While Eric Davis was undergoing colon cancer surgery and chemotherapy treatments in 1997, one of the most popular players in franchise history - a member of its Hall of Fame and satisfier of pit beef cravings - would be subjected to a similar procedure and regimen in the exact same summer.
Davis was diagnosed in June during the first of his two seasons in Baltimore. Former first baseman Boog Powell, who played in four World Series with the Orioles and was voted Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1970, had his surgery on Aug. 25 at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Powell had about one-third of his colon removed, along with the mass. Same as Davis. Dr. Keith Lillemoe led the surgical team, just as he did with Davis.
Both of them made full recoveries.
Davis is in his 12th season as a special assistant with the Cincinnati Reds, though baseball remains on hold during the coronavirus pandemic. Powell would have been feeding fans, signing autographs and posing for photos on Eutaw Street.
Maybe it can happen later this summer - if there’s baseball and people are allowed to attend games and serving meat isn’t a violation of social distancing.
Powell’s battle with colon cancer doesn’t completely mimic what happened with Davis and Orioles outfielder Trey Mancini, who underwent his procedure on March 12 and began chemotherapy treatments on April 13.
Davis experienced severe abdominal pain and no longer could play through it. Rising from the bench after scoring a run became troublesome. Mancini was fatigued while working out in spring training and the Orioles scheduled more tests after discovering his unusually low levels of iron.
Powell was a long way from his playing days, his diagnosis coming at age 56. And he didn’t experience any symptoms that he found alarming.
The cancer was discovered through a routine checkup. Powell didn’t go public with the surgery until it was done, with bench coach Andy Etchebarren updating the media on his former teammate’s condition.
“I was doing my semi-annual physical,” Powell said yesterday in a phone conversation, “and as I was walking out the door I said, ‘Oh, by the way doc, every now and then I bleed a little bit,’ and he said, ‘Well, we better check it out.’ That afternoon he scheduled an appointment for me to go and get a colonoscopy that day and I went and did it. And bang, there’s all the information.”
The news about Mancini immediately took Powell back 23 years.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I went and did a colonoscopy and they said, ‘We can’t get through. You’ve got a blockage in there.’ They did more stuff and of course found out I had a tumor about the size of a baseball. That was on a Friday and they operated on Monday. I didn’t have too much time to think about what was happening. It was pretty scary, but I said, ‘Well, it is what it is.’
“All my kids came up. I did go to the ballpark and Eric had just finished his surgery. The same doctor that did him did me. I said, ‘Can I see your scar,’ and he says, ‘Yeah.’ He pulls his pants down a little bit, pulls his shirt up and he showed me his car. I went, ‘I’ve got to have one of those?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it’s a little uncomfortable.’
“After the surgery, they came into my room, I’ll never forget, that morning and said, ‘You’ve got to get up.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to what?’ They said, ‘You’ve got to stand up.’ I said, ‘I can’t stand up, it’s impossible. No way.’ I was really hurting bad. But they made me stand up and the next thing you know I had to walk a little bit and all of that. But they had good drugs and I got through that part of it.”
Powell made his first post-surgery appearance in the clubhouse on Sept. 20, about 24 pounds lighter but in good spirits.
“I’ve probably got another 24 I could lose,” he said that day.
The chemotherapy treatments began two weeks later and were presented to him as an option. Davis and Mancini really had no choice. Davis sought a second and third opinion before consenting to it.
“I just feel like I’m too young not to do it,” Powell said while meeting with reporters. “If I was 90 years old, it might be a different deal. I’ve got a lot of living to do.”
Asked about the treatments yesterday, Powell said, “The doctor said I didn’t have to do chemo if I didn’t want to. I said, ‘Well, if you were me, would you do the chemo?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah.” So I did the chemo for 18 weeks. Six weeks on, six weeks off.
“That part of it was not too much fun. The early part was, I didn’t feel anything, but later on in like the third six weeks, they had to forego giving me the chemo because my white blood cell count was really out of whack. They skipped about two weeks and came back and then we finished up. But I can honestly say I’ve never felt quite so useless and quite so bad in my life as I felt during those last weeks of chemo. I hope that Trey doesn’t have to go through that. Things are better now than they were then. Oh man.
“And I didn’t have a port. I understand that he has a port. They just went poking at me and a different person would do it every week just about. Sometimes it was so bad that they’d try me two or three times in one arm and move it over to the other arm and then sometimes they’d have to do it in my hand. The people that were doing it weren’t all the same. I didn’t look forward to going down there and doing it.”
Powell can’t recall being told what stage his cancer was in, though the chemo option indicates it wasn’t 3.
“All I remember is that the doctor said, ‘We took four feet of your colon and you had a tumor about the size of a baseball. And it looks like it hasn’t been anywhere or done anything,’ ” Powell said. “Just localized in that part of the colon that comes up and goes across, just under your bellybutton. He said, ‘It looks like we got it all.’
“Eric and I did a public service thing at the ballpark. It was the last time I saw him. About going to get a colonoscopy and talking to people about how important it was and how it can save your life and it’s not a big deal. I still get one every three years. I would have been gone a long time ago.”
The success stories warm the heart.
Joel Stephens broke ours.
Stephens’ colon cancer wasn’t discovered in time. The Orioles drafted him in the ninth round in 1995. The world lost him in 1998, less than a year after his diagnosis.
He was 22.
Cancer doesn’t care how old you are.
Three members of the Orioles family diagnosed with the same form of it in the same year. Unfortunately, Stephens tends to be forgotten.
His tragedy should resonate the loudest. He never had a chance.
Doctors said Stephens’ case was much more serious than that of Davis and Powell - and now Mancini. He was undergoing round-the-clock chemotherapy from doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He’d spend 12 hours in bed each night receiving medications.
If he wanted to become mobile, he’d wear a backpack that dispensed the drugs intravenously.
Oncologist Dr. Ross C. Donehower, who also treated Davis, told The Baltimore Sun in 1997 that colon cancer rarely attacks people in their 20s or 30s. Fewer than one in 20 cases occur in people 35 or younger.
“For the Orioles,” he said, “it is an extraordinary coincidence.”
Stephens played for the low Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds the summer before his diagnosis, when he noticed a dull pain in his stomach, and hoped to receive at least one at-bat with high Single-A Frederick in 1998. He was placed on the Keys roster but never got into a game.
He underwent multiple surgeries in March, just as he had done the previous November, and threw out the ceremonial first pitch before an Orioles exhibition game at Camden Yards.
Doctors told Stephens in July 1998 that he was in remission, but the cancer returned. He died on Sept. 30.
Stephens had left a note for his teammates in the Keys locker room before heading back home, telling them not to worry. The Lord was taking care of him.
Please don’t forget about Joel Stephens. No matter how much it hurts.