One week after I was swapping movie reviews with Bob Welch, I was driving to his memorial service in Scottsdale. One month after he shared his and Dylan’s story with me, he was taken from us.
I woke up last Monday morning with a powerful drive to find and read my old copy of his book, 5 O’clock Comes Early. Where did this come from? I have no idea. It took some effort to find, but once I found it, I read all afternoon and night, until 2:30am, Arizona (Pacific Daylight) Time, when I had to sleep.
I woke on Tuesday to my phone filled with twitter notifications from my story on Bob being shared. Soon after, I received the horrible news. And then the next thing I knew, I was driving to his memorial service. I had no intention of sharing anything about this private service. This was too personal. Until I realized that while he didn’t like the personal attention, he was always open and if there was a chance someone could be helped by his story, it had to be done. The conversation we had the day of “our talk” as he called it, instead of an “interview” replayed in my head.
Ok Bob. I get it. Help even one person; do it.
Here is my perspective of the beautiful memorial service at Grayhawk Golf Course in Scottsdale, Arizona. Please note, there’s no way I saw or could identify everyone in attendance.
As I walked through and looked for familiar faces, the only familiar trait was the red, swollen eyes belonging to almost everyone I saw. This includes Tommy Lasorda, the man who was Bob’s manager for the nine-plus seasons he was a Dodger. Tommy, bless his heart, was heart-broken. It was nice to see both Steve Yeager and Mike Scioscia with Tommy.
Yeager was behind the plate for Game #2 of the 1978 World Series; the famous battle between Bob and Reggie Jackson. He loved Bob, as did everyone there. The Dodgers ownership group flew in several from the major league coaching staff (including two former Oakland teammates of Welchie’s: Mark McGwire and Rick Honeycutt, and, of course, Yeager and Lasorda) from LA. They had a 4PM return flight for their 7PM game at home against the Diamondbacks.
As I entered the clubhouse, where the service would be held, the first people I saw were A’s minor leaguers, who came to honor the man who spent every day of the previous three-and-a-half months with them. A.J. Kubala and Dustin Driver, along with Nick Rickles, Lana Akau, Travis Pitcher, Josh Miller, Chris Kohler and Derek DeYoung attended on behalf of an entire farm system mourning the loss of “Welchie,” as they called him. It was good for the boys to experience the love felt for the man they were blessed to know.
I stood against the wall-of-windows across from the podium where the A’s chaplain (and, of course, Bob’s long-time friend) Donnie Moore would spend the next couple of hours leading the service. The podium was flanked by a large, poster-sized photo of Bob on either side: one in a Dodgers uniform and one in Oakland’s.
I knew nobody around me. Rene Lachemann was just to my right, past Bob’s friends from his Hacker Hockey; the Dodger contingent was off to my left. At the front tables were Bob’s children, ex-wife and family members.
A’s coaches Mike Gallego and Curt Young, along with A’s legend Dave Stewart, were seated close to the front. My heart broke looking at “Curtis” as Bob called him, and Gags. Their families lived in the same gated community; they were all more like family than friends.
Donnie introduced himself to start the service and then directed our attention to the screen in the corner of the room where, as Lasorda called it, one of if not the “greatest pitcher-batter confrontations ever” was shown. Game 2. Welch vs. Jackson. The Kid vs. Mr. October. The energy in the room more resembled that of the live game I attended almost 26 years ago, than 100-plus grieving friends and family members. We cheered when Jackson finally struck out to end the intense at bat. I looked over at Bob’s partner in that battle, Steve Yeager, and his grief was more than I could take.
The next two hours were filled with stories of Bob’s life; each as good as the next but all with common themes: the fierce competitor he was, the best teammate, the most sensitive heart; generosity and humility to a fault; treating every person he encountered the same way, with utmost respect. In every aspect of Bob Welch’s life, he was the same person; his authentic self.
Donnie shared how Bob had most recently spent his time working with the A’s minor leaguers, and shared one of my favorite quotes about him from A’s Director of Player Development Keith Liepmann: “he is the Radiant Coach: he lightens up every room he walks into.” So true.
Among the gentlemen who shared stories of Bob included former A’s physical therapist, Dan Cassidy. Dan spoke of his friend’s spiritual nature and sensitive soul. He talked of how Bob asked Dan what he prays about before he goes to sleep. Dan, Bob’s “Catholic friend” replied, “I say my Hail Marys until I fall asleep. What about you, Bob?” Welch replied, “I just keep talking to God until HE falls asleep.”
Long-time friend and one-time A’s minor leaguer Reese Lambert shared stories of travel and fun. Then, Steve, from the Hacker Hockey League where Bob and Curt Young play, shared great stories of seeing Bob on skates and how seriously he competed, even in a pay-to-play league such as theirs. It was months before some of Bob’s teammates believed he was actually “that Bob Welch” because of his humble, low-key demeanor. Steve also said that the owner of the ice rink must prepare for a decline in equipment sales this season. Bob would often forget a piece of equipment at home, and have to purchase it (sometimes twice) – at the rink.
Pat Murphy, current manager of the El Paso Chihuahuas, San Diego Padre’s Triple A team, was the head baseball coach at ASU when he first met Bob in 1996. For that one season, Welch was the Sun Devils’ pitching coach, but the two men were friends for life. Murph described the generous friend that Bob was. When Murph’s brother in New York had died, Pat headed to the airport on short notice, didn’t think he told anyone where he was going or why. Which is why it surprised him to see his friend Bob waiting for him at the airport gate, ready to travel cross-country and comfort him through this time of loss.
On Sunday, June 8th, Murphy and his team were in the Reno airport and had the opportunity to talk with Tony LaRussa for a few minutes. The majority of that conversation was about Bob Welch. The next day he was gone.
Tommy Lasorda, accompanied by Mike Scioscia, made his way to the podium. Though he was distraught, Tommy started by motioning to the two photos of Welch in uniform. He pointed to the Dodger version and said, “I just have to say…he looks better in this one, doesn’t he?” It was classic Tommy. The audience loved it. But he was hurting as he shared some stories. Then Scioscia, the Dodgers first pick in the 1976 draft, told of the off-the-field bond that he and the Dodgers first pick in 1977 shared: involving their middle names and the dislike of the song, “A Boy Named Sue”.
Dusty Baker, Welchie’s teammate on the Dodgers, and later, opposing hitting coach with the Giants in the 1989 World Series, shared a few light-hearted stories. Then, Baker told how he learned of his friend’s passing:
On Monday, June 9th, Dusty was at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, for his last follow-up exam stemming from the issues he faced in his last years with the Reds. With his clean bill of health, he returned to his hotel that night and went to sleep. Then, at 2:00 – 2:30am, Eastern Daylight time, Dusty was awakened to see a glowing, “energy” of light high in a corner of his room. It was not from a light bulb, or something on fire, or anything of that nature. Dusty said it was the type and tint of light that is often associated with a loved one signifying their passing-on. Though he went back to sleep, he received an early call from Reds GM Walt Jocketty telling him that Bob had passed away late Monday night, in the Pacific Daylight time zone, three hours behind Ohio.
Next, former A’s manager Tony La Russa made his way to the podium. Former A’s coach Rene Lachemann and several former Oakland teammates, including McGwire, Honeycutt, Gallegos, Curt Young, Dave Stewart and a few others, stood behind their former skipper. I must say, this is an impressive group. They look like they belong together. I could only imagine how must have been back in the day.
La Russa, taking his cue from his Lasorda, motioned to the picture of Welchie in the Dodgers uniform and said, “he may have looked better in that uniform, but he won a lot more games in this one!” pointing at the Green & Gold. It was great!
La Russa recalled the immediate impact Welch had on the clubhouse when Bob arrived. He credits Welch with being the fusion that made that group a family. Like every person before him, Tony proclaimed Welch as the “best teammate you could have on any team.”
In addition to the famous groin-pull incident before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, La Russa told of a time when Bob was having “one of those games”; every pitch was hit and found a gap or a hole or a bad hop. It was time. When Tony made his way to the mound; Welchie greeted him with an argument to stay, he said, “I’m good, I’m not tired!” to which La Russa countered, “no, but the outfielders are.” Years later, as the pitching coach for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, Welchie was excited to report to LaRussa that he had used the same line with one of his starters. It was sweet.
Curt Young said just a few words; everyone in the room felt his pain. Lachemann shared a few golfing and travel-related stories, one endearing tale about Bob after another. Neither McGwire nor Honeycutt offered anything publicly.
Dave Stewart talked about Welchie’s competitive nature and how he would run for such distances that once, Stew had to call a cab to take him back to Phoenix Muni. That was the last time they ran together.
Mike Gallego talked about how Welchie would step back off the mound, work the baseball in his hands, and call the name of whichever infielder he needed to alert. According to Gags, it was just loud enough for each person to hear. “Gags! Gags! Give me two steps”. Gags would move the two steps, and with the next pitch the ball was grounded to him and they were out of the inning. But what Gallego said he would remember most is looking out in front of his house and watching his kids play roller hockey with Welchie. Gags was choked up.
The last group to share memories were the most important people in attendance: the Welch children. Riley spoke first and shared how his dad would use sports to connect with him. He said no matter how bad an outing Riley had, his dad always topped it with something worse so Riley could see everything would be ok.
Dylan spoke next. As I shared in a previous article on Welch, Dylan, not only looks and acts so much like his father, he is also an addict and his battle is newly waged. Dylan expressed gratitude to his father for his unwavering support and belief in him, and he believes he is on the right path to live not only a clean, but a successful life.
Sweet Kelly, the dancer, was the final person to share her memories. It had only been a week or so before his passing that Kelly and her dad were driving out to the summer home in Seal Beach, California. They were talking about things they enjoyed doing, and her dad listed his as: listening to baseball on the radio, fishing, hunting and watching Kelly dance. With that, she directed our attention once again to the screen, where she played a video of a dance she performed to express her love for her father.
Donnie Moore concluded the service with a prayer over the children, and asked all to love and pray for them. It was a lovely service, with much laughing and much crying. I was finally able to hug Dylan, the first person I contacted when I heard the news, last week. The mother in me had to ensure he was ok then…and now.
As I left the service, I felt better, for that day. Grief is handled by each person his or her own way, but it does not pass quickly. We will always miss him. Always. The rookie Arizona Summer League begins Friday night. I will be back out at Papago covering the team for the season. Even though Bob had left for the summer, it will be so sad to know he will never be back in the bullpen, working with the boys and infusing them with his Radiant self. I’m sure somewhere in the night we will “think” we hear him use one of his go-to expressions, “Out-staaanding!” or “It’s all you, my friend!” or, “Money!”
If he made you smile, if he touched your life, then you were blessed. And if you were blessed by Bob, maybe follow his example and, if given the chance to help “just one person,” do it. Bob would.