Eric Davis on May 13, 1997 (Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule Jr./Allsport)
Eric Davis only spent two years in an Orioles uniform, but that doesn't stop him from being named on many fans favorite player list. He's not the kind of guy you think of right away, but when someone brings up his name, you say, "Oh, right! Eric Davis. I love that guy."
Davis is best known for being a member of the Cincinnati Reds, where he spent nine of his seventeen big-league seasons, but one of the most touching and inspiring times in his career came right here in Baltimore in 1997. Signed to a two-year, $4.7M contract in the winter of 1996, Davis came out of the gate swinging in '97 and through his first 34 games he hit for an OPS over .906 with seven home runs and ten doubles. Over the first two months of the season the O's went 36-15 and he was a big part of that.
Then, in late May, Davis stopped playing. He'd been having stomach pains, wasn't sure what it was, so he began sitting out a few games. The pain didn't go away, and so Davis left the team and returned to Baltimore where, at Johns Hopkins University, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
My memories of the 1997 season aren't the sharpest. I remember going to a few games, including playoff games, but it was the summer that I graduated from high school and I wasn't as dedicated as I am today. But I do remember sitting at my kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal, and reading a story in the Baltimore Sun about Eric Davis having colon cancer. It didn't seem right, or fair, for so many reasons. I sat there with my cereal, crying for him.
Not long after his diagnosis, Davis went under the knife to have the cancerous portion of his colon removed, and with the chemotherapy that followed, it was expected that Davis would miss the rest of the season. Not that anyone was thinking about the welfare of the baseball team when it came to Davis at that point. Cancer has a way of doing that.
And so the Orioles continued, played through June, July and August without Davis. They were a very good team even without him, although the right fielders who played in his stead were less than inspiring. Geronimo Berroa, Tony Tarasco, and Jeffrey Hammonds all saw time out there over the summer, with only Hammonds looking good at the plate.
Then, in September, something miraculous happened. And I don't think I'm being dramatic using that word. While still undergoing chemo, Davis returned to the Orioles. On September 15th, in the first game of a double header against the Cleveland Indians, Davis played right field. He went 0-for-3, but who cares? For more about that game, look for Paul Folk's article on Monday.
Davis played in only eight regular season games over the last month of 1997, but just having him there with the team was special. He played in nine postseason games with the Orioles in October, with his most notable at bat being a pinch-hit home run in game 5 of the ALCS that ended up being the run that gave the Orioles the win.
Davis continued having chemo treatments all the way through February 1998, not long before the start of spring training. No one knew what to expect from him in 1998. After all, he'd been diagnosed with a life threatening illness, undergone surgery, and spent nine months getting chemo. Well, all he did that season was play in 131 games and hit .327/.388/.582.
1997 was a great year for the Orioles for a lot of reasons. A first place finish with 98 wins, within two games of the World Series, and a roster full of good players. But those were all things that happen most years in baseball. What Orioles fans witnessed with Eric Davis was more than that. We saw his strength and his determination, and in all the years since 1997 I can't think of any player who has done quite what he did. So while he only played in 42 games in 1997 and really had little impact on the team's overall success, he will always be one of the best stories about the Orioles in that year.