Cancer news shakes O's family to core

October 07, 1998|By John Eisenberg

What can you say about this run of cancer in the Orioles' family? It's a harsh wind that won't stop blowing.

A harsh wind that shakes us hard.

Boog Powell, Eric Davis and Joel Stephens -- representing the club's past, present and future -- all were stricken with colon cancer last year. Powell and Davis recovered. Stephens, a minor-leaguer, died last week at age 22.

Throughout the same year, Dave McNally, one of the club's greatest pitchers, battled lung cancer and prostate cancer.

Now, this week, comes the news that Cal Ripken Sr. has been found to have lung cancer. And then, yesterday, the news that Mark Belanger, a fixture in the Orioles' infield for so many years, had died of lung cancer at age 54.

There's no connection. It's just a sad coincidence. Young and old, black and white, burly and thin. Pitchers, infielders, outfielders and coaches. Past, present and future Orioles. All with cancer.

What can you say except, as the rest of the world long ago discovered, the disease doesn't discriminate?

And what can you wonder except when will it end for the Orioles?

We all know families that have dealt with one or more of cancer's many incarnations. We all know people who have survived it, and people who have died of it.

We all have been shaken by it.

But when the Orioles are the family, we're all shaken together. They're the local, secular church, the common ground on which many of us meet. And when they deal with a run of cancer that won't stop, we're all shaken hard.

Ordinarily, ballplayers and other athletes make us feel younger. They entertain and exhilarate us with their grace under pressure, their feats, their highs and lows. They make our days more exciting and remind us of our youth, the games we played, the more careless and carefree days.

But when a ballplayer makes news because he has cancer, or because he has died, we don't feel younger at all. We feel older.

Sadder and older.

A ballplayer's death is a reminder of our own mortality and vulnerability, a reminder of the reality that we're getting older, too.

We're the same as our childhood heroes in the end, real people susceptible to real troubles. And in that way, their sadness becomes our sadness, too.

Ask anyone raised in this town about Mark Belanger, and you'll hear all about the '60s and '70s, about the good ol' days at Memorial Stadium, about some of the best teams in Orioles history playing before peanut crowds.

You'll hear all about a pencil-thin shortstop who had no peer as a glove man, a fielder so adept that he won six straight Gold Gloves at one point and stayed in the lineup for more than a decade despite a career .228 batting average.

But ask anyone today about his death, and you'll see faces a little older than they were yesterday. Another sliver of youth gone.

Not that this sadness is limited to the Orioles. The Yankees' Darryl Strawberry, one of Eric Davis' closest friends, underwent surgery for colon cancer last weekend. And Dan Quisenberry, one of the game's first All-Star closers, recently died of a brain tumor in Kansas City, saddening the Royals and their fans.

But no team has dealt with nearly as much of this as the Orioles. Colon cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer. A harsh wind that won't stop blowing.

The news doesn't always have to be bad, mind you. Davis' story became an inspiring triumph, as he returned to the Orioles' lineup in the middle of his chemotherapy treatments and hit a home run in the playoffs.

But the news isn't always so good, either. That's the depressing truth. You can't always spin cancer into a smile.

Ripken Sr. is the toughest of men, a wiry bantam full of fight. If his cancer will let him beat it, he will beat it. No one who knows him doubts that for a second.

You just have to hope it will let him beat it.

Stephens' cancer wouldn't. It became the worst of stories, a young life snuffed out by a cancer that seldom strikes so young.

Then there was Belanger. He was a tough, smart man who worked for Donald Fehr and the players' union after he retired, fighting on the front lines of baseball's labor war. He also was a heavy smoker. His cancer was diagnosed a year ago.

It wouldn't let him beat it, either.

What can you say? It's the saddest of days for Belanger's family, and another sad day for the Orioles, who have experienced too many lately.

The harsh wind shaking them -- and shaking us -- can't stop blowing soon enough.

Mark Belanger file


Won eight Glove Glove awards: 1969, 1971 and six in a row from 1973 to '78.

Tied for sixth with Alan Trammell and Spike Owen in all-time fielding percentage (.977) among shortstops, minimum 1,000 games.

Ranks 17th all-time in games (1,942), 19th in double plays (1,054), 26th in assists (5,786) and 39th in putouts (3,005) among shortstops.

Led American League shortstops in fielding in 1974 (.984), '77 (.985) and '78 (.985).

OC Led AL shortstops in total chances in 1973 (794) and '74 (808).


Played 18 major-league seasons (1965 to '82), all but the final year with the Orioles.

Played for six Orioles division-winning teams (1969, '70, '71, '73, '74, '79), four AL pennant winners (1969, '70, '71, '79) and one World Series champion (1970).

Played 1,962 games for the Orioles, third in club history behind Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken.

Played in one All-Star Game (1976).

Led AL in sacrifice hits in 1973 (15) and '75 (23).

Voted into Orioles Hall of Fame in 1983.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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