"Here's the shame of it," says Ray Miller, the Orioles' pitching coach last year and their new manager. "The shame is that it took cancer for people to realize what a good guy, a good person, Eric Davis is."
Who knew? Who paid attention? He was a good player, solid, sometimes spectacular, lots of promise as a kid, held back by injuries. The public reserves most of its attention for skyrockets headed toward the Hall of Fame. This skyrocket had never achieved total liftoff.
There was a moment of celebrity with the Cincinnati Reds in the 1990 World Series—Davis hit a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 1, launching the Reds on a sweep of the Oakland A's—followed by controversy. After lacerating a kidney trying to make a diving catch on a ball hit by Willie McGee in Game 4, he was angered when Reds owner Marge Schott refused to pay for the private plane Davis needed to return to Cincinnati when he left an Oakland hospital five days later. Because of injuries he played as many as 90 games in only one of the next four seasons. He even retired after the '94 season, following surgery for a herniated disk in his neck.
"I just didn't want to be cut on anymore, you know?" he says.
The players knew about him, knew his talent, knew his character. Baltimore catcher Lenny Webster remembers meeting Davis during a long-ago spring, when Webster was a minor leaguer. Davis was kind, offering encouragement. Hammonds remembers wearing Davis's number, 44, in high school. Eric the Red. "He's just blessed with talent," Hammonds says. "You look at him, at his size. He hits, hits with power, has all that speed for a big man. Plus he has a clue. That's probably the most important thing. He has a clue how to play this game. You look at most guys, they have no clue whatsoever."
Davis returned to baseball in 1996, after a year of "just doing what I wanted, swimming if I wanted to swim, taking my two kids to school, whatever." The encouragement of friends and the feeling that he still could play brought him back. He played 129 games with the Reds, the most in six years, hit .287 with 26 home runs. A 34-year-old free agent after that season, he moved on to Baltimore.
Stomach pains knocked him out of the lineup by May 25. Two days later he left the Orioles for Johns Hopkins, where his cancer was diagnosed. On June 13, Friday the 13th, not superstitious, even though the doctors offered to change the date, Davis had the operation. A tumor the size of a fist and three feet of his large intestine were removed. "All I could do was follow what the doctors told me," he says. "This was a situation where I had no control. I'm not a person who says, 'What if?' because that gets you nowhere. I can't control what happens with the cancer. I can control what I eat. I can control how fast I drive a car. There are things you just can't control."
Starting with the response to his message on the Camden Yards scoreboard four nights later, thanking the fans of Baltimore for their get-well wishes, he realized how much his public life had changed. He watched the moment on TV from his bed in Johns Hopkins, the fans cheering and cheering. He felt a love that he had never felt from any crowd anywhere. He had been injured and cheered, but never cheered like this. He tried to figure out why. "I was supposed to be heroic, but I wasn't being any more heroic than I had ever been with any injuries," he says. "The thing was, people could relate to cancer. Most of them had never known anyone with a lacerated kidney or a ruptured cervical disk, but everyone knows someone who has cancer."
From that point on, Davis's life was played out in front of these people. After he went home to Los Angeles, there were stories about his recovery, about the soothing effects of the herbal teas prepared by his wife, Sherrie. There were stories about the sudden death of his brother Jimmy, one year older than Eric, on Aug. 31 from a heart attack. How much can one man handle? There were all the stories of his grand return to baseball at the end of last season, a succession of emotional moments capped by his pinch-hit home run to win Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians. All the while he was still taking his weekly two-hour dose of chemotherapy, sitting in a hospital room and letting poison drip into his body.
"What mattered was that he came back," Webster says. "It wouldn't have mattered to any of us if he came back and struck out every time up. To have him come back...."