Picture this: a warm September evening at Jack Murphy Stadium almost ten years to the day after the Padres clinched the 1984 National League West title. The turnout is unusually high for the night's scheduled promotion, "Turn Back the Clock — 1984." Before the game, the Diamond Vision screen shows highlights of the Padres’ '84 season, and several members of that year's team walk out onto the field to thunderous applause. At game time, the current Padres take the field in 1984-style uniforms of gold and brown. They’re playing the Chicago Cubs, the team they defeated in the 1984 playoffs.
Of course, none of those things actually happened last September, since the baseball strike wiped out the last two months of the 1994 season. But the forced cancellation of "Turn Back the Clock — 1984” planned for September 17, and even its omission in the Padres' 1994 promotional schedule seems eerily appropriate. For as unforgettable as the Padres’ 1984 season was, the memories have become increasingly bittersweet.
In the decade that followed, five of the team’s eight regular position players, four of the six starting pitchers, and at least one coach experienced sharp reversals of fortune. Eric Show and Alan Wiggins died of drug-related causes. First-base coach Jack Krol died of tongue cancer. Dave Dravecky lost his pitching arm to cancer. In less dramatic events, Tony Gwynn, Graig Nettles, Andy Hawkins, and Steve Garvey all faced bankruptcy. Ed Whitson and Kevin McReynolds went on to sometimes nightmarish stints with the New York teams. And Garvey, MVP of the 1984 National League playoffs, once “the future senator from California,” was the subject of two paternity suits and an embarrassing tell-all book by his ex-wife Cynthia.
“Too many sad stories from that team,” former Padre outfielder Bobby Brown told a reporter last summer. “Too many tragedies.” Within the “run of incredible misfortune surrounding the ’84 Padres,” as the Sacramento Bee described it, three stories stand out: those of Wiggins, Show, and Dravecky.
Leadoff hitter Alan Wiggins was voted the team MVP in 1983 and had an even better year in 1984, stealing 70 bases, scoring 106 runs, and providing steady defense at second base. Wiggins played superbly in the postseason as well, batting .341 and scoring 6 runs.
“If not for Alan Wiggins, we don’t win the championship,” ’84 team manager Dick Williams told a reporter. “It’s that simple. He was our catalyst. He was our most valuable player. My God, could he play!”
The Padres rewarded Wiggins with a four-year contract after the ’84 season, but his star fell almost immediately. In April of 1985, the Padres traded Wiggins to the Baltimore Orioles. After three stormy seasons in Baltimore, the Orioles suspended him in early August of 1987. Later that month, the commissioner’s office suspended him indefinitely after he failed a drug test; the Orioles released him in September. At age 29, Wiggins was out of baseball for good. Virtually nothing was heard about him until January of 1991, when he died of complications of AIDS. “He went down so fast,” said his mother-in-law, Anna Wood, at the time of his death.
“Alan was one of those fellows who couldn’t get a break,” recalls James McGee, the Orioles’ former team psychologist and one of Wiggins’s few close friends in Baltimore. “He had tragedy throughout his life. He was exposed to the kind of stresses that tend to undo the best of us. There was a kind of heroic streak to Alan, because he was able to contend with adversity for so long, but finally it caught up with him.”
By and large, Wiggins’s former Padres teammates remember him as different and often difficult but nevertheless a big asset to the club. “He was a jerk at times,” says Kurt Bevacqua, an infielder on the ’84 team, adding, “He was an agitator for no reason. Just to get into the conversation, he would say things that didn’t make sense and that would piss guys off. But if you got near Alan Wiggins, you’d find that he did it as a facade.”
Alan Wiggins was born and raised in Pasadena, where his father Albert was one of the first black electrical engineers to work for the city. His mother, Karla, did domestic work, though later became a registered nurse.
Albert and Karla Wiggins divorced when Alan was in the first grade. The divorce was hard on the Wiggins children. Alan and his father gradually drifted apart, not becoming close again until some 20 years later. The impact of the divorce seems evident in Wiggins’s later determination to keep his own marriage together despite recurring problems. Wiggins, friends say, was adamant in his refusal to do to his kids what his parents had done to him.
In interviews with the Washington Post’s Richard Justice (apparently the only reporter that Wiggins trusted enough to grant lengthy interviews), Wiggins was reluctant to discuss his childhood but described it as “hard,” despite a middle-class standard of living and a devoted mother.
Wiggins excelled in Little League and Senior Babe Ruth League, and his family sacrificed to give him whatever baseball equipment he needed. The young Wiggins joked to friends that he’d never have to work a day in his life.
“We used to call him the Wizard,” recalls Warren Hollier, a teammate of his from Little League through high school. “He was good at card games. He could do all kinds of card tricks. He was a good football player. He could beat you at just about anything.
“He was well liked by teammates when I played with him,” says Hollier, who thinks Wiggins’s later failures to connect with other players were a function of both his personality and the nature of professional baseball. “The higher you move up, the more it becomes a business. It gets harder to know people.” And in Wiggins’s case, “If you didn’t know him, you really would have thought he had a chip on his shoulder or was just not a very nice guy.”
Hollier remembers one day at Pasadena Muir High School, when he lent Wiggins his football jersey for an away game in which Wiggins was the quarterback. In an incident after the game, one of Wiggins’s teammates was shot, and blood splattered on the jersey. “When he returned that jersey to me, he just had this look on his face,” says Hollier. “He never played football again.”
As a high school senior, Wiggins read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which had a profound impact on him, both for good and for ill. He continued to study the lives of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad and worked to raise money to fight sickle cell anemia and to send inner-city kids to summer camps. On the other hand, the heightened sensitivity to racism that Wiggins derived from the book never left him, and he was quoted as saying it probably affected his baseball career for the worse.
“He felt the whole world was racist,” says Gary Hyvonen, a sportswriter for the Blade-Citizen in Oceanside. In a recent interview, Tony Attanasio, Wiggins’s San Diego-based former agent, was more circumspect. “Suffice it to say,” he says, “that what Alan thought was racist wasn’t necessarily so.”
Wiggins starred on the diamond in high school and briefly attended Pasadena City College, then the California Angels selected him in the first round of the January 1977 free-agent draft. They released him two months into his second season, after he fought with one of his coaches. The Dodgers signed him as a free agent the following winter, but he only lasted two years with them as well. Despite an extraordinary season in Class A ball in 1980 in which he stole a pro-baseball-record 120 bases (subsequently bettered by Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman) and was voted most likely to succeed in the majors by league managers, the Dodgers left Wiggins unprotected in that December’s major-league draft, most likely related to his drug arrest for marijuana possession that year.
The Padres claimed Wiggins for the $25,000 waiver price. He advanced quickly through the Padres’ minor leagues in spite of another marijuana arrest in 1981 and a tense confrontation with Doug Rader, his manager at AAA Hawaii, whom Wiggins had publicly called a racist. His numbers in AAA were excellent, however, and by May 1982 he was in the majors to stay.
Just two months later, he was arrested in San Diego for possession of a gram of cocaine. The Padres sent him to a drug rehabilitation clinic in Orange County, where he spent a month before returning to the regular lineup. They warned him that his next relapse would be the end of his Padre career.
“I remember after that happened,” Tony Gwynn told a reporter at the time of Wiggins’s funeral, “he sat by me and started telling me about the rehab centers. It-was like he was laughing about it. He was saying how they don’t faze him and told me, ‘You can’t rehab a guy in 28 days, you just can’t do it.’ ”
Wiggins evidently did not take long to relapse. Dick Williams wrote in his autobiography, No More Mr. Nice Guy, “After a night game in 1983, my second year with the Padres, one of the clubhouse guys came up to me with this bag of white powdery stuff. As I stood there speechless, he explained that when he was getting ready to throw Wiggins’s baseball pants in the washing machine, the bag fell out. Unbelievable. The stuff was in the man’s baseball pants!” The news apparently never reached the Padres’ front office. In any event, neither they nor Williams took any disciplinary action, perhaps because of Wiggins’s splendid season, in which he led the team in stolen bases and runs, played an outstanding left field, and even filled in for the injured Steve Garvey at first base during the final two months.
At about this time, Wiggins’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “When his mom kind of lost it, that’s when he started to lose it,” Gwynn told a reporter. “His mom was so proud of his accomplishments. She was kind of like his life-support system. That started his whole slide.”
If Wiggins was under severe personal strain at the time, his play did not reflect it. He followed his strong 1983 season with an even better year in 1984. As the leadoff hitter and catalyst of the Padres’ offense, Wiggins had a career year, batting .258 with 75 walks and playing in all but four games; his 70 steals and 106 runs scored broke his own club records. The distraction he created on the base paths helped Gwynn, who hit .412 with Wiggins on base, win his first batting title. In addition Wiggins made a sudden and successful switch from the outfield to second base in spring training. The move helped the Padres both defensively, since the speedy Wiggins compensated for Garvey’s lack of range on the right-hand side and, offensively, by opening up a spot in left field for power-hitting rookie Carmelo Martinez.
Wiggins saved his best play for the postseason. He hit .316 to help the Padres beat the Chicago Cubs in the National League playoffs and hit .364 in the World Series.
Off the field, Wiggins aided police in community drug-prevention efforts and made several public service announcements. He seemed to have gotten his life together and, at age 26, to be on the verge of stardom. The Padres signed him to a four-year, $2.8 million contract the following February. Wiggins’s future seemed good as gold.
Everything changed on April 25,1985, when Wiggins mysteriously failed to show up for a night game in Los Angeles. No one in the Padres organization had any idea of his whereabouts. Two days later, he was in a drug rehabilitation center for cocaine use. Reports surfaced that Wiggins had been having marital and other personal problems.
Wiggins’s relapse did not sit well with team owner Joan Kroc, who vowed he would not play for the Padres again. The fact that Wiggins was batting .054 (2 for 37), perhaps because of a sprained knee, did not help his case.
The wisdom of Kroc’s decree is debatable. At the time, she herself called it “one of the hardest and toughest decisions we’ve made.” On the one hand, no team would want a drug addict on its roster, and Kroc’s high-profile antidrug activities and the Padres’ stated policy of trading or releasing two-time drug offenders left them with little choice but to get rid of Wiggins.
But on the other hand, the policy itself may have been a mistake. Since a legal agreement between the players and the owners barred teams from taking punitive action against any player who had successfully completed a drug-rehabilitation program and whose offense had not involved an arrest, the Padres did not have free reign to act on their policy. The best they could do was to trade Wiggins, and their eagerness assured they would get virtually nothing in return.
Trading away an indispensable part of their offense in exchange for so little killed any hope of the Padres repeating as division champions that year, as both Williams and general manager Jack McKeon later reflected. The Padres were in first place when they put Wiggins on the trading block but played sub-.500 ball the rest of the way, limping to a tie for third place.
“If it had been [McKeon’s] call,” sportswriter Gary Hyvonen speculates, “he would have come up with some great explanation and kept him.” Wiggins’s teammates were divided. Gwynn told reporters after the trade that he thought Wiggins had been “railroaded” out of town.
In a recent phone interview, Kurt Bevacqua said, “As much as a guy helps your ball club, he has to have the other players behind him.” He drew an analogy between Wiggins and former Padre first baseman Jack Clark (alluding to the Padres’ 1990 season, when Clark’s accusations that Gwynn and Show were selfish players with “a losing attitude about baseball” poisoned the clubhouse atmosphere). “If you ask 100 people what they think of Jack Clark, maybe 50 or 75 will tell you they can’t stand him, and 25 or so will say he’s great. It’s not enough.”
In any event, the Padres’ 1985 decision was personally devastating for Wiggins. Attanasio tried doggedly to persuade Kroc and the Padres’ front office to reconsider. “They didn’t even listen,” he said. “I said, ‘What if the doctor says he not only can play, but must play to preserve his life?’ She said, ‘Fuck him.’ ”
A year after drug scandals involving pitchers Rod Scurry and Steve Howe had rocked baseball, teams were understandably reluctant to take a chance on yet another recovering addict. Two months elapsed before the Padres were able to trade Wiggins to the Baltimore Orioles, whose gaping holes at second base and in the leadoff spot made then-owner Edward Bennett Williams willing to take the risk. The Orioles’ front office thought otherwise, but Williams prevailed.
In a meeting with Attanasio and Wiggins in his office, Williams asked Wiggins point-blank, “Can you assure me that you’ll stay off drugs?” Wiggins told him that he was sober at the time and could only try to stay that way in the future. “Good,” replied Williams, who had dealt with drug abuse in his own family. “Any other answer and this meeting would be over.” Wiggins also met with team psychologist James McGee, who concluded that Wiggins could make it with proper aftercare. The Orioles worked out a deal with the Padres under which the Orioles would assume Wiggins’s contract, and the Padres would receive two marginal prospects in return. Wiggins would be tested regularly for drug use, and the Padres would pay part of Wiggins’s guaranteed salary if he had another relapse.
Wiggins made his Orioles debut on July 7, 1985. Despite a quick start and a decent overall offensive showing in Baltimore, Wiggins failed to catch on with his new teammates or with fans, and 1985 was a painful year for him. The rejection by the Padres still stung, and Wiggins sorely missed his two children and his wife, who was pregnant with a third. “I didn’t have [them] last summer in Baltimore,” he told a reporter the following winter, “and I was depressed and upset the whole time.”
Fans did not take kindly to Wiggins, because of his well-known drug history and his often-sloppy play in the field. Although he stole 30 bases while with the Orioles, he was picked off base nine times. He often refused to run out ground balls. By September many fans in Baltimore booed practically everything he did on the field.
Wiggins’s relationship with the media was similarly chilly. Even in San Diego, he had regarded reporters with distrust, which had sometimes escalated into shouting matches. In Baltimore, where his reputation preceded him and many writers dwelled on his history of drug use and “personality problems,” the animosity between Wiggins and the press was palpable. He would walk up to reporters, pretend to pull a knife out of his back, and say, “Here. You forgot this.”
His acceptance as an Oriole was unlikely from the outset, because of the baggage of negative publicity he carried with him and the fact that he replaced popular ten-year veteran Rich Dauer. Wiggins became increasingly sullen and withdrawn. Few if any of his teammates even realized that he had a wife and kids, let alone that he was sad to be away from them. Aside from outfielder Lee Lacy, a free agent who had arrived in Baltimore just a few months before Wiggins and had a drug conviction of his own, Wiggins was virtually friendless among his new teammates.
The failure to relate with other players was painful for Wiggins. “It’s a horrible thing to be misread by your teammates,” says high school friend Warren Hollier. “Alan was so used to being around guys that knew him. People are quick to judge you sometimes, and I don’t think he had a lot of those kind of experiences growing up in Pasadena. We knew everybody.... He’s the kind of guy that always felt a sense of camaraderie with his teammates.”
“At the end of the ’85 season, Alan came to me and said, ‘How do I make friends with these guys?’ ” recalls Attanasio. “I told him, ‘Open your heart to them, let them see you laugh.’ I prayed that would work, because it hadn’t happened in San Diego or anyplace else he’d been.”
Wiggins tried to make a fresh start in Baltimore. During the off-season he worked out with former Padre teammates and reported to spring training in better shape than he’d been at any point in 1985. In an interview with the Washington Post's Justice that winter, he tried to give fans a more complete picture of himself. He said of his lackadaisical play in 1985, “I made errors, but I made them because my concentration wasn’t there. I know people say, ‘You’re making this huge amount of money, and you should be happy.’ I’m sorry, but life is not like that. I was depressed, and playing that way was my way of expressing it.”
Wiggins began the 1986 season as the team’s regular second baseman and started 50 of the first 63 games. He played superbly during the Orioles’ 21-6 stretch (their best of the season) from May 10 to June 8, hitting .326 and playing errorless defense. On May 29, his average stood at a season-high .292. But relating to teammates was no easier than it had been the year before. One day manager Earl Weaver told the players that he didn’t want them talking to the press during batting practice, adding that if they talked to reporters within 15 feet of the batting cage, they would cross his “line of death.” That day at batting practice, Wiggins drew a line in the dirt with his bat about 15 feet away from the batting cage and said to reporters, “That’s Weaver’s line of death.” His teammates didn’t find the antic funny and later that day threw him against the batting cage.
As Wiggins’s off-field troubles intensified, he became increasingly unable to separate them from his on-field play. His mental game began to unravel. His fielding and baserunning were sloppier than ever, prompting Weaver to tell him (within earshot of reporters), “You are the worst ballplayer I’ve ever seen.” Teammates refused to talk to him, often dispersing when he would walk up. In the midst of an offensive and defensive slump, he was benched and then, on July 25, demoted to AAA. He did not return to the Orioles until September 15 and appeared in only three games, each time as a pinch runner, in the season’s final weeks.
Did Wiggins get a fair chance in 1986? Attanasio doesn’t think so, and neither did Wiggins. “His reaction was devastation and, again, rejection,” says Attanasio. His 6-for-47 slump, though severe, amounted to only about ten games’ worth of playing time. Moreover, though Wiggins did not seem to be the Orioles’ ideal solution at second base, neither did his journeyman replacements — Jackie Gutierrez, a Red Sox castoff who’d batted .218 the previous year, and the rangeless Juan Bonilla, whom, ironically, Wiggins had replaced in San Diego at the beginning of the 1984 season. Despite Wiggins’s frequent mental lapses, he still ended the season with an impressive stolen-base percentage and defensive numbers no worse than those of Gutierrez and Bonilla.
After Wiggins’s mediocre 1986, the Orioles tried desperately to trade him but found no takers. The front office wanted to release him and would have done so if not for owner Williams’s aversion to paying “alimony” to released players with time remaining on their contracts. Instead they kept Wiggins but signed the aging Rick Burleson to shore up their defense at second base.
His baseball career in jeopardy, Wiggins reported to spring training early and in the best shape of his career. He forced his way into the lineup, albeit as the designated hitter, by batting over .400 in spring training. Wiggins hit well enough during the season’s first half to displace Burleson at second base but slumped badly beginning in late June. By mid-July, Wiggins’s fate was sealed, as he lost the second base job to Billy Ripken (son of manager Cal Ripken, Sr.), who was called up on July 11 and played the first of 58 straight games at second on that day. Ripken batted better than .300 that summer and played excellent defense; and on a team with several outfielder/designated hitter-types, Wiggins saw little playing time.
Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, then a coach with the Orioles, wrote in his autobiography. Extra Innings, that Wiggins exhibited several episodes of “bizarre behavior” that season and that in retrospect he thinks they were attributable to drugs. When Wiggins lost his starting job, he “began taking out his frustrations on everyone in the ball club.” Several times, fights nearly broke out between Wiggins and various teammates.
“I had seen many players react badly to not playing,” wrote Robinson, “but never one who went around attacking everyone in the ball club the way Wiggins did.” Robinson also noted that Wiggins had violated some of his prescribed aftercare, such as not drinking alcohol, which he often did on the team plane. (Wiggins had said in 1985 that alcohol was part of his addiction.)
The situation came to a head in Milwaukee on August 5, when Wiggins got into an altercation with teammate Jim Dwyer during batting practice. The two were separated after several minutes, and Wiggins was escorted into the Orioles’ clubhouse to talk with Ripken Sr. An argument ensued, in which Wiggins was overheard telling Ripken Sr., “Fuck you, man,” and Ripken Sr. claimed that Wiggins grabbed his shirt (an allegation that Wiggins denied). The Orioles suspended Wiggins for three days.
Wiggins’s behavior prompted the Orioles to request that his drug tests be administered more frequently. Wiggins failed at least one drug test in August, and the commissioner’s office suspended him indefinitely and without pay on August 31. A month later the Orioles released him after agreeing to pay him about two-thirds of the near-$1 million remaining on his contract.
His baseball career over, Wiggins returned to San Diego. Soon he began to suffer from complications due to AIDS. He began losing weight and gradually withdrew from all but a few of his friends. “His life was in a downhill mode and he knew it,” says Attanasio. “Nobody else did.”
The deferred payments on his contract were more than enough to support a comfortable lifestyle. Wiggins spent much of his free time fishing and playing golf but also found time to make extensive preparations for his children’s future. He frequently visited the library to study zoning laws and other aspects of the real-estate market. He bought a house in Rancho Penasquitos for $414,000 in June 1988 and sold it two years later for $657,000.
“In this business I’ve seen a lot of people die, but no one who so planned his death out to the minute,” says Attanasio. “As he was going down, he said, ‘Do this. Do that....’ He made all kinds of preparations for his kids.”
As his health deteriorated, Wiggins was hospitalized several times in 1990. He put his Poway home on the market and moved to Pasadena, staying with friends and family. On November 29, Wiggins began coughing violently and had trouble breathing. His family took him to the hospital, and he did not return. He drifted in and out of consciousness. Thirty-seven days later, he was dead.
The reported cause of death was pneumonia and other complications caused by AIDS. The first major leaguer ever to die of AIDS, Wiggins weighed less than 75 pounds at the time of his death. Of his former major-league teammates, only Lee Lacy and Steve Garvey were present at his memorial service. Two members of the 1984 Padres were supposed to be pallbearers but failed to show up.
Baseball was rife with illegal drug use when Wiggins began his pro career; former Padre teammate Andy Hawkins once told a reporter that when he started in the minors, he had difficulty fitting in because he didn’t use drugs. The question of why Wiggins started using drugs probably matters less than the fact that he couldn’t stop. Clearly, Wiggins’s inclination toward addiction was more severe than most people’s. Wiggins said in his public statements that his addiction was something he had no control over.
“I am different,” JH Eric Show told a H reporter in 1987. “I’m entirely different.” Many people “think of me as an enigma wrapped in a question surrounded by a riddle.” Few would disagree.
Show was often criticized for not making the most of his baseball talents. Every year, people in the Padres organization would say that Show had the stuff to win 20 games in a season, and every year he fell well short. Pat Dobson, the former Padre pitching coach with whom Show feuded repeatedly, once quipped that Show couldn’t pitch right unless the “moons of Remulak were aligned.”
Many of those who played with him thought he took a cavalier attitude toward the game, and Show made no secret of the fact that baseball was only one of his passions in life, others being politics, philosophy, physics, and jazz guitar. He often told reporters and teammates that he played baseball rather than doing something else because it paid the most money. “He’d piss me off so bad because of his nonchalant attitude, that baseball was just how he made his living,” Kurt Bevacqua told the Union-Tribune’s Chris Jenkins.
Yet Show is still the Padres’ all-time winningest pitcher, with 100 victories, and had a winning record in seven of his nine seasons with the team. Not bad for an 18th-round draft pick.
Eric Show was born on May 19, 1956, in Riverside. His inquisitive nature was evident at an early age. According to one story, when he was seven he pointed to the clear night sky and told his mother, “Mom, there’s something out there beyond those stars and that moon, and I’m going to find the answer.”
The young Show wanted to be a doctor and would draw diagrams of the human body on the back of his homework. As a fourth-grader, he fashioned a three-dimensional foam rubber model of the human digestive system, a model that the Riverside school system used for years.
Petra Lakes, a friend of Show’s in junior high and at Ramona High School, remembers him as “very into his music” and said, “Back then he didn’t seem so troubled.” A mostly self-taught guitarist, Show was giving paid lessons to others at age 14. He told an interviewer that for most of his high school career, he was better known as a musician than as a jock.
Show also described himself as “wild” during his high school years. “I was prevented from getting involved with drugs because of my strict upbringing by my father concerning that subject. But I was wild in every other respect.”
Show’s father, Les, an engineer with little athletic ability, also pushed him to be an honors student and to make the most of his baseball talent. “In school, if I didn’t come home with As, he would take away my record player and my guitars and everything I liked and make me be at home when he came home from work, at which time he’d take me out and make me play catch. Then make me return to do homework.... I’m eternally grateful for that.”
Still, Show and his father were frequently at odds. His parents divorced while he was in high school, and Show and his father became estranged. “He wanted to be closer to him,” Mark Augustin, Show’s partner in a guitar shop in San Diego and one of his closest friends, told a reporter. “I think there was a void there that Eric desperately wanted filled. His father really pushed him hard to play ball. If it wasn’t for his father, he never would have been a major-league ballplayer. But being a major-league ballplayer is not everything.”
“He had a very difficult father,” Jack Smitheran, Show’s college baseball coach, told reporter Ira Berkow. “He was extremely result-oriented. One time he stuck his head in the dugout and began talking to Eric. I don’t know what he said, but it was after Eric had thrown a bad inning. I told him to leave.”
Show’s four years at UC Riverside are probably best described as restless. “There was so much going through his mind, he couldn’t stay focused on one thing,” Smitheran told a reporter. He flirted with three different majors, switching from premed to biology to physics; but, ironically, the man whose teammates called him “Professor” never actually graduated. He stopped going to class his senior year, choosing instead to occupy his time with baseball in the daytime (including tutoring several teammates so they could maintain their academic eligibility) and jazz guitar at night.
After being, as he put it, “baptized into” several different religions — including Catholicism, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and the occult — Show was “born-again” as a fundamentalist Christian in his senior year at UC Riverside. Show also met his wife, Cara Mia, while in college.
The Padres picked Show in the 18th round of the 1978 draft. Show pitched well in the minors and by 1981 was in the majors to stay. The following year, in his first full season with the Padres, he went 10-6 with three saves. The Padres made him a full-time starter in 1983, and Show led the team with 15 wins. The expectations grew. Padre officials watched Show’s wicked slider and plus-fastball and said he had the stuff to be a 20-game winner. “If you knocked about 40 or 50 points off his intelligence,” says Kurt Bevacqua, “he probably could have been.”
Show’s early major-league success did little to quell some inner demons. Upon seeing his first baseball card, Show felt no pride. Instead, he told Mike Macintosh, a San Diego Police Department chaplain at the time, who was one of his confidants, “I didn’t look like Mickey Mantle, and I was mad.”
Steve Greenberg, Show’s longtime agent, says Show’s “tragic flaw” was evident early on. “I think there was a lot of angst there,” he says. “It always occurred to me that Eric had been fighting for some time a personal battle.... He anguished over all sorts of details in his life.”
Show quickly established a reputation as an oddball in the Padres’ clubhouse. Tony Gwynn remembers, in his book Tony!, that on one night in August 1982, when he and Show were both on the Padres’ bench, Show turned to him and started quizzing him on American history and politics. “ I’m going to ask you 10 basic questions that every American should be able to answer,’ he said. And he began to ask things like, ‘Who was the fifth president?’ And I couldn’t answer.”
Show brought his Gibson guitar along on the road. In the hotels where the team stayed, Show would sometimes join the hotel lounge bands on-stage to play lead guitar. At one point during his baseball career, he would even find time to cut an album, America in 4/4 Time.
Still, Show was basically a loner on the team. None of his closest friends were teammates, “although I feel I could trust Dave Dravecky and Storm Davis,” Show said in 1987. “It’s not that I don’t trust the other guys, it’s just that I don’t know them that well.” At the time of that interview, Show had been with the Padres for six years.
“He always thought he was -above everybody else,” says Whitey Wietelmann, long-time clubhouse assistant (now retired). But Wietelmann says he never saw Show as a troubled person.
Sportswriters loved Show’s candor and colorfulness and, indeed, he seemed to relate better to reporters than to teammates. One local beat writer said, “Most players you interview just give you the usual clichés, and pitchers — you can’t even talk to them on the day they’re supposed to pitch. But Show would be accessible and ready to talk about anything, even 15 minutes before game time.”
The Padres’ 1984 season, in which Show led the team in wins and innings pitched, established him as one of the league’s dominant pitchers and gave him a national reputation as one of the game’s most bizarre characters. That August, Show appeared with teammates Dave Dravecky and Mark Thurmond at a John Birch Society booth at the Del Mar Fair.
The resulting controversy soon rubbed off of Dravecky and Thurmond, but the more outspoken Show became something of a media freak. Small wonder, considering that his locker was decorated with slogans like “KICK RUSSIA’S ASS” and, next to a peace sign, “WARNING: HITLER USED IT TOO.” Show seemed to relish the attention. “For too long, the media has been singing the praises of misguided left-wing jocks,” he told Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated. “Now it’s time for a new direction.”
He told another reporter that before latching onto the John Birch Society in 1981, “I’d exhausted all the possibilities. I could see the vacant progression of modern thought from reading Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Kierkegaard.”
“I used to tell him he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was,” jokes the Yale- and UCLA Law School-educated Greenberg, “and he’d laugh.”
Before the National League Championship series, Show shrugged off the pressure of pitching against the league’s topscoring team by saying, “Pressure isn’t a baseball game. Pressure is an atheist dying and meeting God.”
Although most of the Padres performed poorly in the World Series, Show was tagged with the “choker” label to a much greater degree than any other player. His ERA in the 1984 postseason was over ten. In his three starts he went a total of eight innings and gave up seven home runs. Local broadcasters started calling him Eric “Longball” Show.
His career over the next few years was checkered, marked by disappointingly low win totals and well-publicized disputes with teammates and managers. He developed a reputation for stubbornness, for being his own pitching coach.
“He tried to be perfect,” says Bevacqua. “I guess everything that he did in life, he did well. He pitched well, but he didn’t pitch as well as he did everything else. He never realized that you can’t be perfect in this game.”
Greenberg agrees. “He clearly was a perfectionist in his career,” he says. “And perfectionists, by definition, fail, because nobody’s perfect.”
A couple of months into the 1985 season, Show had become the target of boo-birds at Jack Murphy Stadium, after three straight bad starts. But Show believed his unpopularity stemmed from his outspokenness about some political issues that were themselves unpopular. Reporters, especially those who did not know Show, were quick to jump on him, and so were many fans.
“What do they say about paranoids?” asks Greenberg. “Sometimes somebody really is out to get them. Candidly, he carried his life out in a way that was misunderstood by a lot of people.”
“I know people who hope I lose every game because they don’t like what I say about God and politics, and I just can’t understand that mentality,” Show once told a reporter. “The illusion of pluralism in our political society is so shallow and so phony that it actually disgusts me that people believe in it, but they do.”
Show added to his reputation for controversy by having the bad luck to be on the mound that September when Pete Rose got his record-breaking 4192nd hit and then having the bad judgment to sit sullenly on the mound while the Cincinnati fans gave Rose a 20-minute ovation. (To his credit, Show did walk over to first base to shake Rose’s hand, but his pouting is what most people remembered.)
After a scuffle between Show and outfielder Carmelo Martinez in that same game, teammates went after Show in the media. Flannery angrily told a reporter, “When something goes wrong, he quits. That’s why runs aren’t scored behind him. Guys don’t want to play for him. It’s gotten to the point where it’s sickening.”
Show said later, in reference to his troubles with teammates, “I’m very, very hard on myself. Part of the problem is that a lot of these things I demand of myself, I demand of other people, too. This creates a misunderstanding a lot of times.”
Show and his teammates patched up their dispute, and he ended the season with personal bests in earned-run average (as a starter) and innings pitched. That year his 23 quality starts (an outing in which a pitcher goes at least six innings and allows three or fewer earned runs) were among the tops in the National League. But with low run support and an ineffective Padre bullpen, he finished with only a 12-11 record. (Cincinnati’s Tom Browning, by contrast, had the same number of quality starts but won 20 games that year.)
He got off to a superb start in 1986, but the booing at home games continued. For a time he stopped talking to reporters, explaining later, “I felt that if they’re going to write bad things about me, they could do it without my help.”
“I say this only partially facetiously — Eric needed a press agent,” says Steve Greenberg. “I think the public saw only one side of Eric.” For the most part, reports of his charitable works did not come out until after his death.
Show missed almost the entire second half of the 1986 season with an elbow injury and had his ultimate hard-luck year in 1987, going 8-16 despite a not-so-bad 3.84 ERA. His run support was the least of any of the Padres’ full-time starters. Once again, the season was also marred by widely reported discord between Show and some teammates.
Show later asked to be traded. McKeon told him the Padres would try to accommodate his request, but, for whatever reason, they never did. Asked about the disputes with teammates in an interview that July, the ever-quotable Show replied, “I came dangerously close to imitating those pusillanimous individuals I’m attempting to repudiate.”
On July 7,1987, Show was in the spotlight once again when he hit the Cubs’ Andre Dawson in the mouth with a pitch. The beaning incited two brawls, and Show had to leave the game for his own safety. The incident made it onto the national evening news and the cover of Sports Illustrated. Show insisted that the beaning was an accident, but Dawson didn’t believe him and neither did Cub fans. In the wake of the incident, Show received death threats, which terrified him. “Sometimes he said he thought someone might take a shot at him from out of the stands,” said Hyvonen.
Show had one of the best seasons of his career in 1988, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the final year of his contract. He went 16-11 with a 3.26 ERA and led the team in innings pitched for the fifth time in six years. He called the year a breakthrough and said he had finally learned that his perfectionist attitude had worked against him. The Padres rewarded the 32-year-old Show with a multiyear contract, and he finally began to feel appreciated by the organization.
But soon things went wrong. He missed the entire second half of the 1989 season with a back injury, which required surgery, and he received cortisone injections for the lingering pain. A few associates speculate that those shots may have led him to seek greater and greater relief, culminating in his eventual drug addiction.
Whatever the case, Show’s behavior did take a bizarre turn at about that time. Over the course of the 1989 season, he changed his phone number several times, to the bafflement of teammates. In one game he deliberately threw nothing but slow pitches and got hammered. Jerome Holtzman, a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune, asked then-Padre manager Jack McKeon about Show’s performance and was told, “Eric was experimenting. That’s Eric.”
“My sense is that the decline in his career precipitated the personal problems he had,” says Greenberg, who stresses that such a pattern is by no means unusual among pro athletes.
Show was woefully ineffective in 1990, losing his first six decisions and finishing 6-8 with a 5.76 ERA, mostly as a reliever. Off the field, Show’s season was most notable for screaming matches with teammates, disputes with management, and late arrivals. A team meeting in which first baseman Jack Clark accused Show and Gwynn of being selfish players drew headlines and clouded the rest of the Padres’ season.
After a road game in Houston, in which Show was a last-minute scratch as the starting pitcher, he lashed out at the Padres organization, demanding to be traded-or released. He said, “There’s been a lot of backstabbing, talking behind my back, and I’m really tired of it all.” He called his relationship with pitching coach Pat Dobson “manic-depressive.” He said of the Padres, “I wasn’t on any of the things they feature. I’ve never been on the cover of their magazine, never in the calendar, never been in nothing.
“I don’t care about that,” he said rather disingenuously, “it’s just an indication that when I add up the whole ball of wax, they don’t really give a damn about me and I don’t think they have for a while.” The Padres bought out the rest of Show’s contract after the season.
Show appeared washed up to many, but the Oakland A’s— whose pitching coach, Dave Duncan, had made successful reclamation projects out of several seemingly marginal veteran pitchers — took a chance on him. Two months after his release by the Padres, the A’s gave him a two-year, $ 1.6 million contract.
Show’s first season with the A’s was dismal and injury-plagued, however. Rumors surfaced that Show, who didn’t even drink (except with dinner) while he was with the Padres, had developed a drug habit. In the off-season he moved in with Oakland’s team chaplain Scott Ruiz for several days of intensive prayer and discussion. It was later learned that their efforts focused on conquering Show’s burgeoning crystal methamphetamine habit.
A widely reported incident in spring training of 1992 left few doubts that Show had a drug problem. Show7 was AWOL from camp for three days and then showed up with bandages on both of his hands. He declined to tell the A’s management what happened, and club officials told him not to come back until he did. He later said he had cut his hands climbing a barbed-wire fence while escaping from two assailants at a convenience store. Police officers in Arizona told A’s officials a different story, saying that Show had been behaving strangely in front of an adult bookstore and fled when the police approached and that they caught him as he was trying to climb a barbed-wire fence.
The A’s released him after the incident, ending his baseball career. Show lost touch with his baseball friends and many family friends as well. Former teammate Craig Lefferts told a reporter that he left numerous phone messages for Show, but he never called back.
Asked where Show focused his energies after his baseball career ended in 1992, Mark Augustin said, “Sobriety.” As Show’s involvement with crystal meth worsened, he had several stays in rehab centers, including the Betty Ford Clinic.
On July 17,1993, San Diego police found a man screaming for help near an auto parts shop on Market Street, near Tenth Avenue. The man said people were out to kill him. When the police told him they were going to search him for weapons, he began to flail about violently, and the officers handcuffed him. After being handcuffed, he ran away from the officers, into the heavy traffic on Market. Officers tackled him and sprayed him with Mace and put him in a police car. He kicked out a window and propelled himself headfirst onto the pavement. They sprayed him again with Mace and later took him to County Mental Health. In detention the man identified himself as Eric Show.
The police officers told reporters that throughout the ordeal Show had begged them to shoot him. Show later admitted he had done “quite a bit of crystal methamphetamine” that night.
In his final months, Show stayed with friends for weeks at a time. A week before his death he wrote a letter to his wife in which he announced he was moving on to a new stage of life. He visited his father, who by then had been hospitalized with Alzheimer’s disease, in order to make his final peace with him.
“When I last saw him, he looked really tired, just burned,” says Augustin, who saw Show just before he checked into the Rancho L’Abri rehabilitation center in Dulzura. “He told me, ‘If this place doesn’t work out, I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ He would say things like that.”
Show spent a month at the rehab center and checked out on March 14. A staff member’s report said he seemed “anxious” to go and left despite being urged not to. The next night he called the center from his home in suburban San Diego. He told them he had been “using” and asked them to take him back to the center.
“I’m weary,” he said upon arriving. “I have to lie down.” The next morning he was found dead in his bed. Under his pillow was a loaded .22-caliber revolver.
According to the county coroner’s office, Show died of an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He was buried in a green coffin, with a cross around his neck. Also in the coffin were his guitar, his baseball glove, and a ball.
Mark Augustin compares Show’s battles with drugs to the struggles described by the apostle Paul in Romans 7:5-25. Those verses include the lines, “What happens is that I do, not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not intend.... So with my mind I serve the law of God but with my flesh the law of sin.”
“Why was he so passionate about things?” Augustin asks rhetorically. “It’s ironic, the word ‘passionate’ comes from Latin and is the past participle of a word that, literally translated, means ‘to suffer.’ ”
“He was smart enough not to do drugs,” police chaplain Mike Macintosh told a reporter. “And he hated it. But it confirmed that he had a weakness, a flaw. He was struggling to please everybody and be perfect, and he just couldn’t be. He tried to be a good college student, a good friend, a good husband. He was always real intensive. But when he would see his flaws and weaknesses, he’d beat himself over the head, trying to say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do more.’
Dravecky: “In America, Christians pray for the burden of suffering to be lifted from their backs. In the rest of the world, Christians pray for strong backs so they can bear their suffering.” Instead of just enjoying, he was always struggling. He couldn’t turn his mind off.”
Dave Dravecky was well known among baseball fans in the mid-’80s as a successful pitcher for the Padres and the San Francisco Giants. But his dramatic yet ultimately aborted comeback from cancer in his pitching arm catapulted him to celebrity status. But that attention and Dravecky’s newfound role as an inspiration to others brought stresses of their own.
Dave Dravecky grew up in Boardman, Ohio, a suburb of Youngstown. He was the oldest of five sons in a close-knit Catholic family. His father ran, and still runs, a machine shop.
Dravecky fell in love with baseball at an early age and played in Little League, Pony League, Colt League, and for Boardman High School. He lacked the dominating stuff to attract much attention from major-league scouts or college baseball recruiters, however, and instead enrolled at Youngstown State University. He married his high school sweetheart, Janice Roh, after graduation. At about the same time, Dravecky was taken in the 21st round of the 1978 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
John Stuper, who roomed with Dravecky that summer during their first season of pro ball and is currently the baseball coach at Yale University, remembers Dravecky as “a very hard worker and very determined” and “a guy that everybody on the team liked.”
Dravecky’s determination did not translate into a quick ascent to the majors, though. After that first season, he spent two years at AA Buffalo, and the Pirates’ farm director said Dravecky would never make it as a big league starter. They traded him to the Padres, but Padre general manager Jack McKeon also thought Dravecky was a long shot.
Dravecky maintains that such talk only strengthened his resolve to get to the majors. His former Padre teammates and associates remember him as an uncommonly compassionate person, but Dravecky says now, “I would have to say that a lot of those people have known me at a time in my life when there may have been moments of compassion, but back then I had a very difficult time tolerating weakness in others. I had struggled to get to the majors and pitched in pain many times. That experience hardened me.”
When the Padres acquired Dravecky in 1981, they assigned him to their Class AA team in Amarillo. Dravecky did not relish the prospect of a third year in AA, let alone in a town with so few amenities, but his year would be a turning point. Manager Ernie Watt taught him to throw a cut fastball and to pitch inside more often; Dravecky says that “what he taught me up here in my head,” the mental game, was perhaps most important of all. The 25-year-old Dravecky parlayed those lessons into an outstanding season (15-5,2.67 ERA) and was selected the Padres’ minor-league player of the year. At the same time, a “born-again” experience represented a spiritual breakthrough for Dravecky, who, until then, had considered himself only a nominally religious person.
Two months into that season, the Padres called Dravecky up to the majors. Appearing mostly in relief, he finished 5-3, with two saves and a 2.57 ERA in 105 innings. The Padres used him exclusively as a starter in 1983, and his strong first half earned him a spot on the National League All-Star team. He finished the season with 14 wins.
A shoulder injury had sidelined Dravecky for the last six weeks of the ’83 season, and he began the 1984 season in the bullpen. He regained his strength and had bumped Hawkins from the starting rotation by late June. As of August 2, his ERA was down to a league-leading 2.23.
Dravecky raised some eyebrows that month when he appeared with Eric Show and Mark Thurmond at a John Birch Society booth at the Del Mar Fair. Back home in Boardman, his parents were stunned. His father said, “Well, it’ll ruin his career.” Yet after the 1984 season, most people remembered the Padres’ Bircher contingent as “Eric Show and those other two guys.” Upbeat where Show was moody, reserved where Show was outspoken, Dravecky was little tarnished by the controversy.
Dravecky was on the mound when the Padres clinched the division title in September, but he performed best under the pressure of the postseason. He allowed five hits and no runs in 10 and 2/3 innings in relief against the Cubs in the playoffs and the Tigers in the series.
Dravecky’s former teammates and associates on the Padres club remember him as an intense competitor with an excellent mental game. “He was also a very compassionate and sensitive guy,” remembers Andy Strasberg, the Padres’ vice president of game operations and special events. Says Bruce Bochy, former catcher (and current Padres manager), “He was as balanced as a human can get.”
Bill Center of the Union-Tribune remembers a Padres-Giants game in which Dravecky twice struck out a rookie batter. After the game, a friend told Dravecky he thought the rookie was going to be demoted to the minors. “Dave was really hurt by that,” he said.
Over the next three years, Dravecky quietly established a reputation as one of baseball’s better left-handed pitchers, and his attitude drew raves. “Here is one of the world’s greatest positive thinkers,” the Los Angeles Times’s Tom Friend wrote. “His attitude is his best attribute.”
To the dismay of many, the Padres traded Dravecky to the San Francisco Giants in July 1987 in a seven-player deal. The Giants won the NL West title that year; Dravecky was the staff ace, helping them down the stretch with seven wins. The Giants lost the playoffs in seven games to St. Louis, but Dravecky was outstanding in that series, pitching a two-hit shutout in game two and losing 1-0 to Cardinals ace John Tudor in game six.
The following January, Dravecky noticed a small lump on his left arm. It did not hurt, but just to be cautious, he went to Scripps Clinic for a CAT scan and MRI. The tests indicated the lump was probably benign.
Dravecky was the Giants’ opening-day pitcher in 1988 but made only six starts that year before going on the disabled list. His next start, on May 28, was his last of the season. That June he had arthroscopic surgery.
In September a follow-up MRI and biopsy revealed the lump, by then as large as a golf ball, to be a cancerous tumor. To excise the tumor that October, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio had to cut away half the deltoid muscle in Dravecky’s pitching arm. To kill any remaining cancerous cells, the doctors froze part of the upper-arm bone. That procedure unavoidably killed some of the healthy cells in his arm as well. The surgeon told Jan Dravecky, “Short of a miracle, he’ll never pitch again.”
Undaunted, Dravecky told his doctor before the operation, “I believe in a God who can do miracles,” and that “if God wants me to pitch, I’ll be out there.”
“I was enough of a realist to know that the odds were against my coming back,” Dravecky wrote in his first book, Comeback. “I knew I might not make it. My part, I believed, was to do everything possible, to try with all my might. Then, if I couldn’t pitch, God would have other, better things for me to do. My faith in a personal God released me from the fear of failing. That’s not fatalism. It’s trust. Trust helped me to work hard and not to worry about the outcome.”
Dravecky began physical therapy almost immediately. By January 9 his doctors were sufficiently impressed — and astonished — by his progress that they gave him permission to start throwing a football in preparation for the less natural motion of throwing a baseball. By late June he was able to throw a baseball hard and without pain.
In a simulated game the next month, Dravecky’s pitches were clocked as high as 85 miles an hour, near his normal velocity. His doctors and the Giants’ physical therapist were at a loss to explain how he was able to pitch with basically the same motion as he had used before, even though his deltoid muscle was practically nonserviceable.
After a minor-league rehabilitation assignment in which he pitched three complete games, Dravecky made his first start for the Giants in more than a year on August 10. That night, he had a one-hitter through seven innings before giving way to the Giants’ bullpen in the eighth.
“The day he pitched that comeback game is a day I’ll never forget as long as I live,” Giants manager Roger Craig told the press. “As many games as I’ve seen — and I was there when Don Larsen pitched that perfect game in the 1956 World Series — this was even more incredible.” Dravecky’s comeback made him into something of a national treasure. (For example, Comeback contains words of praise for his character from Presidents Reagan and Bush.)
After the game, he described the comeback as a miracle from God and thanked Jesus for allowing him to pitch again. This offended some people, but Dravecky now says, “I think it’s important to realize that I didn’t just sit in a rocking chair and pray that I’d be able to come back. God didn’t lift the weights for me or do the physical therapy. But my faith in God was the motivating factor for me wanting to try.”
In his next start, in Montreal against the Expos, he had a shutout through five innings but noticed a tingling sensation in his left arm. Ignoring his doctor’s advice to rest his arm if he felt any discomfort, he returned to the mound in the sixth inning. As he delivered a pitch to the third Expo batter of the inning, his arm snapped. “It sounded as though someone had snapped a heavy tree branch,” he said later.
The end of his comeback brought him even greater fame than the comeback itself. The televised footage of his arm breaking was played repeatedly on newscasts. Dravecky received countless interview requests as well as several movie proposals.
“With my arm breaking, the focus had shifted,” Dravecky wrote. “The press had written about my comeback as a miracle, but what could they call this? The opposite of a miracle?... Before, they had told the world about my physical recovery. Now they reported on my attitude, as if that were more mysterious and aweinspiring than my arm.”
From that point on, the spotlight never really stopped shining on Dravecky. Dave and Jan continued to be deluged with letters, many from people offering encouragement and their prayers, others from people seeking encouragement for their own struggles. The Draveckys tried to respond to these requests, but there were more of them than they could handle.
The break ended his season, but with the Giants caught up in an exciting pennant race, Dravecky was back in uniform ten days later with his arm in a sling to cheer on his teammates. (Coincidentally, the team the Giants edged out for the division title was the Padres, who finished just three games back.)
Despite the outpouring of public sympathy and admiration, Dravecky and his wife found that fall a trying period. “The weeks around the 1989 playoffs were extremely difficult for Janice and me, more difficult than anything we’d encountered after my surgery,” Dravecky wrote in Comeback. “As time went on I became more and more difficult to live with.”
The pain of the fracture was still intense enough to preclude Dravecky’s getting a good night’s sleep. He also hated the feeling of physical helplessness — having to be bathed by his wife, not being able to play on his pennant-contending team. Further, the innumerable letters and speaking requests became burdensome. As he tells the story, he became moody, withdrawn, and cantankerous.
Worse was yet to come. When the Giants defeated the Cubs in the National League playoffs in October, Dravecky ran out to join the Giants’ on-field celebration. During that celebration, someone fell on his left arm, breaking it again. Eighteen days later doctors at the Cleveland Clinic found a new lump in his left arm, which was probably cancerous. A second comeback attempt, they said, would likely result in further injury.
Dravecky announced his retirement from baseball that November. Asked of his future plans, he said he had begun work on a book and, after that, “we’ll just go from there.” Most of all, he looked forward to being at home with his family and leading a normal life.
Retirement did not slow the demands on Dravecky’s time. He and Jan moved back to Boardman, where tens of thousands of letters filled their garage. The phone rang continuously. Suffering people around the globe came to view Dravecky as an inspiration. He continued to receive numerous personal requests from strangers, for example, “Please give my ten-year-old nephew a call. He’s just been diagnosed as having terminal cancer.” “I need to talk with you desperately, Dave. Please call right away.” “My neighbor has cancer and doesn’t know the Lord....” The burden of responding, or not responding, to such demands was stultifying.
Finishing his book (which he wrote with Tim Stafford) in time for opening day of the next season, the normal release date of most baseball books, demanded an intensive effort. So did Dravecky’s busy schedule of interviews and speaking engagements. The demands on his time began to feel even more overwhelming.
“We weren’t trying to be martyrs,” Dravecky said in a recent telephone interview. “I think anyone would have done what we did, or would have wanted to, or would have made an attempt to.” Obviously, he said, he and his wife did not foresee the consequences of overextending themselves.
An MRI in November 1989 left no doubt that the new lump in Dravecky’s left arm was cancerous. His second surgery came on January 4, 1990, at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, followed by radiation treatment.
The relentless activity put a major strain on the Draveckys’ marriage. That winter, Jan Dravecky fell into a serious depression, which the couple was ill prepared to deal with. In addition to the demands on their time, she had also been stricken by the deaths of her parents and a host of other stresses, such as dealing with her husband’s new fame and the fear that his cancer would spread.
Jan Dravecky did not seek counseling for her depression for more than a year. Her husband and officials of their fundamentalist Protestant church said her depression stemmed from a lack of faith and forbade her to seek such help. She writes that her husband had “all the bedside manner of a Marine drill sergeant.” He writes that his attitude toward her struggle “was the same attitude I had as an athlete: Suck it up!”
A few months into 1990, the cancer in Dravecky’s arm reoccurred. He underwent ten hours of surgery for a third time on May 8 to clean out an ulcerated hole that had appeared on his left arm and had widened to the point that Dravecky lost several square inches of skin and the bone was exposed.
Through it all, though, Dravecky had one advantage in his struggles: a close-knit and supportive family. After his third surgery in May 1990, his parents took care of him and Jan, still suffering from depression, and their children.
That fall, Dravecky was hindered by a staph infection that started in his arm and spread to his whole body, leaving him with flu-like symptoms. He spent five days in the hospital and five weeks at home, hooked up to an IV to receive antibiotics. The staph infection persisted for seven months, sometimes abating, sometimes worsening. Not only was the pain tremendous, but the infection created another hole in his arm, from which blood and fluid leaked every day.
The middle of 1991 brought two major turning points for the Draveckys. First, they agreed to try personal counseling with a Christian psychologist. Then on June 18, Dave Dravecky’s left arm was amputated, along with his shoulder and shoulder blade.
Tim Flannery recalls, “He told me, ‘The best nine days of my life’ — and I was expecting him to say the All-Star game or the World Series or the National League playoffs — ‘were when I got my arm amputated, because it touched so many people.’ That says a lot about him.”
Dravecky says of that hospital stay, “I think it brought into perspective those things that are really important in life” — namely, he says, his relationship with God and his identity as a husband and father. In the cancer ward of the hospital, “I came face to face with what people are really suffering with. These people were fighting for their lives.”
A few months after the surgery, he began experiencing severe stomach pains and cluster headaches. He feared the stomach pains might indicate a new tumor. He felt “phantom pains” in the nerves that had been connected to his amputated arm. He kept up his busy schedule, flying from city to city to appear as an inspirational speaker, but the job was increasingly wearying. He writes of an October 1991 road trip, “By the end of that time I was hanging on by a thread. When I arrived home for the weekend, the thread broke, and I crashed. I was shaking, constipated, nauseated, and had all sorts of strange internal pains. I walked around the house like a zombie, totally exhausted.”
When Dravecky woke up the next morning and couldn’t get out of bed, Jan Dravecky recognized the symptoms of depression. He agreed with her diagnosis and told her he suddenly realized how she must have felt during her own depression.
Dravecky writes, “Suddenly all the feelings I had buried for so long began coming to the surface. I was sick of not being able to fit into my clothes because of all the weight I had gained. I was sick of being a hypocrite. I was on the road giving people the impression I had it all together, when here I was at home with the wheels falling off my life.”
Despite his wife’s comfort and their new level of understanding, Dravecky’s depression lasted several months. The depression was diagnosed as a consequence of burnout. The stomach pains turned out to be an ulcer, which Dravecky believes was brought on by his medication and by stress.
Addressing a group the following month, Dravecky found himself unable to give the inspirational speech he had been delivering all over the country. Instead, he told them about his current situation — about his depression and the guilt he felt for not practicing what he was preaching about the importance of family.
“The response of the men was incredible,” he writes. “When I got back to my hotel room, I felt this tremendous sense of relief, I felt set free from the public perception of who Dave Dravecky was. He wasn’t this able-to-leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound Super-Christian. He was human. He had doubts and fears and hurts in his life, just like anybody else.”
To treat his depression, Dravecky underwent counseling. He drastically and permanently cut back his schedule of speaking appearances. To make the task of responding to the still-staggering volume of letters and personal requests they received more manageable, the Draveckys started the Dave Dravecky Foundation, a nonprofit “ministry of encouragement.”
Dave and Jan Dravecky finished work on When You Can’t Come Back in early 1992. He describes it as “less of a book, actually, and more of a journal kept by two weary people who trudged often out of step with each other, through a desolate wilderness.”
The wilderness metaphor is perhaps typical of the strong religious character of the book. Dravecky quotes often from scripture and also from such religious intellectuals as Albert Schweitzer and C.S. Lewis. He argues that suffering builds character, but he refuses to believe that his own tragedy was a deliberate act of God designed either to punish him or to fulfill a larger purpose. In making that argument, he backs away from his earlier statement that his comeback was a miracle from God.
“Someone once said the difference between American Christianity and Christianity as it is practiced in the rest of the world has to do with how each views suffering. In America, Christians pray for the burden of suffering to be lifted from their backs. In the rest of the world, Christians pray for strong backs so they can bear their suffering.”
Today, nearly four years after the amputation, the cancer has not reoccurred. Dravecky’s name rarely appears in the news anymore, but his celebrity has dimmed little. “I’m getting more autograph requests now than when I played the game,” he says.
The ministry has been relocated to Colorado Springs and renamed Dave Dravecky’s Outreach of Hope. The ministry and speaking engagements continue to occupy most of Dravecky’s working hours. “I still have my conservative views,” he says, but he finds little time for any political involvement beyond voting. “Frankly, my plate is too full.”
This year, he says, he will make a total of 24 speaking appearances, which would have been about two months’ worth in 1991. “We’re realizing you can’t solve the world’s problems overnight,” he says. Sounding very much like the ballplayer he once was, he adds, “You have to deal with it one day at a time, one person at a time, one letter at a time.”