- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2000

NEW YORK

Batting practice is nearly over, and Eric Davis enters the batting cage. His swing, fluid and smooth, makes one thought come to mind: What if he had stayed healthy?

No one, not even Davis, could have imagined that his 6-foot-3 frame, so often compared to that of Willie Mays, was too fragile to withstand the rigors associated with playing professional baseball.

Davis suffered a lacerated kidney in Game 4 of the 1990 World Series while diving to make a catch in left field for the Cincinnati Reds. His career would never again be the same.

From 1991 to 1995, he appeared in more than 100 games only once while playing for the Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and Detroit Tigers. Davis sat out the 1995 season with a herniated disc in his neck, returned to the Reds in 1996 before signing with the Baltimore Orioles.

"It has definitely been an interesting career, that's for sure," Davis said. "But I have no regrets. I have been fortunate enough to play a game that I love and cherish. It has afforded my family and me a ton of opportunities."

Now Davis is healthy. Yet he is sure he will walk away from the game of baseball at the end of this season.

"I'm almost 85 percent sure that I will retire at the end of the season," Davis said from Shea Stadium in New York recently. "I have no regrets. It has been a good career. But you know when it's time to move on."

Davis missed the second half of last season with a torn rotator cuff. He was injured while making a diving catch to save a no-hitter by Jose Jimenez. He missed most of spring training. But that's not what is prompting him to leave the game he so loves. Davis said it is just a gradual process of backing out, much the same as former teammate Willie McGee's slow exit. McGee gave retirement considerable thought for two seasons. He finally walked away last season.

"Sometimes you know when it's time to go," Davis said. "It really has nothing to do with the injuries. I accept that as part of the game. What can I do about it? Not much anyway."

Davis is at the end of his third baseball life. He is playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, sharing time in the outfield with second-year player J.D. Drew. Davis is batting .316, with 6 home runs and 36 RBI.

"If I said I was happy about it, then I would be lying, but what am I going to do? I'm not going to cry about it," Davis said. "If people see me crying about it, then they'll start complaining, too. I can't do that to the team. People can't see me in here crying about how and when I play."

Davis has never been one to complain. In May 1997, he was hospitalized for five days at the University of Maryland-Baltimore hospital. He had been told he had an abscess in his stomach. But the pain was too great, too excruciating for him to believe it was not something more serious. So Davis checked into Johns Hopkins Medical Center, where the chief oncologist told him he had a cancerous tumor on his colon.

"It was definitely a shock," Davis recalled. "The first thing I thought about were my children, and how long had I been walking around with the cancer. Obviously, it had been there for a while for it to get to the size it was, which was the size of an orange. Sure, it was a scary situation because I didn't know anything about colon cancer. But fortunately, colon cancer, if detected early enough, is one of the most treatable forms of the disease."

Davis has made early detection a serious mission. He founded "The Eric Davis Foundation", which is devoted to cancer research and public awareness. In 1999, Davis completed a 12-city national tour called Score Against Colon Cancer. He was also the national spokesman for colorectal cancer awareness in March of this year.

In May, Davis enlisted the aid of major league baseball to sponsor Score for Screening 2000 at stadiums around the country. He has also partnered with Katie Couric and her foundation, "National Colorectal Cancer Alliance," in an effort to reach and inform a broader audience about colorectal cancer.

"My focus is to touch and educate as many people as I can, hopefully get them screened and focused enough that if something is there, it can be detected," Davis said.

"Even after I leave the game, I will continue to be involved because I understand how important it is for people to be aware of the disease… . I think I have enough contacts that when I come calling, people will come to hear what I have to say."

Annual testing is recommended after age 50. Individuals with a history of cancer in their families are at the highest risk. A diet high in fiber and low in fat can help reduce the chances of developing the disease.

Five weeks after Davis had surgery to remove the cancerous tumor, he returned to the Orioles' lineup and hit a game-winning home run against the Cleveland Indians in the playoffs. Davis is proud that he could provide inspiration to cancer survivors throughout the country.

"It was definitely uplifting," Davis said. "It not only made me know that I was going to be OK, but it made a lot of people feel like they were going to be OK."

Now Davis has come to the end of a largely stellar career. At 38, Davis said he will end a career that included a World Series championship with Cincinnati in 1990; 37 home runs, 100 RBI, 50 stolen bases and a .293 average for the Reds in 1987; and a stint with the Orioles in 1997 and 1998.

He has twice been named Comeback Player of the Year. After cancer surgery, Davis established career highs in batting average (.327) and doubles (29) in 1998. He also had 28 home runs and 89 RBI. The season included a 30-game hitting streak.

"I don't think you can find a better all-around player than Eric Davis when he's healthy," said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "There is not a better guy to have in the clubhouse. If he does retire, I will miss him. I mean that. He's just one of those rare and special people you like to have around. Eric has been a great addition for us."

Davis said he is also retiring to spend more time with his daughters, Erica, who starts high school in the fall, and Sacha.

"I've been gone for so long, that it's about time I gave my family some of my time," Davis said. "As you get older, you contemplate those things. I'm enjoying what I'm doing and I'm around a good group of guys, but it's going to take something big to get me back. I'll probably take a year or two off and come back to the game in some capacity."

Davis said he plans to move into a front-office position somewhere or go to the minor leagues as a coach or manager.

"These young guys today have no idea about the game," he said. "They can't tell you history. They can't even play the game. They're rushed… . I think I can give back by teaching these young guys about the game. I definitely have more to offer."

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