In one deft, shoulder-rolling motion, Dave Dravecky dipped forward and swung his gray suit coat off his left side, where his left arm and shoulder used to be, let the coat slide down and off his right arm and turned to his wife, Janice.
"Could you help me with this, hon?" he asked, perspiring faintly as he loosened the knot of his tie. "Whew! It's hot and uncomfortable in this thing. I'm really wet." Janice opened the top two buttons of his white shirt and slipped her hand inside it, feeling for the clips that fastened a shoulder pad to a harness he wore under the shirt, and watched as he fished out the pad and tossed it on the couch. In a reflex, Dave then reached in front of himself with his right hand, as if feeling for something, and winced. "It feels like my hand's on fire," he said.
"Which hand?" he was asked.
"The left," he said.
So the demon in Dravecky's life had returned; the phantom was back. It was half past 10 last Saturday night, in a hotel room in Orlando, Fla., where Dravecky had just received an award for his 1990 autobiography, Comeback, which detailed his struggle to return to baseball after an '88 operation to remove a malignant desmoid tumor from his left arm, his pitching arm. He did come back, of course, but ultimately so did the cancer. On June 18, Dravecky, a former National League All-Star, had his left arm and shoulder amputated during a 2½-hour operation at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and 25 days later here he was in Orlando making his first public appearance.
Like many amputees, Dravecky was suffering "phantom pain" in the missing limb, sensations quite as vivid and disagreeable as any he suffered in the agonizing months leading up to the amputation. It was, he said, as if his arm were still in the sling in which he had kept it in the last days before the operation, with his hand resting on his stomach.
"Oh, it burns," Dravecky said. "Very hot and painful. A constant burn. Not a throb, but a burning in the fingers and the palm, like someone is taking a match and sticking it right at the end of my fingertips and burning them. And intense pressure. My fingertips feel like pistols, with bullets about to explode out of them. Just explode. I have no idea how long this will go on. I hope it will subside as time goes on. I take painkillers, and they've been helpful. It's tolerable enough right now, so I can think and carry on a conversation, but the phantom is real."
For all that Dravecky has been through, it seems a cruel and unusual fate to end up hounded by a ghost, particularly that of a part of himself he once knew and loved so well. He had only just begun to mourn the loss of it. "I feel like I lost a real good buddy," Dravecky said. "You know, this friend that had been attached to me all those years; that allowed me to do something that I enjoyed more than just about anything on this earth; that enabled me to throw a baseball and put it where I wanted to put it; that allowed me to see a boyhood dream come true—that friend is gone. And all I have left are the memories. And the phantom pains. That's all that's left. There is so much frustration. I love to work outdoors, in the yard. I grab a shovel, I grab a rake, and now I have to think, How do I make this work? Everything needs an adjustment."
Since the tumor was first diagnosed almost three years ago, Dravecky's life has been a long series of adjustments that have grown progressively more painful and difficult to make. When the cancer was discovered, it had already invaded the deltoid muscle of his arm, and the tumor was sitting on top of the humerus bone, between the shoulder and elbow. During an eight-hour operation performed on Oct. 7, 1988, Dr. George Muschler had to freeze—and thus kill—part of the bone in order to cut away the malignant tissue. He also had to remove half of the deltoid muscle. "Outside of a miracle," Muschler told Dravecky, "you'll never pitch again."
Not willing to wait on a miracle, Dravecky worked his way back. In June 1989 he began throwing batting practice to his astonished teammates on the San Francisco Giants and soon built his arm back enough to pitch in three minor league games. He won all of them, including a final outing in Triple A on Aug. 4, in which he pitched a complete-game seven-hitter and won 3-2. That night the Giants recalled him. He hadn't pitched in the big leagues in 14 months when, on Aug. 10, in the single most dramatic baseball game of the season, Dravecky allowed the Cincinnati Reds one hit through the first seven innings. One standing ovation followed another. His teammates sat watching in stunned silence.