O's farmhand Stephens keeps goal of returning Cancer patient now plays softball, lifts weights


Joel Stephens played a doubleheader yesterday: a cancer checkup at Johns Hopkins Hospital, followed by the Orioles game at Camden Yards. The latter made the former more palatable, said Stephens, 22, an Orioles farmhand battling colon cancer.

"I finished the medical stuff; now I can enjoy myself," said Stephens, munching popcorn and nachos at the ballgame. Diagnosed with cancer in November, he is locked in an eight-month struggle with the disease that stalled his career at Single-A. Last month, he completed a wave of intense chemotherapy treatments and began lifting weights at his home in Tioga, Pa.

He joined a slow-pitch softball team and is whaling the ball of late. "Just to throw on the cleats for some competition is a start," said Stephens, who has regained 15 of the 45 pounds he'd lost.

His goal? To return to a minor-league team this summer.

"Baseball is my incentive, my motivation. It gives me something to work for," said Stephens, an outfielder who hit .224 for the Delmarva Shorebirds last year. He attended spring training in Florida, if only to buoy his old teammates. He threw out the first pitch at an exhibition game at Oriole Park in March.

Last month, he motored up to Binghamton, N.Y., to watch Bowie, the Orioles' Double-A team, play. Stephens stole the show, gabbing on air with Bowie's radio announcer. He also drove to Philadelphia to see his friend David Dellucci, the ex-Orioles outfielder now playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Afterward, Dellucci presented Stephens with his game bat and cap.

His illness is more serious than that of the Orioles' Eric Davis and former slugger Boog Powell, both recovered from colon cancer. It has also made Stephens a poster boy of sorts. He speaks of his illness to local school groups. In May, he served as honorary chairman of a cancer research fund-raiser at Mansfield (Pa.) University. The 24-hour walk-a-thon netted $20,000; Stephens himself strolled around the track for nearly four hours.

"Joel senses how much good he's doing for people," said Dr. Ross C. Donehower, his oncologist at Hopkins. "Basically, he's just a remarkable young guy with a lot to live for -- athletics, family, religion -- and he's working hard to try and make it happen."

There have been setbacks. Ten days ago, Stephens was rushed to the hospital with a severe bacterial infection. His temperature hit 104, his blood pressure 200. He began shaking uncontrollably in bed.

"I could hardly breathe," he said. "It was definitely a close call, something I'd rather not go through again."

En route to the hospital, determined not to pass out, Stephens kept snapping his wrist band, which is inscribed with a Bible verse, Philippians 4: 13 -- I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

"I knew I wasn't going to [die] like that," he said.

Paramedics gave Stephens oxygen and iced him down. Antibiotics calmed the infection. Four days later, the patient went home.

Stephens called the incident "a bump in the road. Eventually, I'll get on the pavement and it'll be a smooth path."

Doctors marveled at his recovery.

"This was a life-threatening condition," said Donehower. "Nothing this kid does would surprise me."

Donehower confirmed Stephens' hopes of returning to baseball, perhaps as early as next month.

"A lot would depend on what the Orioles would allow him to do," Donehower said. Given the nature of Stephens' illness, it would be heartening just to watch him walk onto the field, the doctor said.

"It would be hard to imagine a more moving moment."

Pub Date: 6/03/98

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