Healing And Grace

The struggle of recovery from a major injury is something that, thankfully, many people will never experience. The initial pain and trauma of the injury, the endurance of surgical repairs, and months of arduous rehab are stations on a path all of us would choose to avoid if we could.

Major-league All-Star Dave Dravecky has been down this path not once, but several times. And though his body bears the evidence of the frightening and hellish path he’s walked, something in his countenance makes an impression that’s exactly the opposite of what you might expect.

Dravecky was a farily unheralded left-hander out of Youngstown State University in Ohio when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the 21st round of the 1978 MLB Amateur Draft. Like almost all pro baseball players, he spent the first few years of his career working his way up through the minor leagues. It was before Spring Training in 1981 that a curveball was thrown his way. “There’s two days left in Spring Training 1981 and the next thing you know I’m traded to the San Diego Padres,” Dravecky relates.

While this may have been disorienting for some young players, Dravecky took the trade in stride and came in contact with a fellow player that would change his life.

“What was really cool is that it was there that I met Byron Ballard. Byron became the guy in my life that challenged me to read the Bible. August 27, 1981, my wife and I were baptized by Roy Wheeler. It was, of all places, in Amarillo, Texas—the most beautiful place in the universe for Jan and I, and the most amazing experience of our life. It began a journey that has been a very interesting journey to say the least.”

It was less than a year after his baptism that he got to make his mark in the majors. Right out of the gate, Dravecky proved that he belonged among baseball’s finest players.

“Getting to the big leagues and now being a major-league ballplayer, and experiencing an All-Star game, experiencing a World Series and then getting traded from the San Diego Padres, which were a last-place team, to the first-place Giants. Going into postseason play against the Cardinals and pitching the two best games of my life . . . I thought, man, 1988 is going to be my year.”

Dravecky had a solid start to the 1988 season (2-2, 3.16 ERA*), but he began to notice an abnormality on his pitching arm. A lump had developed, eventually growing to the size of a golf ball. He couldn’t forestall it; he went to the doctor.

“We’re sitting there and the doctors are starting to examine the x-rays. All of a sudden we hear one of the guys say, ‘Man, this is a tumor,’ and my heart went into my throat.”

Dravecky underwent surgery to remove the cancerous tumor. With it, the surgeons had to take out half of his deltoid muscle.

After months of rehab and training, Dravecky was set to make his post-surgery debut on August 10, 1989. The crowd welcomed him back in a big way.

“I went to the bullpen and there was a standing ovation. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, man, I’m just Dave Dravecky!’ And then I got out to the mound and I was just overwhelmed by all of these things that were happening. I completed eight innings in a victory against the Cincinnati Reds.”

His comeback could hardly have gone any better, as he pitched well (especially considering the circumstances) and the Giants picked up the win. Going into his next start in Montreal five days later, Dravecky was eager to get back on the bump.

“A couple of hours before the game, I was talking with Bob Knepper over a pre-game lunch. We started talking about the comeback, and how awesome it was, and how it was such a miracle, and then he looks at me and says, ‘I hate to burst your bubble, man, but it’s not the miracle of the comeback here that’s so important, it’s the miracle of salvation, it’s the day you met Jesus that is so important. What God has done is He’s given you a platform through baseball to share His love with those who hurt.’”

The comment took Dravecky off guard in the moment, but it proved prophetic soon enough: “Five hours later, I’m lying on the ground with a broken arm and all I could hear were Bob Knepper’s words.”

The end of the comeback just as it had started wasn’t even the worst of it. “The cancer reoccurred,” Dravecky explains. “There were more surgeries. With each surgery, there was less and less margin to be able to remove anything because now they were down to bone.”

Eventually, the doctors’ options for saving Dravecky’s life came down to just one, and it was drastic. Just eight years after he was announced to the NL All-Star team and two years after his last pitch in the big leagues, on June 18, 1991, Dravecky’s left arm and shoulder were amputated.

Wanting to use the God-given platform Bob Knepper had illuminated, Dravecky began a new career as an author and a public speaker, but behind the scenes, new clouds were gathering over Dravecky’s life.

“I felt so much pressure to be an example for others. I entered into an identity crisis. I went into clinical depression. Then I became a very angry man because I did not know how to deal with these emotions that I had pushed and pushed and pushed; it was horrible.”

The community of Christ-followers around Dravecky was used by God in an example of His design for the lives of all who are His.

“As a result of some really good friends, who loved me in spite of my behavior, God began to heal. It’s hard to even admit those things, but there’s been great healing in being able to expose the lies of my life, the hiddenness in my life because it’s in that freedom that I’ve come face-to-face with true grace; that love that comes even on my worst day.”

Still working as a public speaker and an author, Dravecky has proven to be an inspiration for his courage and willingness to keep pushing on when things get tough, leaning on God and his brothers and sisters around him.

Who has he discovered God to be? Dravecky answers in a rapt, reverent voice barely above a whisper. “The most loving, the most gracious, the most understanding, the most encouraging, the most forgiving person in the universe and in my life.” —Brian Rzeppa with Ken Hughes

*ERA: Earned Run Average. A statistic used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness, obtained by calculating the average number of earned runs scored against the pitcher in every nine innings pitched.