11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST
A STADIUM FULL OF SCREAMING fans fell utterly silent as the baseball began its sweet, soaring flight. Then, as the ball sailed over the wall and landed in the left-field seats of Cleveland's Jacobs Field, there was a collective gasp. It was hardly a Ruthian blast as home runs go, but it was enough to help the Baltimore Orioles to an electrifying 4-2 victory over the hometown Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of this year's American League Championship Series. "It felt like the whole game just stopped," says Orioles outfielder Eric Davis, 35, of his magical ninth-inning homer on Oct. 13, "and everyone just watched me trot around the field."
That the Orioles lost the next game, and with it the chance to play in the World Series, hardly diminished the home run's significance. For Davis, who had surgery for colon cancer in June and who returned to the Orioles lineup in September, performed his postseason heroics while undergoing chemotherapy. "I can't think of any precedent of someone playing professionally during the treatments," says oncologist Dr. Ross Donehower of Johns Hopkins hospital. Donehower oversees Davis's weekly chemo sessions, which began July 16 and will end in mid-December. "We're dealing with a superbly conditioned athlete," he says, "with an attitude that won't let him quit."
Even fellow Oriole Cal Ripken, owner of baseball's ultimate endurance record—2,478 consecutive games without an absence—was blown away by his teammate's resolve. "I have a renewed sense of what life is all about when I look at Eric," he told reporters during the play-offs. A graceful and dignified 12-year veteran, Davis hit .310 after his comeback and was signed by the Orioles to return for the 1998 season—despite losing 25 pounds (of which he has gained back 15) following surgery in June. A third of Davis's colon was removed, along with a baseball-size malignant tumor; afterwards, doctors recommended chemotherapy as a precaution. "I haven't had any major side effects, aside from nausea," says Davis, who is believed to have an excellent chance of full recovery because the cancer was caught early. "I've been blessed."
It hasn't hurt that Davis may be the most upbeat man on earth. "Eric is a really strong, positive person," says Sherrie, 33, his wife of nine years and mother of his two daughters, Erica, 11, and Sacha, 7. "He's not the kind of person who will sit around and whimper and feel sorry for himself." The youngest of three children born in South Central Los Angeles to Jim Davis, now a grocery warehouse manager, and his wife, Shirley, a retired soul-food restaurant operator, the 6'3" Davis was a standout high school athlete before the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the 1980 baseball draft.
He reached the majors in '84 and helped the Reds win a World Series six years later, but when injuries cut into his productivity, Davis was traded to the L.A. Dodgers in 1991. More injuries followed—a shoulder sprain, a herniated disk—and Davis, whose career seemed just about over, took a year off. But in 1996 he came out of retirement to re-join the Reds, and this season signed with the Orioles. Then, after a game on May 25, Davis felt "terrible stomach pain," he recalls. "I took some Maalox and figured it was gas." But the pain returned and became unbearable, and he was eventually diagnosed as having cancer. After surgery, Davis surprised everyone with the pace of his recovery. "The doctors couldn't believe how good he looked," says Shirley. "He's a walking miracle."
But as Davis gradually built up his strength, he was dealt a setback: on Aug. 31, his older brother Jimmy, 36, died suddenly of a heart attack. "We grew up playing baseball together," he says, "and now Jimmy's gone." Davis wrote his brother's initials on his baseball cap and forged ahead.
On Sept. 15 he jogged onto the field at Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards to a standing ovation. "I made it back, and I learned a lot about myself," says Davis, who has been even more inspiring off the field, spending hours signing autographs and encouraging fellow cancer patients at Johns Hopkins. His message: stay positive. "It takes a lot of energy to be negative," says Davis. "You have to work at it. But smiling is painless. I'd rather spend my energy smiling."
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Baltimore