"I thought Eric was going to die."
Those were the words of Orioles manager Davey Johnson, admitting that he feared the worst when outfielder Eric Davis was diagnosed with colon cancer in June of 1997.
"I thought it would be a miracle if he's OK, and it would be another miracle if he could come back in the spring," Johnson continued.
Johnson's thoughts likely echoed those of Davis's teammates, fans, and everyone in the Major League Baseball community. It was the kind of devastating news that made the games on the field seem so unimportant, so meaningless. Forget whether his career was over-- a man's life was on the line. The outpouring of public support was overwhelming; well-wishers greeted Davis with thousands of phone calls and letters, hoping beyond hope that Eric could win the most important battle of his life and conquer his formidable opponent.
But Eric Davis didn't let cancer defeat him. In fact-- if I may be blunt-- he kicked cancer's ass. He dragged cancer into a back alley and just walloped the bejeezus out of it. Cancer hightailed it out of dodge as quickly as possible, feeling embarrassed that it ever tried to mess with Eric Davis.
And on September 15, 1997, Eric Davis-- just three months and two days after having surgery that removed a cancerous tumor from his colon-- did the unthinkable. He returned to the baseball field. And that brings us to the seventh installment of our 10 Best Games of 1997 series.
The fact that Davis could return to his grueling day job so soon after his fateful diagnosis was-- as Stacey wrote in her excellent article-- nothing short of miraculous. But for Davis, it was something he expected all along. "I knew this day would come. I just didn't know when or where," Davis said. "I've been a baseball player for a long time. This is what I do. I just consider myself going back to work."
That's not to say it wasn't a special day for Davis. "The satisfaction is just being alive and having the cancer out of my body," he said. "This was just icing on the cake, being able to get back between the lines. It felt great. It was like being a kid in the candy store."
Adding to the excitement was that the Orioles-- with an AL-best 90-56 record entering the day-- were one win away from officially clinching a playoff berth. As it happened, though, many of the Birds' biggest stars weren't in the lineup for this potentially momentous occasion. It was the first game of a day-night doubleheader and the O's were facing Indians southpaw Brian Anderson, so Roberto Alomar, Brady Anderson, B.J. Surhoff, and Mike Bordick were all on the bench.
That didn't matter much. What did matter was who was in the lineup-- namely, Eric Davis. "For Eric to do this is, to me, just wonderful. It doesn't get any better," said Johnson. Added outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds: "It was great to look over there to see him playing, smiling, doing what he does best. He didn't have to come back, but he knows how to help the team."
When Davis, batting third, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the first inning, the Camden Yards crowd erupted into one of the loudest ovations you'll ever hear. The fans rose to their feet for a standing ovation that lasted over a minute, with Davis doffing his helmet in appreciation. "It made me teary-eyed," Eric recalled. "That's when I tipped my hat to the crowd to let them know I felt what they were giving me, and it felt good." Davis's teammates, who had his number 24 inscribed on their helmets, joined the ovation as well.
Davis flied out to right in his first plate appearance and grounded out in each of his next two at-bats, but the reception from the crowd was deafening each time he stepped to the plate. Davis was eventually replaced defensively by Surhoff after the fifth inning.
As for the game, it was a back-and-forth roller coaster that ended up with a happy result for the Orioles. The O's stormed out to an early 4-0 lead, only for Cleveland to chip away and score five unanswered runs to take a one-run advantage in the seventh. But Hammonds socked a two-out, two-run, go-ahead homer in the seventh to put the Birds back in front, 6-5. Closer Randy Myers notched his 42nd save by pitching a perfect ninth inning. And with that, the Orioles became the first team of the season to secure a spot in the playoffs.
Afterwards, though, the focus remained on Davis. "It's unbelievable what he's done," said utility man Jeff Reboulet. "It's a big thing not just for our team but for everyone who's ever had to fight cancer. Obviously, people in all aspects of life are going to draw strength from this."
Eric Davis was back, fully healthy. The Orioles had won a date to the postseason. The only task still on the Orioles' September agenda was to win the AL East pennant and clinch a wire-to-wire season. We'll be back in one week to see if they can do it. (Spoiler alert: Yes.)
All quotes in this article are from the September 16, 1997 editions of The Seattle Times and The Free Lance-Star.