Dave Dravecky’s comeback was not supposed to end this way. Just last year, the San Francisco Giant pitching ace had learned that a cancerous tumor was growing in the deltoid muscle of his pitching arm near the shoulder. Dravecky’s career was on the line, and doctors told him the odds of his facing a batter again were slim. Amazingly, Dravecky, who attends a Christian church and calls himself “a bom-again believer, “beat the odds. Just 10 months after surgery, he dramatically returned to the mound in Candlestick Park on Aug. 10, and to a hero’s welcome, winning the game 4-3.
Five days later he was pitching again when something went horribly wrong. Doctors had warned him that a freezing technique used to kill cancer cells had rendered his humerus bone as brittle as a dry chicken wing. As he whipped his left arm forward to deliver a fastball, his humerus snapped mid-shaft and Dravecky fell to the mound in agony.
But this time doctors are optimistic, although they warn that the cancer might return. “The break is not complicated and it might mean it’s less likely to fracture again,” says Dr. George Muschler, his orthopedic surgeon. “Dave’s a man of tremendous courage and resilience, and he’s more likely to overcome the break than he was the cancer.” Again recovering at home with his family, Dravecky shared his feelings about the future with correspondent Liz McNeil.
It was right before the 1987 play-offs that I discovered a lump on my left arm. The doctors suggested I watch for any changes in size, but since I had no pain, there was no cause for concern. The next season, I was very optimistic. My shoulder, arm and elbow felt good in spring training, and I was given the honor of pitching opening day for the first time. We beat the Dodgers 5-1, and I remember telling my wife, Janice, that this was going to be my year. I didn’t realize God had something totally different in mind for me.
Early in May I began to have shoulder problems, and in September Janice and I went to the Cleveland Clinic. We were sitting in the examining room, and we heard doctors outside talking about a tumor. It was the first time I had heard the word. It was a shock because we thought we were dealing with scar tissue. My wife and I looked at each other. She suggested we pray to accept whatever came our way, no matter what it was.
The most anxious moments were while waiting for the results of the biopsy. I had flashbacks of the birth of our children, of laughing and crying with my family, of playing major-league ball. Suddenly life became precious. I would sit and watch my children play. I’d look at my wife and think I could never love anyone as much as I loved her at that moment. We weren’t talking about my career anymore. We were talking about my life.
The biopsy news was good and bad: The tumor was a low-grade malignancy but nearly half my deltoid muscle had to be removed. Dr. Muschler told me that I had a near-zero chance of ever pitching again. The eight-hour surgery took place on Oct. 7, our 10th wedding anniversary. Before the operation, I told all the nurses that there were people praying for them, and one of them said, “You know, this is the first time anyone’s come in here and said there were people praying for us.” It felt good to be joking with people.
When I came home, it was like having another child in the house for Jan. She had to bathe me, and comb and dry my hair. I’m a toss-and-turn sleeper, but I had to lie flat on my back. For about six weeks I got very little sleep. Soon I was able to start rehabilitation, just strengthening my arm so I could function again as a normal father and play catch with my son. My therapist started by moving my arm for me. That led to bicep curls with a one-pound weight, then bench presses, lap pull-downs, curls, seated rows, a whole gamut of exercises to strengthen my body. Janice and I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. There have been few moments in my life where my emotions built up to the point of shedding tears. I wish I could cry more. One day in church everything just kind of came to a head, and I admitted out loud that it was okay if I couldn’t play baseball again.
I started tossing a football in January, picked up my first baseball in March, and by June I was able to throw batting practice at Candlestick. I had very little velocity, but just being able to throw from the mound to home plate was a thrill. I went to the Phoenix Firebirds in the minor leagues and threw nine innings. We won 3-2. Bob Kennedy [a Giants official] looked at me with a smile and said, “Get your bags packed. You’re coming back.”
When I put on my uniform and walked out on Aug. 10 to warm up, the crowd gave me an incredible standing ovation. That had never happened to me before. I saw all the TV cameras lined up focused on me. I yelled to catcher Terry Kennedy that my heart was racing 100 miles an hour. He looked back at me and said, “Yeah, me too.” But I had no reason to fear anything. The thrill of being out on the mound, knowing that I had been given another opportunity, was really the greatest joy of my career.
When we left on our road trip, all the hoopla was behind us—I just wanted to get on with baseball. I felt strong warming up in Montreal that day. Then, when I wound up to throw the pitch, I heard a loud pop just before my release point and it seemed like there was a moment of darkness. My immediate reaction was to grab my arm because I thought it had left my body. I fell down and started rolling around because I was in such tremendous pain. But once my head cleared, my reaction wasn’t to ask, “Why, God?” I was just so thankful He had given me the opportunity to go out on the mound again that even this tragedy couldn’t take away the joy I felt. I remember lying on the stretcher and wanting to lift my teammates’ spirits. I said, “Go out and win the game for me, ’cause I only have one win in the big leagues this year.” And they did.
I’m still extremely optimistic about what lies ahead. The doctors told me the arm would be stronger because of calcification during the bone’s healing. But if baseball were over for me today, I’d have no regrets at all. I’ve played in an All-Star Game and two play-offs. And I’m with the Giants on every pitch. If I can get my pants on, I will be in my uniform. But the most important thing I’ve learned is to put my trust in Jesus Christ. There’s a passage in Proverbs 19:21 that reads, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s will that prevails.”