In my time as a sports fan, I've seen a lot of amazing feats of courage, plenty of examples of playing through pain. From Cal Ripken, Jr.'s 2,632 consecutive games played to Derrick Mason of the Ravens running routes and catching passes with a dislocated shoulder and strained trapezius muscle, I've often shook my head in disbelief. I try to put myself in the shoes of these athletes and wonder where they get the strength and energy to keep taking the field and putting themselves at further risk of injury. But Eric Davis' debut season with the Orioles in 1997 surpasses them all.
At one time, the name of Eric Davis was being mentioned in the same breath as Willie Mays. He was one of the most exciting young players of the 1980s, mixing power and speed in a dynamic package. He had five straight years of at least 24 home runs per season and stole 80 bases in one year at his peak. Injuries eventually ground his career to a near-halt, as he averaged 83 games per year between 1991 and 1994 and failed to hit above .237 in that span. After a year of retirement, Davis felt rejuvenated and returned to the Reds, winning 1996's Comeback Player of the Year award (.287, 26 HR, 83 RBI, 23 SB). He signed with the O's as a free agent and seemed primed to join Brady Anderson and B.J. Surhoff to form an impressive veteran outfield. He got off to a blazing start, homering seven times in his first 21 games. But Davis was not long for the Oriole lineup.
In late May, Eric got the devastating news that he had contracted colon cancer. He immediately underwent surgery to remove a malignant mass, and soon began chemotherapy treatments. He vowed to return to the field before the season's end, a pronouncement that was met with considerable skepticism. Of course the team rallied around Eric, wearing his #24 on the side of their batting helmets. But on August 22, less than ten weeks after his surgery, Davis worked out with the Birds, spent that day's game watching from the dugout, and received a standing ovation from the Baltimore faithful. On September 15, the team activated the 35-year-old and he played in eight games over the final two weeks of the regular season...in between his ongoing chemotherapy treatments. He completed only two of those games, but it was remarkable that he played at all. He had three multi-hit games, including a 4-for-5, 1 HR effort against Milwaukee. As inspiring as this comeback was, it wasn't over yet.
The 1997 Orioles accomplished a rare feat, going wire-to-wire; they won 98 games and sat in first place for every day of the entire season. In Game One of the Division Series, Davis helped the O's break things open with a two-run single off of Mariners ace Randy Johnson. In all, the team scored four runs in the frame to break a 1-1 tie; they would romp 9-3 and dispose of Seattle in four games to move on to the American League Championship Series. Like most of the Orioles, Eric struggled in the six-game series loss to the Indians, going 2-for-13. But he did provide insurance in one Baltimore win, belting a pinch-hit home run off of Paul Assenmacher in the ninth inning of Game Five. The O's won that game 4-2.
Eric Davis won the Roberto Clemente Award after the season, and was stronger than ever in 1998. He set an Orioles record with a 30-game hitting streak, reached career highs with 29 doubles and a .327 batting average, and his 28 home runs and 89 RBI were his best totals in a full decade. I'm running out of superlatives.