MY FINEST HOUR

MY FINEST HOUR

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

My Finest Hour

It’s all part of the psychology of baseball. But the saddest words of all to a pitcher are three— take him out.

Christy Mathewson

Ever since that first game with my dad, baseball had been my life. And my life as a ballplayer was wrapped up in my arm. The more strikes that my arm could throw, the more I was worth. The more games that arm won, the more managers wanted me on their teams.

“How’s the arm today, Dave?” “Is your arm ready for tonight?” “Better get some ice on that arm; don’t want it to swell.”

My arm was to me what hands are to a pianist, what legs are to a ballerina. It’s what fans cheered for, what they paid hard-earned money to see. It was what gave me worth—at least in the eyes of the world.

January 1990, my wife Jan and I left for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where Dr. Murray Brennan found that the tumor in my pitching arm had returned. He removed the rest of my deltoid muscle plus 10 percent of my triceps and isolated me for five days of treatment with iridium pellets. God had stood by me before, but now he seemed to be withdrawing. It scared me.

By May the cancer had wrapped itself around my radial nerve. Dr. Brennan scraped the nerve of cancerous cells, but the prognosis wasn’t good. My doubleheader with cancer was going into extra innings.

In July and August, I underwent further radiation treatment. Shortly afterward I began to run a low-grade fever, and my doctor discovered a staph infection in my arm. I fought the pain and the persistent infection until one day when Jan and I visited an elementary school. I spoke to some sixty kids and showed them a video of my comeback game and the game in Montreal where I broke my arm. Then the kids flocked around with scraps of paper and baseball cards. As I pushed it through the loops and curves of my name, my arm was almost immobile. I finally realized: It was time.

I met with Dr. Brennan and told him I was ready for the arm to come off. On June 18, 1991, I went back into surgery. The first thing I saw after I woke up were two hazy figures. Then my eyes came into focus, and I recognized Jan and my mom. I blinked again, and Dad was there, too. Jan came alongside the bed and put her hand on my forehead. Her fingers felt soothing as they brushed across my brow.

The next day I got out of bed. I went into the bathroom, where I saw myself for the first time. The image that stared back from the mirror horrified me. An incision started at my neck and went to my underarm. My arm was gone. My shoulder was gone. The left side of my collar bone was gone.

“Okay, God. This is what I’ve got to live with. Please help me put this behind me,” I prayed. “Let me go forward.” When the one-armed man stared back at me, there was peace in his eyes.

I felt relieved to have the arm amputated, for I had been in such pain. But I also felt apprehensive. I wondered how my son would react. Would he keep his distance? And what about my daughter? Would she be embarrassed? And Jan?

When I came home, I realized that all they wanted was to have me back. As important as my left arm had been to my boyhood, and later to my livelihood, it meant nothing to them. It was enough that I was alive.

Everything I do now I do with my right hand, and I can do pretty much everything I did before; it just takes longer. Instead of wearing a coat and tie, I wear an open shirt. And when I fly I carry just one bag.

I miss doing things with my own two hands, and—of course—I really miss baseball. There is a scene in the movie Field of Dreams where “Shoeless” Joe Jackson—one of the eight Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series, said, “Getting thrown out of baseball was like having part of me amputated. I’d wake up at night with the smell of the ballpark in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet. Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was a game. The sounds, the smells. I’d have played for nuthin’.”

That scene had a powerful effect on me. I missed those feelings, too. The feel of stitched seams as you cradle a new ball in your hand. The smell of seasoned leather as you bring the glove to your face. The sound of a bat cracking out a base hit.

I’d have played for food money. I’d have played for nuthin’.

On October 5, 1991, the Giants invited me to San Francisco for Dave Dravecky Day. When I left the clubhouse and looked out across the stadium, the finely manicured grass was almost an iridescent green. The bright orange seats were starting to fill. Flags rippled in the breeze. I felt like a seven-year-old kid, seeing it all for the first time.

People in the stands stood and clapped. High over their heads, they carried banners and placards:

DRAVECKY #43
THANKS FOR THE HOPE
GOOD LUCK, DAVE
GOD BLESS U

For one last time in a Giants uniform, I walked onto the field. A few yards in front of the mound, I wrapped my fingers around a ball, felt its stitched seams. Then, in front of 42,712 fans, I threw out the opening pitch—and one final cheer arose for No. 43.

It was my last hurrah, my shining moment. I had come to Candlestick Park to say good-bye to the fans and to the game I loved.

A convertible drove Jan, my son and daughter, and me around the perimeter of the park, and I lifted my cap to the crowd. Then we took our seats in the stands. I was a fan now, and it felt good.

Other fans at Candlestick that day were saddened by what cancer had done to my life. They didn’t say it in so many words, but I could see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. They thought it was a tragedy.

I don’t feel that way. I used to see everything in black and white; now I see the shades of gray in between. I used to think there was an answer for everything; now I realize many questions don’t have answers. I used to be preoccupied with my own needs; now I am learning compassion for others. I used to depend on myself; now I lean more on God. I used to think I could put God in a box; now I know his ways are too deep for any box to contain.

In another scene from Field of Dreams, the hero, Ray Kinsella, tracks down an old ballplayer named “Moonlight” Graham, whose career in the majors was so short it wasn’t even a flash in the pan. Graham was an old man now. He had become a doctor and had dedicated his life to alleviating suffering in the small town where he lived. Kinsella could not get over how short Graham’s career had been.

“For five minutes you were that close,” Kinsella marveled. “It would kill some men to get that close to their dream and not touch it; they’d consider it a tragedy.”

Graham looked him in the eye and with a wistful smile said, “Son, if I’d only got to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”

When I look back over the past four years and see all I’ve learned from other people who have suffered, all I’ve experienced of their love and all God has shown me of his mercy, I think, If I’d have continued as a ballplayer and missed that, now that would have been a tragedy.

Dave and Jan Dravecky with Ken Gire

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