When I learned that former major league pitcher Bob Welch had suddenly passed away of an apparent heart attack at the age of 57 the first person I thought of was our editor Wlady Pleszczynski.
Just over two years ago, I wrote an obituary for Bob Welch, the former Fleetwood Mac guitarist, after he took his own life. After I submitted it, I received an e-mail from Wlady. A lifelong Dodger fan, when he first saw the title of my e-mail he thought I was referring to the man who struck out Reggie Jackson to end Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. I assured Wlady that I wasn’t. Sadly, two years later, I can no longer make those assurances.
For those unfamiliar with baseball, Bob Welch pitched in the big leagues for 17 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland A’s. Welch was a good pitcher who was capable of greatness and left his mark on the game. A first round draft pick by the Dodgers in 1977, Welch would make his big league debut with Los Angeles the following year at the tender age of 21, shuttling between the bullpen and the starting rotation. In 23 appearances covering 111 1/3 innings, Welch went 7-4 with a sterling ERA of 2.02. Thirteen of those appearances were starts. During those 13 starts Welch threw four complete games, three of which were shutouts. In today’s game, 21-year old starting pitchers don’t get to go nine, never mind seven or eight.
But Welch would become an overnight sensation the night he struck out Mr. October. After all, Reggie Jackson was in the prime of his career and a pitcher’s worst nightmare. In the 1977 Fall Classic, Jackson clubbed three home runs on three pitches in the decisive Game 6. Yet Welch showed absolutely no fear when Tommy Lasorda brought him in to face Jackson with two on and two out in the ninth inning with a one run lead. Whereas most pitchers would have pitched around him and not given Reggie anything good to hit, Welch challenged him and threw nothing but fastballs. To be exact, Welch threw him nine fastballs in an at bat that lasted nearly six minutes. Welch struck out Jackson to end the game. Reggie was so disgusted with being struck out by a rookie that he threw his bat into the Yankees dugout, sending his teammates scurrying.
Welch’s strikeout of Jackson gave the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the World Series. But it proved to be the high water mark for the Dodgers. The Yankees came back to win four straight games. In the deciding Game 6, Reggie would get his revenge on Welch by slugging a two-run home run off him to give the Yankees back-to-back World Series titles.
But none of that would matter. Welch’s strikeout of Jackson cemented his reputation. If Welch never did anything else in his career, he would always be remembered for striking out a future Hall of Famer to end a World Series game.
Yet Welch came very close to being a flash in the pan. Striking out Reggie Jackson in a World Series gets you noticed. In L.A., it means getting invited to a lot of parties. Welch began drinking well before he threw his first pitch with the Dodgers, but it would accelerate in the months following his strikeout of Jackson and it showed in his pitching in 1979. Welch struggled that season going 5-6 with 3.98 ERA. Former Dodger pitching great Don Newcombe (who himself battled alcoholism) would confront Welch with his drinking problem and he would go into rehab prior to the 1980 season. Welch would later document his travails with alcohol in a book co-written with New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey titled Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle with Alcoholism.
Welch would become both a solid citizen and a dependable starting pitcher for the Dodgers. Between 1980 and 1987, Welch won at least 13 games every season except for the strike shortened season of 1981 during which the Dodgers would finally get revenge on the Yankees and win the World Series.
Following the ’87 season, the Dodgers traded Welch to the Oakland A’s in an eight-player, three-team trade (the New York Mets were the third team in question). The Oakland A’s of the late ’80s and early ’90s are most strongly associated with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, a dynamic duo most baseball fans would soon forget given its involvement with PEDs. However those A’s teams had some extraordinary pitching. Anchored by Dave Stewart, the A’s starting rotation also included the likes of Storm Davis, Mike Moore, and Scott Sanderson. Throw in Dennis Eckersley in the ninth inning and you have a team that wins three consecutive AL pennants and the World Series in 1989. Welch did not get to throw a single pitch in that Series. He was due to start Game 3 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, but an earthquake put an end to those plans.
If Welch was a good pitcher with the Dodgers, he would become a great pitcher with the A’s. Instrumental in this progression to greatness was the signing of free agent catcher Ron Hassey. A 10-year veteran, Hassey had played with the Cleveland Indians, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, and the Chicago White Sox. Before the end of his career, Hassey would become the only catcher in MLB history to be behind the plate for two perfect games (Len Barker in 1981 and Dennis Martinez in 1991).
Hassey possessed a decent bat and an extraordinary ability to call a game behind the plate and an excellent reputation with pitchers. Although Welch was a solid big league pitcher, his competitive drive sometimes got the better of him. The low-key Hassey proved to be perfect antidote and he would end up catching Welch’s games as opposed to the A’s regular catcher Terry Steinbach. For his part, the modest Hassey wouldn’t take credit for Welch’s success in Oakland. But the results were indisputable. Welch would win 17 games for Oakland in both 1988 and 1989. Welch had never won more than 16 games in any one season with the Dodgers.
Then along came 1990. Welch had a season that will never be duplicated by baseball’s modern pitchers. He would win 27 games and earn the 1990 American League Cy Young Award. Welch’s 27 wins were the most by an AL pitcher since Denny McLain won 31 games for the Detroit Tigers in 1968.
The A’s rewarded Welch with a four-year contract worth nearly $14 million. Unfortunately, Welch soon developed shoulder and elbow troubles and became ineffective. To make matters worse, Hassey departed for Montreal. Welch retired after the 1994 season and finished his career with 211 wins and nearly 2,000 career strikeouts.
Welch kept a relatively low profile after his playing career, although he did earn another World Series ring in 2001 with the Arizona Diamondbacks as Bob Brenly’s pitching coach. He also served in that capacity for Team Netherlands during the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. Last year, Welch rejoined the A’s to work with their young pitchers in the minor leagues. He was well-regarded for his work and well-liked by the people with whom he worked.
Sadly, five o’clock has come early once again. If the A’s should reach the World Series this year perhaps one of their pitchers will have an opportunity to strike out a superstar with the game on the line. Should that young pitcher strike out that superstar, Bob Welch will look down on the mound, smiling.
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