Dream at-bat put on hold Keys' Stephens faces another cancer fight

August 13, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.

Joel Stephens had been fighting for his life since November. All he wanted was one at-bat, with the Orioles' Single-A affiliate in Frederick, to punctuate his victory.

It was an unimaginable goal for someone with colon cancer and a bleak prognosis, yet it seemed possible only a month ago as he worked out with the Keys and felt the strength seeping back into his body. But Stephens can't concentrate just on baseball anymore, not with another fight occupying his time and energy.

In remission since February, the disease has taken another hard swing at Stephens. The 22-year-old outfielder had cancerous lymph nodes removed from his groin two weeks ago at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the swelling more serious than the simple infection he had anticipated. He's receiving daily chemotherapy treatments. He and his mother, Joyce, are staying in a downtown hotel room that the Orioles are paying for.

"After being off chemotherapy for two months, he's being restarted on an alternative form," said Dr. Ross C. Donehower, Stephens' oncologist.

He wouldn't elaborate on the new treatment, though an Orioles official said it's experimental.

"We will re-evaluate how he's doing after one or two cycles," Donehower said.

Stephens plans to start running in a few days, still intent on appearing in a game.

"I'm feeling good, and my spirits are high," he said. "This is just another bump in the road for me. My faith hasn't wavered. I'm standing in the truths of the Lord."

Stephens began working out with the Keys on July 15, lifting weights, running, throwing. He regained about 20 of the 60 pounds he lost during an ordeal that included two emergency surgeries and six months of chemotherapy, which ended on Memorial Day. He also made some road trips.

He had returned to his home in Tiogo, Pa., after finding a knot in his groin, dismissing it as a minor setback. He left a note in the Frederick clubhouse explaining his absence. He hasn't been back since.

The cancer remains confined to Stephens' abdomen. He had been going to Hopkins for monthly checkups after stopping his treatments, assuming the worst was over and relieved to be rid of the intense side effects. Now, he'll be there each day for one week, then take the next two weeks off before starting again.

His condition is serious, but hope remains. It always does with Stephens.

"He's as upbeat as ever," said Orioles general manager Pat Gillick.

"Joel's been the beacon for us," Joyce said. "There have been times as his mother where I would be so distraught, having to stand there and see him go through this and the possibilities of what could be. At times, it was plain overwhelming. But he always had the strength to say, 'Mom, I'm going to be fine. Don't cry, because the Lord's going to take care of me. I know he will.' He has been a real strength for the whole family."

Never had Stephens appeared so strong as when he revealed his plans to return to baseball.

"I told my parents when I was in the hospital after my second surgery and the doctors were saying it was a severe cancer and it didn't look that good that at some point this year I would get back. And my goal was to get a professional at-bat," he said.

"From laying on my so-called death bed to putting on a uniform again, that's quite a lot of progress."

Almost too much for Joyce to comprehend. She was filled with conflicting emotions, feeling herself being tugged in every direction as she watched her son sweating out another afternoon at Harry Grove Stadium.

"The human part of you and the mother's-instinct part of you wanted to sort of cringe and say, 'Oh my, I don't know if you're ready for this.' But he's always known himself so well that I had to step back and say, 'You know what you're doing, and I'll support you.'

"The other part of me was really thrilled to see him back there. There was a certain closure, I guess. I was remembering seeing him in a hospital bed, not given much of a chance. And then I saw him strong and down there with the team and doing the things he wanted to do, being able to go back to his dream."

Stephens has until Sept. 5 to make it a reality, unless the Orioles add him to their roster. His goal again seems unimaginable, cancer reducing his future to daily increments, but it's his impenetrable faith that brings fairness to another fight.

"There would be a standing ovation like no other," said Frederick pitcher Scott Eibey, Stephens' teammate the past three years. "I get chills thinking about it."

As Eibey left the Keys' clubhouse before a game last month, he passed Stephens' note tacked on the bulletin board.

Best of luck this week. I have to go home for one week and then come back for a couple of tests. Don't worry, though. The Lord is taking care of me.

Take care and God bless,


Pub Date: 8/13/98

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