Game takes back seat for Orioles Shock, optimism mix as Davis' teammates speak their support; 'It's a reality check'; Priorities reassessed as news is digested

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Many of the Orioles inscribed Eric Davis' No. 24 on their caps and batting helmets last night. They spoke of the importance of prayer, and believing that someone as courageous as Davis can overcome anything, even cancer.

Tony Tarasco joined the tribute, but not before having to collect himself. Once news of Davis' colon cancer had been passed along by club officials before the game, Tarasco took a seat on one of the steps leading to the dugout and lowered his head into his arms.

On Friday, doctors removed one-third of Davis' colon, including a baseball-sized cancerous mass. Yesterday, they said tests indicate the entire cancer was removed before it had invaded other organs. Doctors said they recommend chemotherapy, but also said that Davis could play baseball again.

No one hurt more for Davis yesterday than Tarasco.

Their friendship dates back to the early 1990s, when Tarasco was a prospect in the Atlanta Braves' minor-league system. They worked out together in Los Angeles, two players with similar backgrounds. Davis took the young outfielder under his wing, imparting his baseball wisdom and preaching life's lessons.

"It's a shock. It's a reality check," Tarasco said in a low voice. "People tend to think that because you're a baseball player, living the life the way we do, the way we get paid, you're not subjected to the things everyone else is. You have to go through the same pain, the same struggles.

"I've known Eric for a long time. He helped me as a ballplayer, mentally and talent-wise. It's a blow because I was so happy to see him come over here. I knew someone where I was from could relate to me, understand things I have to deal with on a daily basis."

Their workouts were part of something called The Program, run by major-leaguers like Davis, Frank Thomas, Darryl Strawberry and Barry Larkin. They gathered in the middle of a rough neighborhood in L.A., where the fields were dirt and trash cans were used for screens. Police cars patrolled the area, but there never was any trouble.

"These guys didn't have to do that," Tarasco said of the collection of All-Stars. "They could go to any facility they wanted. But they did it to help guys like me, who in the minor leagues didn't have a place to work out. Those guys would come around passing out batting gloves and spikes.

"Eric personally took me aside quite a few times. He's one of the few players I know who actually enjoys other players doing well."

Tarasco, who occasionally has honored Davis by wearing his wristbands, said he wouldn't be surprised to see him return to the team this season.

"I wouldn't doubt it," he said.

Neither do many of the other Orioles, though their main interest isn't in seeing Davis back in uniform. It's seeing him healthy.

"Right now, baseball isn't a concern for anybody," said reliever Jesse Orosco.

Some of the players recently began to suspect that Davis' condition was more serious than originally believed, but that didn't lessen the impact of yesterday's meeting, which lasted about eight minutes and rocked the clubhouse to its foundation.

"It's always a surprise to hear those words uttered about somebody, especially somebody you know," said B. J. Surhoff. "We saw him play remarkably well. Then, all of a sudden, to find out there's something wrong with him, it's kind of devastating in a way.

"What's really sad are the people who were questioning the severity of his illness. I hope those people can say to themselves, 'I'm sorry, I misjudged the guy.'

"Hopefully everybody's thoughts and prayers will be with him. There's no telling what's going on in his mind. Hopefully, he's doing OK. But that six-letter word is about as devastating a word as you'll ever hear."

Third-base coach Sam Perlozzo, who was with Davis in Cincinnati during the Reds' 1990 championship season, has seen the outfielder's will tested many times during an injury-filled career.

"He's a strong individual. That surely will help him battle this," Perlozzo said.

Like other Orioles, Surhoff was looking for a silver lining; that the cancer was found early and "there aren't any indications, as of now, that there's anything else going on," he said.

Davis' likeness appeared on the scoreboard last night before the bottom of the third inning, along with a scrolled message from the outfielder thanking the fans for their support and pledging to return to the club. The crowd broke out in applause, many people rising to their feet.

"As a teammate and a friend," said catcher Chris Hoiles, "you just say your prayers and hope for the best."

Davis time line

The major events leading to the discovery of Eric Davis' colon cancer:

May 24: Davis removed from game at Cleveland for a pinch hitter in the fourth inning after complaining of "excruciating" stomach pain. He spends four hours at Lutheran Medical Center.

May 25: Plays as designated hitter, goes 0-for-5 in Cleveland, again complains of pain.

May 26: Scratched from lineup against Yankees.

May 27: Returns by train from New York for an afternoon appointment with team physician Dr. William Goldiner. Admitted to the University of Maryland Medical Center. CT scan reveals a 3 1/2 -inch mass in the frontal portion of intestine.

May 28: Davey Johnson says Davis not likely to go on disabled list.

May 30: Doctors still unsure of source of "abdominal infection."

May 31: Davis goes on 15-day disabled list, retroactive to May 26.

June 1: Orioles team doctors say Davis likely will need two to three weeks to recover fully from abscess, saying it has shrunk significantly in the past two days.

June 4: Checks out of the University of Maryland Medical Center.

June 5: Re-examined and taken off antibiotics.

June 6: Examined by a team of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

June 8: Johnson told Davis likely to require surgery.

June 10: Orioles learn Davis sidelined for next two months.

June 13: Hospital medical team removes one-third of colon.

June 17: Orioles announce Davis has colon cancer.

Pub Date: 6/18/97

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