Today we feature the anatomy of a bad break.
Dave Dravecky pitched seven major league seasons for the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. Between 1982 and 1989, he won 64 games and posted a career ERA of 3.13. In his second season, he won 14 games for the Padres and was named to the 1983 All-Star team. The following year, he helped San Diego to its first pennant in franchise history. At 6’1” and 195 pounds, Dravecky was effective as both a starter and coming out of the bullpen. He featured a fastball, slider and threw with pinpoint accuracy. Twenty-eight years ago today, his life changed forever.
Born in Youngstown, Ohio, on Valentine’s Day 1956, David Francis Dravecky grew up idolizing Sandy Koufax and Vida Blue, two of the most dominant left-handed pitchers in MLB history. He attended Youngstown State University and was selected by the Pittsburg Pirates in the 21st round of the 1978 Amateur Draft. The southpaw spent four years in the minors before earning a spot with the Padres’ big league club at 26. In two of his first five seasons in San Diego, Dravecky posted double-digit win totals. On July 4, 1987 – midway through his sixth campaign with the Padres, he was traded to San Francisco as part of a six-player deal. The crafty left-hander went on to win seven games in 112 innings of work for the Giants in the second half of 1987 and hurled a shutout against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Two of the NLCS.
The following season, doctors discovered that Dravecky had cancer between the shoulder and elbow of his pitching arm. Diagnosed with a rare malignancy known as aggressive fibromatosis, he had a tumor half the size of a golf ball in his left biceps. Surgeons warned Dravecky that he had little, if any, chance of resuming a career in the major leagues. “If all this works out,” said his physician, “you can play catch with your son or daughter in the backyard, but you have faced your last big league hitter.” After six years and 62 major league victories, Dravecky underwent surgery in October 1988. In a seven hour procedure, surgeons used cryosurgery, a method of destroying malignant tissue by freezing it. Although the operation allowed them not to have to remove bone, doctors said the treatment would render Dravecky’s arm fragile and susceptible to fracture for at least two years.
Determined to return to baseball, Dravecky embarked on a grueling rehab program. By the following July, he was pitching in the minors. Ten months after surgery, he returned to the Giants rotation. On August 10, 1989, the 33-year-old took the mound in San Francisco, firing eight innings of three-run ball to beat the Reds. “I’m standing on the mound and I’m going, ‘Wow, this is amazing.” Dravecky said. “God, thank you. I’ve got another opportunity to play this kids’ game I love so much.” Five days later in Montreal, he held the Expos to no runs through five innings. Dravecky came out in the sixth, gave up a home run, then hit Andres Galarraga before facing Tim Raines. His first offering to Raines was the pitch that could be heard round the world. As he let go of the ball, Dravecky’s left arm split in two between his elbow and shoulder. His teammates could hear the snap from the dugout and Dravecky collapsed in a heap. “I was cruising, back in the saddle,” recalled Dravecky. “We were winning and I’m feeling great. I got out in the sixth inning, rear back to throw a fastball to Tim Raines and my left arm snaps in half. My career was over.”
As concerned teammates and medical staff surrounded Dravecky on the ground in front of the mound, he told Giants manager Roger Craig, “We’ve got to win this thing.” The Giants held on for a 3-2 victory and Dravecky got the win. By season’s end, the bone had healed and Dravecky was considering another comeback. The Giants finished the season 92-70, then beat the Chicago Cubs for the National League pennant. During an on-field celebration with teammates after the win, Dravecky’s arm broke again.
“My arm caught the attention of the entire school when, as a teenager, I pitched my first no-hitter. My ability to provide for my family was not based on how smart I was or how hard I worked. It was based solely on what my arm could do on game day. When people talked with me, it was the center of conversation. ‘How’s the arm today, Dave? Is your arm ready for tonight? My arm was to me what hands are to a concert pianist, what feet are to a marathon runner. It’s what made me valuable, what gave me worth in the eyes of the world.”
The cancer returned yet again, and Dravecky retired from baseball in 1989. He endured painful radiation and recurring infections. In June 1991, fearing the cancer would spread and take his life, Dravecky opted to have his arm amputated – along with his shoulder blade and the left side of his collarbone. He went into clinical depression and suffered an identity crisis. He received counseling for 30 months and had to learn to live right-handed. After much work and the support of his wife and family, Dravecky learned how to navigate loss and suffering, and gained a new definition of self-worth. “It’s not what you do that matters most, it’s who you are.”
Dave Dravecky has written two books and is a motivational speaker. Today, he counsels others on how to experience encouragement and hope. Mr. Dravecky won the 1989 Willie Mac Award, presented annually to the most inspirational player on the San Francisco Giants as voted by teammates, coaches, training staff and fans. Named after Willie McCovey, the award is personally presented by the legendary Giant in a pregame ceremony at AT&T Park near the conclusion of each season. Dravecky also received the 1989 Hutch Award, given annually to the MLB player who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of Fred Hutchinson by persevering through adversity. Hutchinson is a former pitcher and manager who died of lung cancer in 1964.
On this date in 1989, Dave Dravecky threw his last pitch.