Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Bob Welch, 1956-2014


All too often, especially in sports, a person can be known for just one moment. And it usually isn't fair. Especially when it's not his best moment.

Bob Welch is known for a moment of success, but even that is hardly the most impressive thing about him. Especially since his team didn't even win the World Series in question.

Robert Lynn Welch was born on November 3, 1956, in Detroit. He grew up in the nearby suburb of Hazel Park, Michigan, and attended Eastern Michigan University.

At the time he made his major league debut, he was not the most famous living man named Bob Welch: A former member of Fleetwood Mac had recently gone solo, and had notched a Top 10 hit with "Sentimental Lady." (He died in 2012.)

Also more famous was Robert W. Welch Jr., founder of the far-right John Birch Society (the Tea Party of its time) and brother of the founder of the candy company that makes Junior Mints and Sugar Babies. (He died in 1985. Those Welchs were not related to the grape growers and juicers.)

That debut was on June 20, 1978, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Tommy John did not have his best stuff for the defending National League Champion Dodgers, and, backed by the pitching of the fearsome J.R. Richard, the Houston Astros led 5-0. Welch, wearing Number 35 as he would throughout his career, pitched the 6th and 7th innings, allowing only 1 baserunner. The Dodgers mounted a comeback, but lost, 5-3.

But Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was impressed enough to use Welch in both the rotation and the bullpen, and by the time the regular season was over, the nearly 22-year-old righthander had made 13 starts and 10 relief appearances, going 7-4 with a sizzling 2.02 ERA.

The Dodgers won the Pennant, setting up a rematch of the previous year's World Series, which they lost to the Yankees. The Dodgers won Game 1, and were leading Game 2 4-3 in the top of the 9th. But the Yankees mounted a rally, and with 1 out, Bucky Dent was on 2nd base, Paul Blair on 1st.

Lasorda brought Welch in to relieve Terry Forster, who had relieved Burt Hooton. He had the unenviable task of getting 2 outs before the Yankees scored, and the next 2 batters were Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson. Yikes.

But he got Thurman to fly to right. Reggie, who earned his Mr. October nickname the year before by hitting 5 home runs off the Dodgers in the previous year's Series, including 3 in Game 6 (off Hooton, Elias Sosa and Charlie Hough), fought him hard, running the count full and fouling pitches off. Finally, on the 9th, pitch, Reggie saw the runners break, and claiming to be distracted by it, swung and missed.

The Dodgers had a 2-games-to-none lead, and Bob Welch was a national hero to Yankee-haters.

If this had been a movie, the Dodgers would have gone on to win, and Welch would have become one of the greatest pitchers of his generation.

It wasn't a movie. The Yankees took the next 4 games. Once again, Reggie homered in a Game 6 to clinch, this time in L.A. -- off Welch, who was pitching in relief of Don Sutton. The Yankees won, 7-2.

If you were taking over the script from here, you might have Welch so unsettled by this experience that he squanders his great chance at stardom, turning to alcohol and ruining his career and his life, before turning it around.

That's what happened: In 1979, he had a bad year on the mound, and a worse year off it. He claimed to have had alcohol-induced blackouts, and challenged opposing players to fights. After being confronted by his teammates and club officials, he spent 36 days at a treatment facility in Arizona.

Lasorda showed enough confidence in him and his recovery to move him into the starting rotation full time in 1980. He rebounded to make the All-Star Game, playing it in his home park, Dodger Stadium. In 1981, he helped the Dodgers get back to the World Series; although he didn't pitch especially well in it, they finally beat the Yankees.

Shortly thereafter, he became perhaps the first prominent athlete to publish a memoir about substance abuse issues while still playing: Five O'Clock Comes Early, with New York Times sports columnist George Vescey. Even now, few athletes have written such a book while still playing. A notable exception is Tony Adams, longtime captain of London soccer team Arsenal, who published Addicted in 1998.

Welch won 16 games in 1982, 15 in '83 (an NL West-winning year for the Dodgers), went 14-4 in '85 (another Division title) and 15-9 with a League-leading 4 shutouts in '87. At age 32, he was, statistically speaking, having a pretty good career.

And yet, the Dodgers traded him. It was an awkward 3-team deal. Welch and Matt Young went to the Oakland Athletics. Jack Savage went to the Mets. The A's sent Alfredo Griffin and Jay Howell to the Dodgers, and Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst to the Mets. The Mets traded away just one player, Jesse Orosco, to the Dodgers, not 14 months after Orosco got the last out in the 1986 World Series (still the Mets' last).

As you might guess, this was not such a good trade for the Mets: They really could have used Orosco on the mound, instead of a tiring Dwight Gooden, in the 9th inning of Game 4 of the 1988 NL Championship Series. Instead, the Dodgers, NL West Champs for the 7th time in 15 years, won on Mike Scioscia's home run, and won the Pennant. Griffin and Howell were big reasons why, so it was a good trade for the Dodgers.

It was a good trade for the A's, too, as Welch and Young solidified a pitching staff with Dave Stewart as the ace. The A's won 104 games and swept the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, taking their first Pennant in 14 years.

Welch was in his 3rd World Series, and were heavily favored to beat the Dodgers, who had one of the weakest-hitting teams ever to reach the Series, especially since their best hitter, Kirk Gibson, was hurt. But Gibson, in his only at-bat of the Series, took Dennis Eckersley deep to win Game 1, and the Dodgers won in 5 games.

The A's were not fazed by this, and won the whole thing in 1989, with Welch and Eckersley -- both recovering alcoholics who had big years with other teams in 1978 -- helping lead the way. As in 1988, Welch won 17. They won another Pennant in 1990, and Welch went 27-6 -- the most wins in a season since Steve Carlton won 27 in 1972. No other pitcher has even won 25 in a season since. But the A's got swept in the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds.

Perhaps the big season took a lot out of Welch: At 34, he went into decline. In 1994, having gone just 3-6 before the strike hit, he decided not to come back when it ended, and retired, shortly before turning 38.

His career record was 211-146, for a .591 winning percentage. He's not in the Hall of Fame, and never will be, but that .591 WP is higher than those of Hall-of-Fame starting pitchers Bob Gibson, Dazzy Vance, Hal Newhouser, Catfish Hunter, Rube Waddell, Steve Carlton, Jesse Haines, Waite Hoyt, Burleigh Grimes, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Fergie Jenkins, Early Wynn, Jim Bunning, Vic Willis, Robin Roberts, Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven and Nolan Ryan. While these guys, contemporaries of his, are not in the Hall, they also have a lower career WP than Welch: Stewart, John, Hooton, Dodger teammate Fernando Valenzuela, Dodger teammate and 1988 NL & WS MVP Orel Hershiser, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, John Smoltz, Jack Morris, Vida Blue, Dave Stieb, 1990 WS MVP Jose Rijo, Dennis Martinez, Rick Sutcliffe, Bob Ojeda, Frank Viola and Ron Darling. This is also true for active star pitchers Freddy Garcia, "King" Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Welch's career ERA was 3.47, his ERA+ 106, his WHIP 1.206.

He went into coaching, and was the pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series. You think Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson didn't need a pitching coach? Well, those guys couldn't have pitched every inning. Somebody had to be guiding their other pitchers.

He became the pitching coach for the Netherlands team at the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, before becoming a special assistant to the A's front office, and a spring training pitching instructor for them. He also, as seen in this photo, threw out the first ball before a 2012 Playoff game for the A's.

Yesterday, Bob Welch was found dead in the bathroom of his home in Seal Beach, California, near Los Angeles. He was 57. The cause is not yet known, but it appears to have been a heart attack. (UPDATE: An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was an accidental fall.)

He is survived by his sons Dylan (25) and Riley (23), daughter Kelly (18) and former wife Mary Ellen. After a brief minor league career, Riley became a pitching coach at a small college in South Dakota this year.

Bob Welch will be remembered mainly for striking out Reggie Jackson to clinch a win in a World Series game. But he should also be remembered for his recovery, and how he told of it. And for putting together one of the most remarkable pitching seasons in recent history. And for winning World Series rings with 3 different organizations.

The script ends too soon, but it's a great story.

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