Dave Dravecky

Dave Dravecky

This article was written by Wayne Strumpfer

Dave DraveckyDoctors told Dave Dravecky that outside of a miracle, he would never pitch again. This followed a 1988 diagnosis of cancer in his pitching arm. Yet less than a year later he stood on the pitching mound at Candlestick Park in front of over 34,000 adoring fans, and retired 21 of the first 23 Cincinnati Reds batters he faced. A week later, however, Dravecky would throw his last pitch in a tragic turn of events. Despite the subsequent amputation of his arm, Dave Dravecky’s story is one of happiness and hope.

David Francis Dravecky was born in Youngstown, Ohio, on February 14, 1956, the oldest of five boys born to Frank and Donna Dravecky. Frank was a machinist and Donna was a homemaker. Dave and his brothers played sports growing up and at Boardman High School, but they didn’t play a lot of baseball because of the cold weather. As a teenager, Dave spent his summers across the state line in Pennsylvania playing with a Babe Ruth or Class-B team. He played outfield and first base before starting to pitch on his high-school team. As a left-handed starter, he finished his senior year with a 3-2 record.

Out of high school, Dravecky was passed up in the major-league draft and didn’t receive any scholarships, so he enrolled locally at Youngstown State College. As a junior he helped lead the baseball team to its first NCAA Division II tournament appearance, with a record of 7-1 and an 0.88 ERA. In the tournament, Youngstown lost to Wright State, 26-1. Dravecky started the game and pitched 2⅓ innings. He recalled, “As each run passed home plate, Wright State players calculated my ERA and yelled it at me.”1 Up to that game, the lefty was receiving attention as the ace of the Youngstown pitching staff and a possible first- through 10th-round selection in the coming draft. In his four collegiate seasons, he struck out 252 hitters and was later elected to the Youngstown State Hall of Fame. However, the Wright State game brought a humility that would stay with him throughout his career. He realized that he was putting too much pressure on himself to be drafted and decided to just have fun his senior year.

Dravecky happened to pitch a game during his senior year in front of scouts from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates — it was a two-hitter with 14 strikeouts. He had a good predraft tryout with the Pirates and was told by farm director Murray Cook to “go home and sit by the phone (on draft day) and see if it rings. If it’s somebody from the major leagues, congratulations; if not, go get a real job.” Dravecky was in fact drafted by the Pirates in the 21st round.

A few days later, Dravecky drove to Pittsburgh office and signed a contract to play for $500 a month. Not knowing he could ask for a bonus or additional money, he thought $500 to play baseball was a dream come true. At the Pirates’ request, he picked up another newly drafted player, John Stuper, on his way to Charleston, South Carolina, the Pirates’ rookie-league team. (Stuper went on to play four seasons with the Cardinals and Reds and later became the baseball coach at Yale University.)

After the season, on October 7, Dravecky married his high-school sweetheart, Jan Roh. An accountant, she was the family’s breadwinner while Dave played minor-league baseball. They had two children, Tiffany and Jonathon.

Dravecky played several years in the Pirates’ farm system. He grew up a Pirates fan and was thrilled to play for the organization. He played two years in Double-A in Buffalo (Eastern League). In March 1981, he worked out with the Pirates in spring training and pitched some batting practice. Pirates manager Chuck Tanner told Dravecky he liked what he saw in his bullpen sessions. But one day, Murray Cook came into the clubhouse and told Dravecky he had been traded to the San Diego Padres. Later in his big-league career, when the Padres played the Pirates, Tanner told Dravecky that he had been very upset about the deal. Dravecky was traded for infielder Bobby Mitchell, who never played in the majors.

The Padres assigned Dravecky to their Double-A team in Amarillo. He described the 1981 season as his “sweetest year in baseball.” He and his wife embraced the Christian faith that year and Dave learned the art of pitching and how to throw the cutter (taught by manager Eddie Watt). Watt and his wife would have potluck dinners and invite the team, which included Mark Thurmond, Andy Hawkins, and future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Dravecky was the Padres’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 1981, going 15-5 with a 2.67 ERA. He said his best memories of baseball were from that summer in Amarillo.

Dravecky was invited to the Padres’ spring training in 1982 but was sent back to the minor leagues quickly and started the season with Triple-A Hawaii. In June he and Jan had their first baby and four days later, Dravecky was called up to the major leagues, replacing Danny Boone, who had been traded. He made his major-league debut on June 15 against the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching one inning and allowing two hits but no runs.

Dravecky struggled early in the majors, but bullpen coach Clyde McCullough worked with him for several weeks. One day, McCullough taught him to just simply “feel it” and repeat the feeling.2 The key for Dravecky was to slow down and keep his hand on top of the baseball so he threw the ball and did not push it. After that, pitching became enjoyable. Catcher Terry Kennedy came up to the lefty a few weeks later and told him he had become a different pitcher since spring training. Dravecky learned how to throw four different types of the fastball effectively. He later developed a “slurve” by just taking a little bit off his cutter. He said, “Moving the ball around and throwing strikes is what kept me in the majors.”

In his first major-league start, against the Cincinnati Reds on August 8, Dravecky pitched six innings, giving up four hits and no earned runs as the Padres won, 3-1. He won three games in a row as a starter. The Padres manager was Dick Williams, someone Dravecky says he had tremendous respect for even though Williams could be very intimidating. According to Dravecky, off the field Williams and his wife were wonderful to spend time with.

In 1983 Dravecky was the National League’s first six-game winner and first 10-game winner. He was a quick worker on the mound — his nine complete games in 1983 had an average length of 2 hours and 20 minutes. He said he didn’t need time, “pitching was all instinct and feel” for him. That season, he made manager Williams, well known for hating bases on balls, happy by throwing 31⅓ consecutive innings without issuing a walk. He was selected for the All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago. When he walked into the clubhouse, he felt he didn’t belong, but showed that he did by pitching two shutout innings. Jim Rice had the only hit off him — the only time Dravecky ever threw a changeup and only because the catcher called for one not knowing that Dravecky didn’t have a changeup.

Later in the season Dravecky suffered from soreness in his left shoulder — the first time he struggled with pain — and sat out the rest of the season after late August. In the offseason, he worked out with Padres trainer Dick Dent along with major leaguers Alan Trammell, Paul Molitor, Terry Kennedy, Tim Lollar, and Rich “Goose” Gossage. “Sergeant Dent” met the players three days a week for a hard workout and lifting weights. This helped Dravecky develop strength in his shoulder.

Dravecky started 1984 in the bullpen and was successful with a 4-3 record, 8 saves, and a 2.80 ERA. When Andy Hawkins struggled, Dravecky returned to the starting rotation. The rest of the season, Dick Williams used him as a swingman, starting 11 games and relieving in 39. By the end of the season, Dravecky felt his arm was “a noodle” after throwing 156⅔ innings in 50 games. The 1984 Padres were a great team and a great mix of players, according to Dravecky. “We had so many characters on that team including Eric Show who was a professional guitarist.” The team didn’t really need a leader with so many veterans like Gossage, Steve Garvey, and Graig Nettles. Gossage told the team, “I don’t want to hear any ‘I or me’ when you’re talking to the press. This is about us as a team.”3 The strategy paid off as the Padres won the National League West. In the playoffs, the Padres dropped the first two games of the best-of-five series to the Chicago Cubs (including a 13-0 drubbing in Game One). Coming home to play the final three games, the Padres just started winning. Near the end of Game Five, when the Padres were beating Cubs ace Rick Sutcliffe, trainer Dick Dent was running up and down the dugout with smelling salts because everyone was hyperventilating about going to the World Series.

In the World Series, the Detroit Tigers, who had dominated the American League all season, beat the Padres in five games. That was when his impressive success in the postseason began. He pitched a total of 10⅔ innings, allowing only five hits and no runs and striking out 10. After Game Five and the Tigers’ Series win, Dravecky had his scariest experience in baseball. Once the Padres boarded the team bus, ramped-up Tigers fans surrounded it and tried to tip the bus over. Twenty mounted police officers had to escort the bus from the ballpark to the freeway on the way to the airport.

In 1985 and 1986, Dravecky became a regular starter for the Padres, winning 13 games with a 2.93 ERA in 31 starts in 1985 and winning nine games with a 3.07 ERA in 26 starts in ’86. Dick Williams left the club after 1985 and the Padres won only 74 games in 1986, finishing fourth in the National League Western Division.

In 1987 Larry Bowa became the manager and the season did not start well. The team played poorly and Dravecky did not pitch well. By early July he was 3-7 in 30 games as a spot starter with a 3.76 ERA. On July 5 Dravecky was traded along with Craig Lefferts and Kevin Mitchell to the San Francisco Giants for Chris Brown, Mark Davis, Mark Grant, and Keith Comstock. He remembered being shocked about the trade. Mitchell didn’t want to get into the cab to go the airport. Dravecky told his teammate, “Buddy, we’ve got to go, you don’t have a choice here. We have to give it a shot.” They all felt their team didn’t want them anymore and were worried about what kind of reception they would receive with the new team. Once they arrived at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, where the Giants were playing, manager Roger Craig set the three men down and told them, “You guys are the final pieces, we are taking this to the promised land.”4 The whole team shook the new players’ hands and made them feel welcome.

Dravecky enjoyed pitching for Craig and being reunited with pitching coach Norm Sherry, and his season completely turned around. He was named the Giants’ Pitcher of the Month in August and the National League Player of the Week in early September. Dravecky loved pitching at windy Candlestick Park and he started 18 games for his new team, going 7-5 with a 3.20 ERA. “Every hitter hated the ‘Stick,’” Dravecky said. “Even Tony Gwynn, who never complained, hated to hit there.” Roger Craig told the pitchers to use the elements to their advantage and Dravecky did, often pounding the inside of the plate. That Giants team, with the addition of the three Padres and later Rick Reuschel and Don Robinson, won the National League West.

In the postseason, the Giants faced the St. Louis Cardinals. After the Giants dropped Game One, Dravecky faced John Tudor (who was 10-2 in 16 starts that year) in Game Two in St. Louis. Dravecky pitched a two-hit shutout as San Francisco won, 5-0. Four games later, with the Giants up three games to two, Dravecky again went against Tudor in Game Six. In a classic pitchers’ duel, Dravecky struck out eight and gave up one run in six innings only to lose to the Cardinals, 1-0. The next day St. Louis won again to go to the World Series.

In 1988 Dravecky started on Opening Day and the Giants beat the Dodgers and Fernando Valenzuela, 5-1, at Dodger Stadium. Steve Sax hit a leadoff home run against Dravecky but the left-hander shut Los Angeles down after that, giving up only two more hits. But 1988 turned out to be a lost season for Dravecky; he described it as, “really, really hard” — he pitched in only seven games and struggled with injuries throughout. In September he received a shocking diagnosis of cancer. He had a lump on his arm that he thought was scar tissue from throwing so much that had calcified. Dave and his wife waited in the doctor’s office with the door slightly opened and they saw the doctors take the MRI film and place it under lights. That was when they heard the word “cancer” uttered. Dave and Jan just stared at each other in disbelief and then prayed quickly. The doctor told Dravecky that “outside of a miracle, you’ll never pitch again.” Dave called that day a “huge wake-up call” about life.

Dravecky knew the odds of a comeback were slim to none, but he was not ready to retire from baseball, so he was going to try. The cancer was treated by freezing part of the arm bone and taking out half of Dravecky’s deltoid muscle — losing 95 percent of the use of it. Dr. Gordon Campbell, a doctor at the Palo Alto Clinic, where Dravecky completed his recovery program, said, “I thought Dave would be lucky just to throw a ball to his kids, I certainly didn’t think he’d ever have the ability to pitch again.”5 Yet, during the 1989 season, Dravecky worked on strengthening his arm after the surgery and eventually was able to pitch in the minor leagues, making rehab starts in San Jose (Class A) and Phoenix (Triple A) for the Giants. In three starts in the minors, he posted a 3-0 record with a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings. By August 10 he was ready to start his first major-league game in over a year and since his cancer diagnosis.

It was a sunny, breezy afternoon game at Candlestick Park against the Cincinnati Reds. When Dravecky came out to warm up in the bullpen with catcher Terry Kennedy, they met up with a large crowd of media reporters and cameramen. Dave couldn’t figure out what was going on; he was just warming up. Then he noticed that the fans by the bullpen began to clap and within seconds the whole stadium — the 34,810 fans attending the game — began giving him a standing ovation. Dravecky was so moved he pulled at his jersey near his heart and started pounding it quickly. Kennedy looked at him and did the same.

For Dravecky, once he was on the bullpen mound, “it was unbelievable and overwhelming.” He started warming up and felt great so he threw only about 15 pitches and was ready to go. He wanted to keep things normal in the dugout before the game until it was time to walk out on the field. As he neared the pitching mound, he heard the fans again give him another standing ovation. He stood on the mound before the first pitch and remembered the words of his doctor from less than a year earlier: “Outside of a miracle, you will never pitch again.” Dave thanked God for another opportunity with the game he loved so much, wound up, and threw the first pitch.

Dravecky felt it was “like a movie” as he pitched so well that day, throwing a shutout over the first seven innings — retiring 21 of the first 23 batters he faced. He had given up only a double and a walk as he headed to the eighth inning with a 4-0 lead. Manager Roger Craig later said, “I didn’t really manage that game, I just sat there in awe.”6 But in the eighth inning, the fairy tale almost came to a crashing end as light-hitting infielder Luis Quinones belted a three-run homer. According to Dravecky, Terry Kennedy told him later, “Quinones was not in the script.” Dravecky was able to get the third out in the eighth inning without any further damage and Steve Bedrosian pitched a one-two-three ninth for the save as the crowd stood and cheered after every out.

Five days later, in a start in Montreal, facing Tim Raines in the sixth inning, Dravecky broke his arm while pitching. The bone that had been frozen during the cancer treatment was just too weak. The snap of the break in the domed stadium sounded like a firecracker and Dravecky fell to the ground writhing in pain. Yet even after the break, he did not give up on pitching again. However, the end did come soon after during an on-field celebration after the Giants beat the Cubs in the NLCS. While Dravecky was celebrating with his teammates, he was accidentally pushed from behind and broke his arm again. Shortly after the new break, his cancer returned. On November 13, 1989, Dravecky retired from baseball.

In late 1990, Dravecky had a staph infection in his arm for 10 months. The recommendation at first was to amputate his left arm. However, nearing the time of surgery, doctors were willing to try to save the arm if the biopsy came back negative for cancer. In June 1991 Dave made the decision, telling the doctors he “didn’t want the arm anymore” even though the biopsy came back negative for cancer. After the amputation, the doctors found cancer wrapped around the arm’s ulna nerve.7

Twenty-seven years later, Dravecky said he felt the amputation saved his life. He said he calls himself the “One-armed Bandit” and travels the country as a motivational and inspirational speaker. He and his wife live in a small town in Central California. They have four grandchildren. Despite or maybe because of his cancer and amputation, Dave said, he enjoys life each day. Along with the speaking engagements, he worked part-time with the Giants as a community ambassador. Dave and Jan set up Endurance, a ministry that helps cancer patients deal with physical inflictions and depression.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org

Two autobiographies by Dave Dravecky were useful:

Dravecky, Dave, with Tim Stafford. Comeback (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 1992).

Dravecky, Dave, with Mike Yorkey. Called Up: Stories of Life and Faith from the Great Game of Baseball (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 2004).

These articles were particularly helpful:

Curiel, Jonathan. “Ex-Giants Pitcher to Have Arm Amputated,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 13, 1991.

Collier, Phil. “’82 Padres Capable of .500 Season,” The Sporting News, April 10, 1982.

“Padres Making Pluses Pay Off,” The Sporting News, June 21, 1982

 “Dravecky Thrives on Inside Pitches,” The Sporting News, May 30, 1983.

“Dravecky Shoulders His Share of the Load,” The Sporting News, July 16, 1984,

 

Notes

1 All quotations from Dave Dravecky and all specific facts regarding his childhood, college, and minor-league experiences are from an interview conducted by the author on July 16, 2018.

2 Dravecky interview.

3 Dravecky interview.

4 Dravecky interview.

5 “Dravecky to Make Big-League Return,” SF Gate, August 9, 1989. sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Dravecky-to-make-big-league-return-Aug-9-1989-5660588.php.

6 Joe Lemire, “Dave Dravecky,” Sports Illustrated, July 13, 2009.

7 Dravecky interview.

Full Name

David Francis Dravecky

Born

February 14, 1956 at Youngstown, OH (USA)

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