Remembering Eric Davis’ comeback from colon cancer

Trey Mancini is finding strength during his health crisis from family, friends and teammates who keep offering their love and support. Who have been propping him up without violating orders for social distancing.

His girlfriend, Sara, held his hand as the doctor in Baltimore passed along the diagnosis of Stage 3 colon cancer. “Squeezing it, actually,” he wrote in The Players’ Tribune.

Inspiration also comes from former Orioles outfielder Eric Davis, who learned in June 1997 that the debilitating stomach pain which doubled him over in the dugout in Cleveland a few weeks earlier was caused by a cancerous mass in his colon.

Davis also had to undergo chemotherapy treatments following his surgery and actually came back to play in September and through the postseason, hitting a dramatic ninth-inning home run in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Indians. At the same ballpark where his pain first surfaced and prompted the examination.

I can remember Davis eating lunch at the hospital while receiving his injections. He spoke once of munching on a pastrami sandwich and chips. There also were the updates provided by Orioles manager Davey Johnson prior to the diagnosis, which never suggested that Davis had cancer. We were floored by the news.

Johnson once joked about “liposuction,” unaware of the severity of the situation. No one knew.

Davis underwent his surgery on June 13, 1997, in his third month as an Oriole, at Johns Hopkins Hospital while teammates began an interleague series in Atlanta. Oncologist Dr. Keith Lillemoe removed a fist-sized mass, along with one-third of the colon as a precaution.

Doctors initially had misdiagnosed Davis, who’s been living in Arizona the past four years and remains a special assistant with the Cincinnati Reds. He moved to Johns Hopkins and gained the necessary information.

“I was in the hospital for about a week to 10 days before I was diagnosed. They didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was told I had an abscess,” Davis said yesterday afternoon in a phone interview.

“We were in Cleveland and I slid into home plate. The catcher and I had a nice, little collision and I went to sit down and after the third out, I couldn’t get up from the pain. I came back and played the next day and then we went to New York and we played. We had a day game and after that I went back to the hotel and told the trainers that something was wrong and they put me on a train back to Baltimore. That was the quickest way to get me back there.

“They took me to the University of Maryland and I was there until I asked for a second opinion. They did a colonoscopy and that’s when I found out I had a tumor the size of a grapefruit.”

The reaction was more relief than panic.

“Mine was more different than probably the average person because nobody could tell me what was happening,” he said. “Not knowing and no one has an answer for you, especially when you’re in the hospital, that’s the scary part. But once I was diagnosed, I was like, ‘OK, at least I know what the problem is.’ You can’t fight something when you don’t know what it is, so it was more of a breath of fresh air, even though it was cancer. Knowing what it was. It was like, ‘OK, now we can go fight and figure out what to do.’

“The time that I was laid up at the hospital, nobody there could tell me what was happening because nobody could tell me how it got there, and that was disturbing to me.”

The chemotherapy treatments lasted until the following February. They began at the UCLA School of Medicine under the supervision of oncologist Dr. William Isacoff, with Davis undergoing three six-week sets with a pair of two-week breaks in between. He was prescribed one two-hour treatment per week in the form of injections and pills.

Doctors informed Davis that the chemotherapy also could be administered at Johns Hopkins or Camden Yards. He was told that it’s relatively mild for patients with colon cancer, which also works in Mancini’s favor.

“It won’t ever be behind me because it’s not something you can just wash away,” Davis told reporters while approaching the one-year anniversary of his surgery. “It’ll always be a part of me. From that point on I’ll always be associated with it.”

Mancini surely can relate.

“It’s something I can’t run from, but I don’t dwell on it,” Davis said. “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.”

Davis said yesterday that he’ll always remember the date of his surgery because the doctor warned him that it was Friday the 13th.

“I was like, ‘I don’t give a damn about no movie,’” Davis said.

The effects from the chemotherapy were minimal, but he had to be sold on the idea.

“The thing was, the recommendation of chemo was a problem for me because when the doctors told me they got it all, then OK, why do I need chemo?” Davis said yesterday. “I don’t know anybody in my family that had gone through chemo and all that kind of stuff. It was all new. So I got a second and a third opinion from a specialist up in New York and from a specialist at UCLA, and because of the size of the tumor and my age, they recommended that I take it.

“I was blessed to have a friend of mine, Eric Anthony, who was one of my teammates who came up with the Astros and was from San Diego. His wife was an herbalist and she got me on some green teas and some black teas that rejuvenated my insides. So I never got sick while I was taking chemo.

“I actually was eating while I was taking chemo. I would have a chef salad or a salad and a sandwich. I never took chemo on an empty stomach and I didn’t regurgitate, I didn’t do anything. I would be drowsy the first day, but after that it was like I never took it.”

Ray Miller, who replaced Johnson as manager in November 1997, tried to handle Davis with care. The veteran appeared in 131 games and batted .327/.388/.582 with 29 doubles, 28 home runs and 89 RBIs.

“I want to play Eric,” Miller said, “but I’m not going to hurt him.”

Davis quit smoking and cut back on his fast food consumption after the surgery. Cancer has a way of scaring you straight.

CamdenYardsPressBoxFinale.jpgLillemoe initially thought that Davis’ cancer might have spread to the lymph nodes, but they were only inflamed, and that gave the outfielder a much better prognosis. Davis was back with the team less than three months later and received his first at-bat in Game 1 of a Sept. 15 doubleheader against the Indians at Camden Yards.

(What was it with Davis and the Indians that year?)

“I’m not selfish or trying to make a statement or anything on my own,” Davis said the previous day. “I’ve been a baseball player for a long time. This is what I do. I just consider myself going back to work.

“I knew this day would come. I just didn’t know when or where.”

Davis went 0-for-3, but it didn’t matter. He was a cancer survivor. He was playing baseball again. And the ovation from fans and both dugouts overwhelmed him.

The comeback was delayed due to the passing of his only brother in August.

The year 1997 could have left its own scars on Davis.

“I was in Florida when we were ready to play Miami and I got the call that my brother had died, so I left that morning,” Davis said yesterday. “If you want to call that a blessing, I was able to have my first game back in Baltimore. Had it not been for that, I would have had it on the road.

“Just that first game back and the standing ovation, I wasn’t too concerned about the results. I played long enough to where results don’t excite me. Just going through something that serious and that young was the scary part, and to train and to come back and go through chemotherapy and step back on the field, if I had never played another game outside of that game, that would have been enough for me because life was so important. To be able to get back on the field minus the results was awesome. That was the true blessing.”

My most vivid memory of Davis’ return came in Game 5 of the ALCS. The Orioles were down 3-1 in games when he stepped to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning and homered off Paul Assenmacher. Randy Myers allowed two runs in the bottom half, but the Orioles held on for a 4-2 win to move the series back to Baltimore.

I was sitting in the media workroom and had completed my sidebar story prior to the at-bat, after also filing an earlier notebook. I was done - until Davis’ home run.

I told a Cleveland reporter sitting across the table that my editor would be approaching me within seconds to kill my story and assign Davis on deadline. Three ... two ... one ...

“Hey Roch, we’re going to need you to write Davis instead.”

Media surrounded Davis at his locker after a long wait, my eyes darting to the clubhouse clock to check whether I’d actually make the first deadline. Just give me 15 more minutes.

Davis asked if he could put on his tie first and headed toward the bathroom. I almost cried.

Funny how these things stay with you.

I made my deadline and Davis created a memory that won’t leave me. He’s also someone who should provide comfort to Mancini.

One survivor to another.

“I don’t know if ‘advise’ is the right word at this time,” Davis said. “I think if I would do anything, it would be to give him a word of encouragement because I’ve gone through it and you can get through it. My encouragement to him would be just to keep thriving, keep believing, keep working. Don’t let the negativity enter. And stick to what you’re supposed to do, because I’m a walking testimony, so it can be done.

“That’s what I would encourage, for him to keep fighting. He’ll be a part of the cancer family forever, just like I am, and embrace it. It’s not the end of the world. He has a second chance. Embrace it.”

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