A Matter of Belief

By Mark Purdy

Dave Dravecky projects optimism on a sunny San Francisco day beneath the statue of fellow Giants icon and personal hero Juan Marichal. (Spencer Brown)

Former Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky reflects on his own comeback(s), as he contemplates our shared future.

Dave Dravecky’s cell phone recording asks callers to leave a message for the “one-armed bandit.” Which would be him.

And man, do we need that guy now.

More than his arm, San Francisco and the Bay Area could really use Dravecky’s holistic guidance as we attempt to clawback from COVID-19 … plus the Black Lives Matter pain and protests … plus the economic nervous breakdown precipitated by the pandemic … plus whatever other crisis comes along in the next five minutes of this harrowing year.

How do we ever get back to where we once were, on both a spiritual and a practical basis?

Dravecky thinks about it carefully. He tries to offer up something modestly meaningful.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” he says in a thoughtful interview. “And it’s not going to be a sprint. It’s going to be a marathon. But in the midst of everything, I am optimistic.”

He then explains why. Although first, it might be good to cite the man’s credentials. If anyone is qualified to counsel people on inspirational comebacks, it is the former Giants pitcher who has made two of them.

The first was in 1988. He was a starting left-hander for a baseball team on the rise when he visited a specialist about a persistent soreness in his throwing shoulder. It turned out to be a cancerous tumor. Surgery excised the growth but also removed half of Dravecky’s deltoid muscle.

When the scar healed, his shoulder looked like a grizzly bear had taken a bite out of it. Doctors then froze his humerus bone to try to kill any remaining cancerous cells. Dravecky’s career was over, most presumed.

He had other ideas. The shock of the diagnosis gave way to a relentless quest. Dravecky was determined to return to the major leagues. After months of intense rehab, he did. Stunningly.

In August of 1989, Dravecky took the mound at Candlestick Park on an overcast afternoon and threw eight innings of stellar baseball to beat the Cincinnati Reds, 4-3. Along the way, he received six emotional standing ovations.

“I cried all day long,” recalls Dravecky’s wife, Jan.

Five days later in Montreal, the tears flowed for a different reason. Dravecky’s throwing arm made a sickening crack as he delivered a pitch and he collapsed in front of the mound. The humerus bone, possibly weakened by the frozen therapy, had snapped in two. Complications ensued. Another tumor was detected in the healing area. The arm was amputated.

Dravecky thus began his second comeback. This one was at an entirely different level, as he literally rallied from professional and personal disfigurement. Yes, he became depressed. He can now even admit there were suicidal thoughts. But he emerged from the darkness thanks to his faith — he is an unabashed Christian — and support from his family and teammates.

And that’s where Dravecky begins when he talks about how the Bay Area can start to recover from, and triumph over, the trauma of 2020.

“When I was first diagnosed with cancer, there was fear,” Dravecky says. “In that fear, I could have become paralyzed. You have to make a decision, though, and step in and face it. I couldn’t allow fear to prevent me from coming back. With the coronavirus, an environment of hysteria has been created and there’s great fear. But we still have to live. We can’t become paralyzed by this virus. We can’t allow fear to do that to us.”

“When I was fighting cancer, well-meaning people were there and threw a lot of stuff at me to try and fix it,” Dravecky says. “I didn’t need fixing. I needed someone to step in with me and enter into that story and hurt with me. They had to listen and understand — maybe not even fully, but to try and understand some of it.”

That’s the parallel, Dravecky says.

“I think this is what we need to do first now,” he says, “with both those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and those in the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t understand all of it, but I will listen. … We have to step into this — hurt with those who hurt, listen to those who are speaking, and from that, learn to love. … The only way we are going to get through this is to love one another.”

If that sounds mushy, he says, that’s too bad. In Dravecky’s mind, we are not facing a policy-driven comeback. This must be a person-to-person, eye-to-eye comeback, for everyday and every month indefinitely. Dravecky speaks of his African American teammates on the Giants, Kevin Mitchell and Jeffrey Leonard, as well as former manager Dusty Baker. They made an effort to hurt with Dravecky during both of his comebacks. He has tried to follow their example.

“My teammates rallied around Jan and I and did something very special,” Dravecky says. “They loved us well. Very different players from different backgrounds and of different colors. They unified behind me. By learning to love another well, we can see where a comeback is possible with what’s happening now, and how it’s going to happen.”

But in such a fractured political and social environment, is that even possible? Dravecky, the declared optimist, cites his own evidence that it can happen. His mother, Donna, died of breast cancer at 88 in late April, at the peak of the pandemic graph. She lived in Youngstown, Ohio. Dravecky and his wife were leery of flying. So they drove the 2,500 miles from their Mission Bay residence near Oracle Park back to the Midwest.

Over those three days driving, as well as on the journey back to California, Dave and Jan were heartened to see people navigating the virus crisis with proper masking and distancing protocols. Hotels were doing their best. Rest stop personnel were doing their best. People were doing their best. Dravecky has heard about places where that supposedly has not been the case. He didn’t witness it as he traveled cross-country.

Likewise, as he watched the George Floyd killing and the demonstrative aftermath, Dravecky chose to look for signs that people were coming together to make things better, not worse. People of different races and religions. He believes the Bay Area has some unique tools that will come into play as the recovery begins.

“Hey, we had the earthquake in 1989,” Dravecky says. “We had to go through so much at that time. It showed people had the will to work together to make that comeback. That’s what San Francisco does. That’s what the Bay Area does. That’s what teammates can do. When people need help, we have a tendency to hear that help and rally around that and respond when there’s a great need. I’ve got to dig deep and ask myself, step by step, what I can personally do.”

And so must everyone else, he says. It sounds basic. But that’s how every successful civilization has snapped back from every other crisis. He’s right. It’s going to take a lot of work. And it’s not going to be a sprint. One day, Dravecky has chosen to believe, everyone will be able to go back to the ballpark in a better place than they left it before the craziness began.

“I have faith in people,” Dravecky says. “And I have faith in a God that is bigger than any of this, a God that can transform hearts. All we can do is our part. And trust God with the rest.”

Check out Mark Purdy’s top 10 Bay Area sports comebacks: nobhillgazette.com/top-10-comebacks.

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