Catching Up With ... Eric Davis
Each Tuesday in the Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and let's you know what's going on in his/her life in a segment called, "Catching Up With ... " Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ..."
He spent only two years in Baltimore, but few players have touched Orioles fans more deeply than Eric Davis.
It was here that Davis learned he had colon cancer, here that he fought it and here that he beat it. When the Orioles outfielder hit a dramatic ninth-inning home run against the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the 1997 American League Championship Series – with chemotherapy drugs coursing through his veins – all of baseball applauded.
Eric Davis connects for a solo homer off Paul Assenmacher in the ninth inning of the 1997 ALCS.
The pinch-hit blast won the game for the Birds and froze Davis’ image forever.
"I will be a role model for cancer patients for the rest of my life," he said. "But you know what? When I was getting chemo, those people inspired me.
"Circulating through the children’s ward and seeing terminally ill kids, heads shaved, smiling and having a ball despite the tubes and needles sticking into them, I thought: What do I have to worry about? If God takes me, at least I’ve lived for 35 years.
"Every (get-well) letter I got touched my heart; I kept them all. But those patients helped me more than I ever could have helped them."
Now 46, his cancer long in remission, Davis works for the Cincinnati Reds as special assistant to the general manager. Plagued by injuries in his 18-year career, he’s in good health despite the 13 surgeries he had as a player. Nor does his six-month-old granddaughter make him feel aged.
"I’ve asked her to please call me ‘paw-paw,’ " Davis said. " ‘Grandpa’ sounds so old."
There were times when, as an Oriole, his life seemed at risk. Signed as a free agent in 1997, the two-time All-Star was diagnosed with cancer that May. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed a tumor the size of an orange from his colon, then started Davis on chemotherapy. His season, if not his career, appeared over.
But Davis nursed himself into shape and, in mid-September, returned to the game to pinch-hit amid a tumultuous greeting at Camden Yards.
"Walking up to the plate, well, no words can describe it," he said. "There was a lump in my throat. I tried to step into the batter’s box, but the fans wouldn’t let me. The (ovation) must have gone on for two minutes."
Davis glanced left and right to see both dugouts empty in a nod to his courage.
"That was, like, whoa," he said. "After that, all I could think was, ‘Don’t mess up.’ "
Davis flied out to deep center field. Several weeks later, his ninth-inning homer off the Indians' Paul Assenmacher helped the Orioles take Game 5, 4-2. But he never boasts about that.
"I was called on to do a job, and I did it," he said.
Despite a banner year in 1998 in which he led the Orioles in batting (.327), hit 28 homers and connected safely in 30 straight games, the club cut him loose at season’s end. The move still irks Davis.
"Not being re-signed in Baltimore was probably the lowest point, mentally, of my career," he said. "That city was the only place where I wanted to be at the time, based on everything that had transpired."
Davis played three more years, then retired. A Los Angeles resident, he has created a foundation to raise money for oncology research. He’s a spokesman for colon cancer prevention. And he’ll never forget those who spurred his recovery.
Earlier this year, in spring training, a spectator waved to Davis as he stood on the field before a Reds game.
"Hi Eric," Keith Lillemoe said. "Remember me?"
Lillemoe was the Hopkins surgeon who had removed Davis’ tumor. It had been 12 years, but Davis knew him. Bear hugs followed.
"You don’t forget people like that," Davis said.
Photos: Top (AP); Bottom (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam)