Jeff Jardine: Former Giants pitcher still motivating 25 years after comeback

07/05/2014 8:14 PM

07/05/2014 11:08 PM

Twenty-five years, gone by in a flash. Or so it seems.

Twenty-five years ago this month, San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky pitched a seven-inning, two-hit shutout over the Stockton Ports in the opener of a doubleheader at Billy Hebert Field in Stockton.

Hardly your basic rehab assignment, it became a huge event that drew the national spotlight. Less than a year earlier, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from Dravecky’s left arm. They told him he’d need a miracle to pitch again. Yet he recovered and began throwing and became determined to resume his career, the first step coming when he toyed with minor-league hitters that day in Stockton on July 24, 1989.

The comeback continued. On Aug. 10, Dravecky returned to the majors amid great fanfare, pitching a four-hitter over eight innings to beat the Cincinnati Reds at Candlestick Park. I was a sports columnist at the time, like everyone else enamored by the moment and impressed by the man, his faith and determination.

His start in Montreal five days later, though, brought an abrupt and hideous end to his dream. In the sixth inning, Dravecky threw a fastball to the Expos’ Tim Raines. Dravecky immediately fell to the artificial turf in front of the mound, rolling in excruciating pain. The humerus bone in his left arm, weakened by surgery, had broken. The feel-good story of the 1989 baseball season ended with a sickening snap, a moment captured in a video clip he now uses in his motivational speeches.

On June 18, 1991, doctors amputated his left arm and into his shoulder. They feared the cancer would spread if they didn’t, but the decision ultimately was his. The arm, he decided, was worth more to science than it was to him.

In a numbing turn of events, Dravecky had already lost his livelihood and now his arm, as well.

Twenty-five years, gone by in a flash.

Just over a week ago, I visited Dravecky at his home in Turlock. He and wife Jan moved to the Valley last winter to be near their son and his family, including two grandchildren. They love the Valley and Turlock, Dravecky said. He has friends in town. He is a neighbor.

As a player, he was always approachable and accommodating with fans and media alike. He’s still that way. He’s content, spiritual and at peace with what happened – now. But leaving baseball in the way it happened tested him to the max, he’ll tell you.

“I was very angry,” he said. “Not at God, but the kind of anger that comes as a result of frustration and fear. The obstacle in front of me – it was the first time in my life I didn’t know if I could overcome. I didn’t suffer pretty. In fact, there was a time when neither Jan nor I suffered pretty. We suffered a lot.”

The ordeal challenged him in ways he’d never imagined. He had to learn to do everything right-handed. Dravecky went from the salary of a veteran major-league baseball player to wondering how he would support his family.

“Where is my faith? Does it exist?” he said. “People told me, ‘Even in the ugliest moments, God’s love doesn’t change for you.’ That encouraged me to bury my pride and reach out for help.”

He and his wife began counseling for clinical depression and medication helped them, he said.

It wasn’t until 1993 or into 1994 that “I started feeling better about life,” he said.

Church groups and other organizations asked him to tell his story, and that morphed into a motivational speaking business and into a ministry he and Jan formed and call Endurance.

“Speaking brought stability into my world,” he said.

Endurance offers hope in many forms, including prayer requests, a weekly devotional, faith-based books and help for those with depression. He’s written several motivational books, and his faith and family are intertwined.

But baseball isn’t entirely in his rearview mirror. If he had to endure something so horrific as losing his arm and his career, at least he was with the right organization.

“The team couldn’t do anything for me as a baseball player anymore,” he said. “But they didn’t give up on me. They were there for me, which is amazing considering I pitched only 27 games my entire career with the Giants.”

The Giants value their former players perhaps better than any other franchise. Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Will Clark and other legendary players remain part of the club’s fabric. The Giants hired Dravecky to work as a special assistant. He represents the team at public functions, including the Junior Giants baseball field dedications. He signs autographs, visits fans in the stadium suites and works with nonprofits supported by the club.

“They do wonderful things with Will Clark’s autism night and Jeffrey Leonard’s cancer foundation events,” Dravecky said.

They’ll honor Dravecky next Saturday at AT&T Park, where fans will receive a Dave Dravecky commemorative comeback pin before the Giants play the Arizona Diamondbacks. He enjoys his time around the club, including catching up with Giants manager Bruce Bochy and third-base coach Tim Flannery, Dravecky’s teammates when he pitched in San Diego before being traded to the Giants in 1987. He avoids the clubhouse, though.

“I have so much respect for the game itself, for the veteran players and the traditions,” he said. “When I retired, I realized I was now outside of that sacred ground. I don’t go in unless I’m invited in.”

Strange, the events and aftermaths involving the 1989 Giants team. Dravecky’s comeback began and ended in the same season the Giants beat the Cubs to win the National League title. After the final out at Candlestick, Dravecky went out to join the celebration on the field and rebroke his arm. X-rays showed what turned out to be another malignant mass in his arm and ultimately led to the amputation.

Then came the World Series against Oakland and the Loma Prieta earthquake that paused the series for a week before Oakland went on to complete the sweep.

The following season found Giants closer Steve Bedrosian spending his days at the hospital with 21/2-year-old son Cody, who received bone marrow transplants in his battle against leukemia. Then Bedrosian would go to the ballpark to try to save the night’s game. Cody survived. Bedrosian’s oldest son, Cam, is a rookie pitching for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

And Brett Butler, the center fielder and catalyst of the 1989 team, saw his playing career end due to oral cancer in 1997, but survived and is now coaching with the Miami Marlins.

Dravecky keeps in touch with many of his former teammates. And he recalls the moments and people of his playing days as vividly as if we were talking at his cubicle in the Giants’ clubhouse in the late 1980s, not relaxing on his patio in Turlock.

And as we chatted that afternoon, Jan watched the game inside the house. Giants’ veteran right-hander Tim Lincecum pitched his second career no-hitter against the Padres.

Lincecum turned 5 years old exactly two months before Dravecky threw his final pitch.

Twenty-five years, gone by in a flash.

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