Davis showed toughness for Reds, in fight vs. cancer
Skilled outfielder displayed perseverance since his humble Los Angeles beginnings
By Megan Zahneis
Before Billy Hamilton, there was another slender, agile National League Gold Glove Award winner known for his speed as he patrolled center field in Cincinnati.
Nearly 30 years separate the Major League debuts of these two players, which possibly explains why this generation of Cincinnati Reds fans may not be too familiar with the original Mr. Speedy in the Queen City.
Younger Reds fans will have their chance to become familiar this weekend when Cincinnati honors the 1990 World Series champion club at Great American Ball Park.
Everyone born after 1990: Meet Eric Davis.
Aliases: "Magnum .44," "Eric the Red," or simply "E.D."
Why is Davis' name worth knowing?
"In the 41 years I've been around, I've never been associated with a guy that had more talent than he did, in every respect," said longtime Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman, who also covered the likes of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Ken Griffey Jr. "He had great speed, he was a great defensive player, he had a great arm, he could hit with power, he could drive in runs. He was just a sensational talent. Unfortunately, he was one of those guys who could not avoid injuries. And he had to deal with those injuries while maintaining a very high level of performance."
"He's the best ballplayer I played with," former teammate Ron Oester said. "He had all five tools. He hit, he hit with power, he ran, he had a great arm and then he played good defense. Eric's just a good guy, a leader in the clubhouse, just a super guy to know."
Actually, Brennaman disputes any comparison of Hamilton to Davis.
"There's nobody on this team that has the talent he had," Brennaman declared. "They have a kid in center field, Billy Hamilton, who's gonna be an outstanding player. He's gonna get better and better, but he doesn't have the power that Eric had. There's nobody on this club that has the all-around talent that Eric had. ... In 41 years of being a broadcaster with this club, I've never seen a player that had more talent than Eric Davis."
Yet, arguably, Davis, who is now 52 and serves as a special assistant to Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, never should've made it that far.
"I've already faced tough situations, not just in the big leagues," Davis wrote in his 1999 autobiography "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," coauthored with Ralph Wiley. "Grew up in what turned out to be a tough 'hood in L.A. Lost a loved one to it. Smashed up my kidney something terrible during the 1990 World Series. Nearly died. Spent years in the Minors. Had nine surgeries. And just last year, in '97, I had colon cancer. A malignant tumor the size of an orange, or a baseball, was removed from me, along with a third of my colon. I took 36 chemotherapy treatments prior to the spring of '98. But I still come to the post.
"They'll have to tear this uniform off of me one day."
Davis came from humble beginnings, growing up as the youngest of Jim and Shirley Davis' three children in a five-room apartment in a gritty neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Davis recalled his childhood in an overwhelmingly positive light in "Born to Play," yet the truth remains that his love for sports probably kept him off the streets.
Davis' older brother, Jim Jr. or Jim Bean, as he was called, wasn't so lucky.
Jim, just a year older than Eric, was found dead outside a Los Angeles church at age 36, concluding a life spent in and out of jail and under the influence of drugs.
The death hit the entire Davis family hard, most of all Eric, who wrote: "Because of his [Jim's] struggles and battles, he kept me on the straight and narrow … [Jim said that] 'These streets is real.'"
Davis realizes that growing up, his fate could have been easily interchangeable with his brother's.
"Contrary to popular myth, baseball ain't all cornfields. I couldn't help who I was and where I came from," Davis wrote. "I grew up liking who I was. The game is between the ball, the bat and the glove; they don't care what kind or color hands are holding them, what part of town they came from."
Once Davis made it out of Fremont High School and was drafted and signed by the Reds, he navigated the Minors and what he would later describe in the book as "the intricate pathway of making the big leagues." Even once he swung a starting job in Cincinnati, his troubles were far from over.
Davis cracked the big leagues in 1984 under rookie manager Pete Rose, and he was quickly "adopted" by senior outfielder Dave Parker. That year, he would break the Reds' rookie home run record, going through one stretch in which he hit five dingers in a four-game span.
In 1986, "Eric the Red" stole 80 bases, hit 23 homers on the way to establishing himself as Cincinnati's everyday center fielder.
But it wasn't until 1987 that Davis, by his own estimation, became a bona fide "top-end" Major Leaguer. "I hit .293 with 37 home runs, 97 runs scored, 50 steals, and 100 RBI in 129 games, 474 at-bats. That, to me, became my norm," Davis wrote in "Born to Play."
From 1984-89, Davis helped steer Cincinnati to five consecutive second-place finishes in the NL West.
Then came 1990.
Out of the gate, the team known to history as the "wire-to-wire" Cincinnati club, won its first nine straight and went to to face the A's in the Fall Classic. With the Reds leading the series, 3-0, time froze for Davis. In true all-out fashion reminiscent of that of his former manager Rose, Davis instinctively dove for a line drive hit by Oakland's Willie McGee. He came up with the ball, but it was clear something was seriously wrong as he crumpled to the outfield grass.
"I couldn't separate my consciousness from my pain," Davis wrote, yet he stayed in left field for the remainder of Oakland's turn at bat. But by the time Davis made it back to the visitors' dugout, he couldn't move.
After passing blood, Davis was rushed to the hospital. Soon the diagnosis was in: a lacerated kidney, described by a doctor as looking like a tomato thrown on the sidewalk.
The Reds forged on to win the Series eight innings later. Davis was in surgery.
The injury was life threatening, and Davis, ever the workhorse, managed to appear in just 89 games in the 1991 season.
After the 1991 season, Davis was dealt to the Dodgers, and then to Sparky Anderson's Tigers in '93.
Despite his best efforts to play, a neck injury kept Davis reliant on cortisone shots to stay in the Detroit lineup, until, in 1994, he was forced to have surgery.
His all-or-nothing style of play was beginning to catch up with Davis. "E.D." was no long invincible.
Had Davis done all he could in the world of baseball? He supposed he'd never find out.
A physician told Davis he ran the risk of paralysis if he continued to make his signature diving plays.
"That was the last straw for me physically -- eight surgeries in seven years ... I got to feeling like the poster child for surgery," Davis wrote in "Born to Play."
"The lack of being able to [perform] physically affected my mental makeup and that's what caused me to walk away from the game after neck surgery -- the nagging feeling I was letting people down ... It's very hard to give up what you feel is your calling, no matter what the circumstances are, especially when you've been doing it for a long time."
Heart heavy, Davis hung up his spikes.
"My whole life's been a trial and a blessing," Davis wrote. "I've lived and learned that a bad thing can turn out to be a good thing, and a good thing can become a learning experience. That's the way it often is. It's important to see things as they are, as well as how you wish they would be."
And Davis sure wished he were back in a baseball uniform.
It was a trip to a 1995 Dodgers-Reds NL Division Series game at Chavez Ravine that changed Davis' mind.
Davis started working out that fall, and by December, he had secured a deal to return to Cincinnati. In 1996, he hit cleanup beside his protégé Barry Larkin, smacking 23 homers in 129 games.
Davis became a free agent after the 1996 season, and he inked a deal to join the Orioles as a free agent. Then lightning struck. Again.
It was late in May 1997 when Davis was overcome with pain on the way to third base. Soon after, Davis was told he had colon cancer by doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
There was surgery, then chemotherapy to eradicate any chance of the tumor returning.
"It's an emotional, physical, and spiritual earthquake, when you get the knowledge that you aren't in control anymore," Davis wrote. "Part of me had just switched off, and I was going through the motions of living.
"Once I had the surgery, they told me the cancer was removed from my body. It was just a matter of getting myself back into baseball shape. I didn't do it to be heroic or anything like that. I was blessed. It was nothing that was hindering me from being able to come back to play. But what inspired me was when I was taking chemo in the children's ward at the hospitals that I was taking it in.
"Here I was 34 years old, and I was taking chemo. And I'm in the ward where 3-, 4-, 5-year-old kids are terminally ill [and] have no chance of coming out. Seeing the smiles on their faces and seeing the way they were fighting and all that, it was easy for me. It was very easy. I had lived a long time. To see that with them, that just made my situation that much easier," Davis said in December at Redsfest.
"I knew how they felt," Davis wrote. "I was with 'em, part of a battle that's unspectacular, not so crowd-pleasing as what I do for a living. No less of a battle than facing 97-mph cheese. I was taking my last chemo treatment."
Davis would "face the cheese" again, in one of the greatest comeback stories baseball can offer.
"I'd like to think all this time I spent playing wasn't wasted." Davis explained in "Born to Play."
What Davis did was unparalleled, in Brennaman's opinion.
"The fact [that] he had the intestinal fortitude to battle cancer and beat it and then was able to come back and play and be a productive player after he beat cancer, I don't know if there are many people in his line of work that would have been able to do what he did and had the single-mindedness that he did about beating a lethally debilitating disease and be able to come back and be the player at the level he played," Brennaman said. "You don't see that very often."
Let no one think Davis is an arrogant guy -- confident is a better word, and it comes across in "Born to Play."
"If you don't have confidence, you don't have nothing," Davis told MLB.com.
Oester remembers Davis' unshakable faith rubbing off on him.
"He made everybody else feel confident around him as far as the way he played. If somebody had a bad day, he'd come up and talk to them, 'Don't worry about it, it's just one day.' He definitely had a lot of confidence, and that's what it takes to be a great ballplayer like he was," Oester said.
"If you go back to the years he was with the club leading up to the world championship series of 1990," Brennaman said, "Eric had certain leadership abilities about him that I think infected guys -- and I use that term in a good way -- in the clubhouse, and I think they respected the fact that he was the kind of player that he was. He was never loud and overbearing and obnoxious. He went about his business in a very, very classy manner."
See, Davis knows some people might use the word "hero" in conjunction with his name.
"I understand it. But I don't know anybody that sets out to be a hero," Davis said softly. "To me, that's the aftermath of doing things right, showing people the proper etiquette to doing certain things. Not to say that I had the proper etiquette all the time, but I pretty much just believed in myself and did what I thought was right. I made mistakes just like the next person, but mine were never magnified to the point where it would cause shame or anything like that. We all, as we live, have trials and tribulations and go through certain things. My motivation to succeed was just that high."
If you read "Born to Play," you'll find stories of young children, cancer and AIDS patients, who idolized Davis. He even writes of one family that named their son after him.
This is no surprise to Brennaman, who recalls how revered Davis was in Cincinnati during his playing days.
"As a person, they don't come any better than that. [Davis] carries himself almost regally. And I think anybody who's been around this organization a long time basically feels about him like I do, because we all remember what kind of great player he was back in the '80s when he wore a Reds uniform, and I think this organization is very fortunate to still have him connected with it," Brennaman noted.
Yet none of this crossed Davis' mind during his playing days.
"I never thought about that, no. I just thought about playing. Then as you get into it, you start to engage with fans and you start to see people appreciate the way you play, you start to see people understand the things that you're going through, you get a different perspective, because people started naming their kids after me and things of that nature," Davis recalled. "That's when it really started to open my eyes -- like, 'Yeah, you are a role model and these people look up to you.' I think I get more gratification now that I'm retired than I ever did while I was playing."
That's what matters to Davis these days, 12 years after he hung up his spikes. Yes, he played against and with Hall of Famers. And yes, he is aware he'll never join their ranks in Cooperstown.
It would be easy for Davis to engage in a never-ending game of what ifs.
What if that lacerated kidney never happened? What if he hadn't injured his neck and retired for a year? What if he didn't have to battle colon cancer?
Somehow, Davis manages to rise above it all. He is a man without regrets.
"I don't regret anything that I've done, because that's what made me," Davis said. "If I would've slacked on this to gain this, I wouldn't be the individual that they all love today, 12 years since I retired. I wouldn't change a thing."
And that's why three strikes weren't enough for Davis.
Megan Zahneis is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.