Dravecky to be keynote speaker at UC Merced fundraiser

GENE LIEB/ Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, shown here in Los Banos, will be the guest speaker at UC Merced’s Building Future Champions Dinner & Auction at the Turlock Country Club on Thursday.
GENE LIEB/ Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky, shown here in Los Banos, will be the guest speaker at UC Merced’s Building Future Champions Dinner & Auction at the Turlock Country Club on Thursday. Los Banos Enterprise

Former major-league pitcher Dave Dravecky didn’t enjoy his first taste of public speaking. As a member of the San Diego Padres, Dravecky was sent by the club to speak to groups in the community.

“We would go to hospitals and rotary clubs and they would pay us $100 each event,” said Dravecky, who has lived in Turlock the past 5 years. “I thought this is awesome. Soon after, I remember telling my wife I don’t want to do this again. I thought it was horrible. Fast forward to now and that’s what I do for a living.”

Dravecky, whose baseball career was cut short after cancer was discovered in his throwing arm, will be the keynote speaker at UC Merced’s seventh annual Building Future Champions Dinner &Auction on Thursday at the Turlock Country Club. The dinner starts at 6 p.m.

UC Merced athletics will also host the 20th Annual Ma Kelley Memorial Golf Tournament on Friday at the Turlock Country Club. Registration begins at 9 a.m.

The event has raised more than $330,000 for UC Merced athletics since 2005.

“The money helps us in the places we need the most help,” said UC Merced director of athletics and recreation David Dunham. “For us, recently it’s been in travel. Our women’s basketball team going to the national tournament. Those are funds not built into our budget.”

In the past the university has had guest speakers like former University of Washington and UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel and former Dallas Cowboys player and Fresno State star Kevin Sweeney.

“For us it’s a special thing to have Dave Dravecky speak,” Dunham said. “His message resonates so well on our campus with our athletic program. His message is about overcoming obstacles and perseverance.”

After Dravecky retiring, he received close to 1,500 requests over a 2-year period for speaking engagements to come tell his story.

Most San Francisco Giants fans know his story.

Dravecky had an 8-year Major League career, pitching for the Padres and the Giants. He finished with a 64-57 record and a 3.13 earned run average.

It was how his career ended that makes Dravecky’s story so inspirational. In 1988, a cancerous tumor was found in his left arm.

“It was a really intense moment,” Dravecky said. “When you hear the word cancer and that beyond some miracle you won’t pitch again. When I heard the word cancer, I wasn’t thinking about baseball. I was thinking about the rest of my life.”

Dravecky underwent surgery to remove a large part of the muscle in his pitching arm. It was after the surgery and the cancer was removed, that he turned his attention to returning to baseball.

“I knew the odds were against me,” he said. “There was no question about that. If someone tells you can’t do something, it doesn’t mean that I can’t still try. I grew up with people telling me I wasn’t good enough to be a big league player. I was in the doctor’s room in 1988 and 10 months later I was on the mound pitching against the Cincinnati Reds.”

Dravecky was the winning pitcher in his return to the mound against the Reds. However, in his next start just five days later, his arm broke while delivering a pitch against the Montreal Expos. His career was over.

Later that season, his arm broke again during a postgame celebration. Soon after doctors discovered the cancer had returned and his left arm and shoulder were amputated.

Dealing with the cancer and the loss of baseball is only part of Dravecky’s story.

“It really boils down to our true worth. That’s at the center of my story,” Dravecky said. “That’s what I learned going through cancer. There was a piece of me that was defined by the statistics on the back of my baseball card because that affected whether I’d have a good contract. Over the years my worth at the very core is understanding who I am. Understanding the relationships I have and the life I’m living. You’re worth is who you are and not what you do.”

The transition of life after baseball and the battle with cancer was difficult. Dravecky said he suffered from depression. He admits there were times when he was verbally abusive to his wife, Jan, and family.

Not because he felt sorry for himself, but he didn’t know how to deal with the day-to-day pain and suffering.

“I was in the midst of an identity crisis. I was no longer a baseball player,” Dravecky said. “Through counseling, I learned a lot about myself, relationships in my life and communication. It was the beginning of a lifelong journey.

“I can’t write a handbook about how to handle pain and suffering. I struggled with it daily. It was physical pain and I took it out in anger with my wife and family. I wasn’t physical in my abuse. It was verbal, but sometimes that can be worse. I was also Christian. God doesn’t create robots, he creates human beings. I was very human during that struggle.”

Dravecky is now enjoying life after baseball. He started working as a community ambassador for the Giants in 2011. That has allowed him to promote the game and the organization to different communities.

He also loves traveling and meeting different people while he does his many speaking engagements throughout the year.

“No matter where I go I meet someone who inspires me,” Dravecky said. “You go there to encourage others and you walk away being encouraged. It’s allowed me to go to places I never would have gone. It’s been a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“Maybe this is what God wants me to do with this next season in my life. He wants me to tell my story and encourage others.”

Note: If anyone is interested in attending the Building Future Champions Dinner &Auction on Thursday or the Ma Kelley Memorial Golf Tournament on Friday, call Jeff Porto, 228-4132. The dinner is $60 per person. The golf tournament is $150 per person.

Shawn Jansen: 209-385-2462, @MSSsports