Yankee has colon cancer Strawberry diagnosis stuns team

O's Davis gives support to friend

October 02, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas -- New York Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry was found to have colon cancer yesterday and is scheduled to undergo surgery to remove a walnut-sized tumor tomorrow at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

Strawberry, 36, underwent two days of testing to find the cause of lingering intestinal discomfort. Doctors detected a spot on his colon Wednesday and conducted a colonoscopy that revealed the tumor yesterday.

Club officials announced the results of the examination during a team meeting late yesterday afternoon at The Ballpark in Arlington, where the Yankees were preparing for Game 3 of their Division Series against the Texas Rangers. Public relations director Rick Cerrone read a statement to the media, in which the prognosis for Strawberry's full recovery was described as "excellent."

Colon cancer is relatively rare in people under 40, but Strawberry is the second major-league player to receive such a diagnosis in less than two years. Close friend Eric Davis of the Orioles who grew up with Strawberry in Los Angeles experienced similar symptoms early in the 1997 season and eventually had a baseball-sized tumor removed from his colon.

"He told me his stomach had been bothering him for a long time, like mine," said Davis, who talked to Strawberry by phone yesterday. "He said he reflected back to how I told him I felt and put two and two together. It's the same thing. It's very similar to mine. I know that's ironic, but I can't ask why. Who is going to answer that question? These things happen."

The news left Strawberry's teammates stunned, many leaving a clubhouse meeting with reddened eyes or wearing sunglasses.

"Everyone is very scared," said pitcher David Cone. "I think the fact that Eric Davis has gone through this is going to be helpful. I'm sure he's already been on the phone. I'm sure [Strawberry] is confused he's scared. We're all scared, but he's in good hands."

Davis is, in his own words, "a walking witness" to the fact that colon cancer can be conquered. He returned to the Orioles' lineup while he underwent a 22-week program of chemotherapy late last season and re-emerged as a marquee player this year.

"I told him I was sure that he would be all right," Davis said. "They didn't find any cancer in his lymph nodes or his blood, and the tumor was isolated to his colon, just the way mine was."

Strawberry has had more than his share of tribulations already. He struggled with drug and alcohol problems while he was a member of the New York Mets and later pleaded guilty to tax evasion -- narrowly avoiding a prison term. But he had rebounded to reclaim his good name and become an important contributor to the success of the Yankees, hitting 24 home runs with 57 RBIs in limited action.

"There's no doubt that Darryl has had a lot of turmoil in his life," said Cone, "but he has really turned his life around. He's become a great family man, and he's a great teammate.

"We're all confident that he will beat this. Eric Davis beat it. Eric's strength will be a guide for Darryl at this really tough time."

In an unprecedented and heartwarming show of support, the entire Yankees team assembled on the field during yesterday's workout to do a live spot on ESPN's "SportsCenter." Outfielder Tim Raines spoke for the group, telling Strawberry that everyone on the club is behind him.

"I just hope he was watching," Raines said.

Strawberry spoke by phone to manager Joe Torre and teammate Andy Pettitte, expressing his pride in the accomplishments of the team and regret that he would not be able to help the rest of the postseason.

"I have always said that this is a good man of great character, and this has certainly proved to be true," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "He is facing a serious crisis, and his concern is for his teammates. This is extremely upsetting to me, and it really shows that baseball is only a small part of life. Our thoughts and our prayers are with Darryl, his wife, Charisse, and their young children."

The statistical probability of a full recovery is very good if the cancer has not spread outside the colon. In cases where the tumor is fully contained in the colon, the five-year survival rate is 95 percent, experts say. But in cases where it has spread to other organs, the five-year survival rate drops to less than 10 percent.

Orioles great Boog Powell also underwent surgery to remove a cancerous section of his colon last season and has made a strong recovery. Orioles minor-league prospect Joel Stephens, whose cancer was diagnosed in a more advanced stage, died Wednesday.

Strawberry will need several weeks to recover from the operation, and likely will undergo chemotherapy to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence.

"This is not a happy moment," said teammate and boyhood friend Chili Davis, "but I want to keep a positive attitude. Darryl is a very strong man, and I believe he will battle through this and be all right."

The Yankees hold a two-game lead over the Rangers in the best-of-five series, but the importance of tonight's game suddenly has been placed in a different perspective.

"It's difficult," said catcher Joe Girardi. "I think you can see that the team is a little down. But I think Darryl would want us to go out and wear his heart and his courage on our sleeves."

Cancer in baseball

A list of some baseball players stricken by cancer during their careers (listed team is when cancer was diagnosed):

Brett Butler, Dodgers

Darren Daulton, Phillies

Eric Davis, Orioles

Jerry DiPoto, Indians

Dave Dravecky, Giants

Mike Gallego, Athletics

Danny Jackson, Pirates

John Kruk, Phillies

Scott Radinsky, White Sox

Joel Stephens, O's minor-leaguer

Darryl Strawberry, Yankees

Danny Thompson, Rangers

Matt Turner, Indians

Jim Umbricht, Astros

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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