Millions know Dave Dravecky as the ball player who came back to play in the majors after undergoing surgery for cancer in his pitching arm. Less than a year after that surgery, Dravecky was tested again. While pitching against the Montreal Expos, Dravecky breaks his arm and collapses on the mound. Here’s the play by play from that memorable ball game:
(Radio Announcer) “Here’s the pitch and Dravecky falls over. Dravecky stumbled on the mound. He threw a wild pitch and he’s holding his shoulder.”
Dave’s broken arm proved to be a recurrence of the cancer which led to the amputation of his left arm and shoulder ending his successful pitching career with the San Francisco Giants. During this time his wife, Jan, experienced clinical depression and many friends they counted upon withdrew. Now Dave shares triumphantly how God strengthened him and his family as they walked through some dark valleys of despair. Here’s Dave Dravecky.
One of the things that I’ve struggled with is this whole issue of being competitive. I’ve really tried to develop areas in which I could become more competitive because obviously I’ve lost part of that competitiveness due to the fact that the very thing that brought a tremendous amount of joy is gone. That left arm is what made me the competitive pitcher that I was. As I sought different avenues, obviously one of them is golf. That’s one of the things that I’ve developed. It’s been a lot of fun to compete in that way. It’s especially fun because all those years being a baseball player the frustration mounts, especially when you have a bad day, and it is so wonderful to go out on the golf course, no matter how good you are, and take out those frustrations on that little white ball. You can spank it. You can kick it. You can do whatever you want to it, including the clubs too.
Another thing that I’ve enjoyed doing is fishing. Over the last two years I’ve had the opportunity to fish and I must tell you it’s been a unique challenge for me being with one arm and learning to fish. I like to share a story with you that took place about a year ago. I happened to be in a sporting goods store and I had gone to the fish and tackle department for a very specific reason. I wanted to learn more about fishing. As a matter of fact, my son Jonathan who’s eight years old has two favorite channels on TV that he loves to watch. Channel 17 which is the weather channel, don’t ask me why, I think it’s because he’s afraid of storms, and the other channel is channel 8 which is ESPN.
What’s so special about ESPN is that he likes Jimmy Cannon in the morning on Saturdays, bass fishing. He can sit for two hours and watch people bass fish. So I’ve got to learn the sport. So in any case, there I am in the sporting goods store and I’m checking out all the rod and reels and the different pieces of equipment that you can use for fishing and, low an behold, when we go up in the front underneath the glass counter are all the most expensive reels and the expensive equipment that you’d use for fishing. Behind that counter comes this young man and he looks at me with a very strange look. You have to understand that I’m standing in front of him without my left arm. He’s wondering what in the world is this guy doing in this place. He said, “Do you mind of I ask you a question?” And I said, “No, go right ahead.” He said, “Do you fish?” I said, “If I didn’t fish I wouldn’t be here.” He said, “Please tell me, how do you do it?” “Well,” I said, “you take the pole in your right hand.”. . . . . . That’s the only one I got for those of you who didn’t catch on. “You take the pole and you cast the line into the water and as soon as I do that I ram the pole up underneath my armpit and I squeeze real tight and I start reeling like crazy.” This kid’s jaw drops. I know what’s going on in his mind. How does anybody catch a fish like that? With that the magical question comes out. Have you ever caught any fish? You don’t know the smile that lit up on my face because I told him I just got back from Alaska where I caught a red salmon this big.
There was a period of time in my life where I did not want to laugh. I have come to realize that laughter really is healing for the soul. Please understand this. I do not make light of people who go through suffering and adversity saying that that is something to laugh about because it’s not. Suffering is a very serious thing, obviously, but in the midst of going through suffering it is very important to understand the value of laughter as we heal.
As all of you are probably aware of I was a major league baseball player. I enjoyed playing that game so much. I can remember all the way back when Dave Dravecky was seven years old. I remember having that dream of some day growing up to be a major league pitcher. You know who my two favorite guys were? Sandy Colfax and Fida Blue. Those are the guys I wanted to be just like. I remember as I went through this process and it was incredible to see my skill develop and all of a sudden there was an opportunity to maybe become a professional ball player someday.
As I got to that point I was drafted in 1978. It was one of the most exciting days of my life to hear that phone ring and for the Pittsburgh Pirates to be on the other end and say, “Dave, we’ve selected you to play for our organization.” My hopes were that I’d sign a big bonus contract, but I didn’t. I signed for $500 a month and what they offered me in bonus was a cup of coffee but I didn’t care. It didn’t make any difference to me because my dream had come true, at least the first leg of my dream had come true, and I was now a professional baseball player.
For the next three years I played in the Pirate organization and I had a tremendous amount of fun while I was there. After my first season in 1978 I came home and got married. That was a very wise thing to do because I didn’t realize how valuable the support would be when we’d begin that minor league career together as husband and wife. I remember specifically in 1981, we were sitting in a circle and there were about five days left in Spring training.
For those of you who don’t know what spring training is, I’ll give you just a little bit of understanding. Spring training is where all the players gather and compete to make a particular team. In the farm systems you have class A, Class AA, and Class AAA. The more A’s the closer you get to the big leagues. This particular spring I was trying to make the triple A team which is only a phone call away from the major leagues. I remember very clearly as if it were yesterday. There was a bunch of us talking with about a week left in camp. This was after a workout and conversation had led to where we would like to play if we never made it to the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The consensus was that the San Diego Padres would be the best place to play because if you never made it to the big leagues, their Triple A team was in Hawaii.
Contrary to what most of you might think we are not stupid. In any case a couple days later the farm director who’s in charge of all these minor league players, some 125-150 players, calls my name. One of two things happen when your name’s called. You’re either traded or you’re released. And so as I approached him and walked up to him, he looked at me and said, “Dave, we’ve traded you.” I was a little disappointed at this point because I wanted to play close to home. I wasn’t feeling so good about this trade until he said, “We’ve traded you to San Diego. Then all I could think about was, “Man, if he says Hawaii, I know there’s a God.” He then said, “The Padres are sending you to Amarillo, Texas.” How many of you have been to Amarillo? Far cry from Hawaii, huh?
Well, I want to tell you that that is really where the nuts and bolts of this story begins. It was in Amarillo, Texas that something very special took place. Let me set the stage for you. Byron Ballard is playing for the New York Yankees working out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida on the other side of the state while Dave Dravecky is working out with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, Florida. Byron Ballard gets traded and where does he go? To the San Diego Padres and where does he end up? Amarillo. On the other end Dave has been traded from Pittsburgh to the San Diego Padres and where does he end up by coincidence? Amarillo.
Then all of a sudden I got a phone call from my aunt who’s a nun. Actually it was through my mother that she relayed a message. She said, “Dave I just want you to know that I believe that it’s divine inspiration that you went from being a Pirate to a Padre.” She was right because it was not coincidence that Byron was in Amarillo and Dave was in Amarillo because Ladies and Gentlemen, Byron Ballard was a Christian. He was a follower of Jesus Christ. Dave Dravecky thought he was a Christian. Guess what? We ended up being room mates at the Holiday Inn.
It was amazing when I think back on those days how God had designed this incredible plan for me to be exposed to the one who died for me on the cross. You see it was there that I was challenged for the first time in my life even though I thought I was a good guy and even though I went to church once a week. I basically lived my life trying to earn my way to heaven and therefore thought I was a Christian.