Eric Davis: The Orioles outfielder began his fight a year ago against colon cancer. And while he hasn't forgotten about its existence, he's too busy living a full life to worry about it.

June 12, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- The anniversary will pass tomorrow without celebration. Eric Davis, cancer survivor, is too busy savoring life.

It was last June 13, as the Orioles opened a three-game interleague series in Atlanta, that Davis underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in which a fist-sized cancerous mass was removed from his colon. A sizable piece of healthy tissue also was sacrificed. His season appeared over. His life was uncertain.

Today the surgical scar remains, but the sharp pain that once doubled him over inside the visitors' dugout at Jacobs Field has vanished. Davis is four months removed from chemotherapy. Painful bone chips floating about his right elbow now represent the outfielder's most pressing concern as Davis wears a compression sleeve over the joint to help prevent the chip from shifting.

"I deal with it," he says, "on a different level."

Doctors believe they removed the cancer whole. Yet Davis knows it follows him daily and from city to city.

"It won't ever be behind me because it's not something you can just wash away. It'll always be a part of me. From that point on I'll always be associated with it," Davis says.

Rather than flee from it, Davis willingly talks about his dealing with cancer. Instead of closeting himself from the memory, he used the ordeal to construct a platform. He organized the Eric Davis Foundation and has become spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Cancer Society. Last Friday night, he hurriedly left Camden Yards after a win over, yes, the Atlanta Braves, to attend the dusk-to-dawn Relay for Life fund-raiser at two locations.

Given Davis' relative youth -- he recently turned 36 -- doctors cannot guarantee the cancer will not return. If he remains cancer-free for five years, they say, his odds improve significantly.

"It's something I can't run from. But I don't dwell on it. It's not part of my everyday routine to wake up and think, 'Man, is it going to come back today?' I can't live my life like that," he says.

The topic never comes up with family, he says. Acquaintances will ask if they haven't spoken in a while.

"I try not to pay too much attention to it. But it's hard because everywhere you go you have people asking you how you feel. It's a general concern because of what happened," Davis says.

Just as millions identify with Davis' struggle, so has his manager, who describes it as "a personal story." Ray Miller's father-in-law recently completed chemotherapy treatment for colon cancer.

"I don't want to do anything to hurt [Davis]," Miller says. "I always think about Rodney [J.R. Richard] in Houston. People thought it was no big deal then he had an aneurysm and almost died. Eric hurt his kidney in the [1990] World Series and they just left him in the hospital because they didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary. It turned out to be a pretty serious condition.

"I want to play Eric but I'm not going to hurt him."

Batting .275, Davis isn't hurting his team. With 10 home runs, he finds himself tied for second on the team with B.J. Surhoff, six behind club leader Rafael Palmeiro. However, Davis has received fewer at-bats than any regular player except outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds -- currently on the disabled list with a back condition -- and time-share catchers Lenny Webster and Chris Hoiles. Nearly half of his 39 hits have gone for extra bases and his .556 slugging percentage leads everyone, including Palmeiro.

During spring training Miller projected 100 games for Davis. Entering tonight's series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays, he has played 46 of 65 games and started 37. The elbow has proved as much a limitation as the aftereffects of chemotherapy.

"I didn't anticipate anything because when you go through what I went through, you don't want to set yourself up for failure," Davis says.

"I really don't feel like I can fail. I guess the more appropriate word is 'disappointment.' You don't know how everybody is going to react. I couldn't ask for much more. I still feel like I can be productive. Under the circumstances, who would have thought I could be second on the team in home runs at this point with the limited at-bats I've had?"

Miller has batted Davis second, seventh and everywhere in between. He also has used Davis as a model for hitters who "feel" for pitches.

"Eric might miss a breaking ball by a foot but he's going to kick up dirt and wrench himself around. A pitcher looks at that and has to wonder," says Miller.

Davis sees no reason to hold anything back. He is one of the Orioles' 12 pending free agents, but that is hardly his primary motivation.

A year ago, the most relevant statistic to Davis and his family was chance of survival. When Johns Hopkins oncologist Dr. Keith Lillemoe began the June 13 operation, he at first thought his patient's lymph nodes had been infected by the disease, which would have made any prognosis grave. Instead, the nodes were inflamed. Less than three months later, Davis returned to the team while undergoing chemotherapy.

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