Everyone enjoys a good comeback story. No matter how long the comeback takes or how long it lasts, there's something about overcoming long odds that entices one to lean forward in his seat, waiting for the climax. In 1989, Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky faced seemingly insurmountable odds to take the pitcher's mound again despite having only half a deltoid muscle and the humerus bone in his pitching arm being frozen to battle the cancer that had once threatened his life. This is his story.
The Early Years
Dave Dravecky was born on Valentine's Day, 1956 in Youngstown, Ohio. Although Youngstown was in the middle of a hotbed of athletics, baseball was not readily available for young Dravecky and his four younger brothers due to the poor winter weather. To compensate, he traveled to Pennsylvania in the summers to play for either Class-B or Babe Ruth teams. In the midst of his travels, he switched from first base to pitching, arriving at Youngstown's Boardman High School as a polished prospect.
His prep career was less than stellar, finishing his senior year with a 3-2 record and failing to be drafted or fetch any scholarship offers. Without many other options, he walked on at nearby Youngstown State College where he ultimately led to team to its first NCAA tournament appearance as a junior. Having won seven of eight starts and posting a scintillating .88 ERA that year, Dave Dravecky felt confident going into the tournament.
Unfortunately, he and his teammates ran into the buzzsaw that was Wright State. Dravecky started the contest, but the ace couldn't stifle the bombardment. After every home run of the 26-1 demolition, Wright State players would calculate Dravecky's ballooning ERA and yell it to him as they ran the bases. After that embarrassing loss, Dravecky realized that he had put too much pressure on himself. He vowed never to make the same mistake again.
He relaxed more his senior year and was mentally ready when scouts from the Pirates and Dodgers came to town for a game. Dravecky played well, giving up just two hits and striking out 14. In awe of his performance, the Pirates drafted him in the 21st round. Several years later he was finally brought into Spring Training with the club. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, Dave Dravecky performed well in front of the major league coaches but was inexplicably traded to San Diego before the 1982 season began.
Although it took him a couple of years to get used to the California sun, by 1983, Dave Dravecky was an All-Star. He went 14-10 and posted a 3.58 ERA that year while the team finished with as many wins as losses. For the past several years, the organization had been building a contender but had failed to reach the postseason.
Their fortunes changed in 1984. Led by Goose Gossage and Tony Gwynn, the Padres made it to the World Series where they faced a well-seasoned squad from Detroit. While he didn't start, in two games Dave Dravecky gave up three hits and a walk while striking out five. His work did little to stifle the Tigers' historic dominance as they went on to win the World Series in five games.
Inspired to lead his club to further postseason success, Dave Dravecky went 13-11 in 1985 while posting a 2.93 ERA and giving up 18 home runs. He had a down year in 1986, winning less than he won for the first time in his career as his ERA ballooned to a ghastly 3.07. He needed a change of scenery.
Entering 1987 and needing a spark, the Padres traded Dave Dravecky along with Craig Lefferts and Kevin Mitchell to the Giants. In return, San Diego received Chris Brown, Mark Dorrs, Mark Grant and Keith Comstock. While Mitchell would go on to the greatest success in San Francisco, it was Dravecky that would capture the hearts of baseball fans all over America.
He immediately began making an impact in the City by the Bay, earning the team's Pitcher of the Month honor in August and winning the NL Player of the Week award in early September. His dominance continued well into the postseason as he beat the Cardinals in a two-hit shutout in Game 2 of the NLCS. However, the Giants ultimately fell in seven games to the eventual World Series runner-ups.
All looked well for Dave Dravecky entering 1988. He started Opening Day and defeated the mighty Dodgers and the phenomenal Fernando Valenzuela. However, all would soon not be well. Suffering through injuries for much of the year, Dravecky would only appear in seven games as the Giants withered under the pressure to compensate, ultimately failing to make the playoffs as the hated Dodgers rolled on to their way of ultimate glory in the Fall Classic.
As the season wound down, a lump was discovered in his left arm. Diagnosed as a rare cancerous desmoid tumor, he underwent surgery on October 7, the day before Game 3 of the NLCS. He awoke from the anesthesia with half of his deltoid muscle removed and his humerus bone frozen in an effort to eliminate all cancerous cells.
Though most of his doctors believed that his career was over and he would be lucky to throw o his children and the more encouraging recommended that he wait til 1990, Dave Dravecky was determined to return to the mound by 1989. Given the fact that he had lost 95% of the use of his deltoid muscle, this was no small aspiration. So he worked and worked and worked, all with the kind of determination in his eyes only seen in those truly willing to give everything for one last chance at glory.
He rehabbed throughout 1989 as his teammates battled for supremacy within their division and traversed the major league landscape for a shot at the World Series. He made brief minor league stops in San Jose and Phoenix, building his confidence for the day that he had envisioned at the beginning of this odyssey. Meanwhile, the Giants kept watch, encouraged by his 3-0 record and 1.80 ERA in his 25 innings of work.
Finally, the day came. August 10, 1989 at Candlestick Park. As he warmed up in the bullpen, he heard a low rumble of applause. As he lifted his head, he noticed the crowd of 34,810 rise to their feet in adulation. With his heart aflutter, Dave Dravecky made a fist and pounded his chest, deeply moved by the attention of his beloved hometown crowd.
Every once and a while, an athlete has an out-of-body experience that just can't be explained. Think of Brett Favre shredding the Raiders' defense the night after his father passed away. There is just no way to accurately describe all that was going on, from the force of grief that had put him into despair to the passes that never should have been caught but somehow were. There is a certain glow in an out-of-body experience that causes all to rise to their feet in adulation, standing with their mouths agape as they watch something that they will never witness again.
That is what Dave Dravecky experienced on August 10, 1989 against the Cincinnati Reds. And all Giants manager Roger Craig could do was watch. He could only watch as his pitcher struck out five and posted a 3.38 ERA, in awe of the moment. Going into the eighth inning, Dravecky's arm was getting tired and he gave up three runs. He was pulled from the game and listened as the crowd roared after each subsequent out in the Giants' 4-3 victory.
The comeback was short-lived as he broke his arm five days later while pitching against Tim Raines and the Montreal Expos. That humerus bone that had been frozen to battle the cancer was rendered too weak for much competition. While it healed, the Giants went on win the NLCS and advance to the World Series. During their celebration, Dravecky was bumped by a teammate and re-broke his arm. The fact that his teammates lost the World Series only brought him further down in despair.
With the cancer now having returned in full force, he had to endure numerous radiation treatments which exposed him to a flesh-eating staph infection. With his bone now exposed and his arm withered away by the cancer, its treatment and the staph infection, there was only one choice left: amputation In 1991, he had the arm that had brought him so much success lopped off. Along with his shoulder blade and left collarbone, his new look was a tragic sight for sore eyes.
For years, his identity was based on what his left arm could do. Who was he now? In the years to come, he would dedicate himself to the church, found Outreach of Hope (a nonprofit that brings hope to those that hurt) and became a widely renowned motivational speaker, telling audiences about his story, often encouraging them with the one simple truth that he learned on this journey: your worth is not based on what you do or shaken by loss.