It’s no secret that I am a Dodgers fan; having grown up minutes away from Chavez Ravine, Dodger Stadium was my second home from the time I was in kindergarten. I played Little League, as a catcher, and was usually the only girl on the team or in the league. Then, in June of 1978, I was knocked out trying to block home plate from a runner trying to score. I was done growing, and couldn’t compete with the fact that the boys were getting bigger and stronger. Not a good summer for me.
Bob Welch with the A’s in 1990.
It was, however, about to be a great summer for a kid from Michigan. Bob Welch (or Bobby, as Ross Porter and Vin Scully would call him) was a 21-year-old kid, with a plus, plus fastball out of Eastern Michigan. On June 20, 1978, at home against the Houston Astros, Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda brought the young right hander in for the 6th inning, in relief of Tommy John.
Welch took the mound at Dodger Stadium and amid all the anticipation and excitement, struck out the first batter he faced: Astros shortstop, and Bay Area native, Mike Fischlin. The next batter was Houston’s ace, J.R. Richard, who grounded out to Dodger third baseman, Ron Cey: 2 up, 2 down. Back to the top of the line-up: Astros All Star centerfielder, Terry Puhl fell victim to Welch’s fastball for the second strike-out, and third out of the inning. Upon completion of Welch’s second inning of the game, he allowed one hit, struck out two, and walked none. Not a bad first outing for the Dodgers young fireballer.
Note: “Cowboy Joe” West was on the umpiring crew that day, working secondbase.
After his two-inning debut, Welch appeared in 22 more games and took the mound for 99.1 more innings, with a 1.060 WHIP and a 2.02 ERA in the regular season of his rookie year of 1978. Then came the post season, and eventual rematch between the Dodgers and the Yankees in the Fall Classic. This rivalry goes back more than a hundred years, when both teams were in New York; but most recently, at that point, the 1977 Yankees defeated the Dodgers in six games and were the reigning World Series champs; it left a bad taste in the mouths of Dodger players and fans, alike.
Dodger fans, did not like the Yankees; especially Reggie Jackson. Especially me.
I was fortunate, at the age of 12, to be attending my second consecutive set of World Series games. My grandparents, who infused the love of baseball, in me, took me to two World Series games in 1978, just as they did in 1977. We were at Dodger Stadium for Games 1 and 2 of the 1978 series. Game 2 is where the kid from Detroit faced Mr. October, Reggie Jackson…and struck him out. Just writing those words, I can recall every pitch of that at bat. For a young man, thrust into such an emotionally charged and important moment in LA sports history, Welch focused and emerged the victor. We went crazy!
Never mind the fact that after winning the first two games in 1978, the Yankees won the next four and retained the title of World Champions for another year. Bob Welch, in his rookie season, made an impact on the game of baseball, in the city of Los Angeles, and in the hearts of Dodger fans everywhere, including mine. The fact that I had his picture on my wall, compliments of my membership in the Dodger Pepsi Fan Club, until I left for college, is proof.
Fast-forward 36 years – and 400 miles – to Spring Training 2014 at Papago Sports Complex in Phoenix. I asked number 35 if I could interview him, with a warning that the 1978 Game 2 would probably be included. He agreed. Three months later, we sat down in the outdoor lunch area at Papago. I was prepared and focused. Earlier in the day, the Extended Spring team beat the Giants, and more importantly, the Race of the Century had taken place: Gabriel Ortiz v Tommy Everidge in the 60-yard-dash (maybe not really a dash). Ortiz won with a time of 7.71 seconds. My money was on Tommy Everidge. Good thing it wasn’t real money.
Because the “Race” was an extra-curricular event, I intentionally left my phone (camera) in my bag. Not my place to share these moments; if the boys wanted to do so, that was their choice, but not mine. (Thanks to Joey Bennie for taking the greatest photo at the finish line and sharing it on social media!)
After the dust settled, Welchie and I sat down at a table to begin the interview. The Game 2 topic was one component I had outlined to discuss with the 1990 American League Cy Young Award winner. Other topics included: pitching and training philosophies and strategies that he employs with the rookie ballplayers; his personal opinions of many of today’s hot topics, including the Home Plate Collision Rule, pitch count limits, the surreal number of pitchers – at all levels of organized baseball – needing to have Tommy John Surgery, especially this season; to name but a few topics. All pitching/ coaching related, nothing personal. I was set.
Welch was finishing up a phone call / text; I had my recorder and my notebook ready to start when I “officially” began the interview. As he turned his attention to me, he asked if I took pictures of the Race between Ortiz and Everidge. I explained my reasoning of why I did not. He promptly disagreed with my decision. He believed I should have taken pictures and shared them via whichever social media platform I preferred. I saw it as respecting privacy; he saw it as fun that should be shared. Those opposing views played out again throughout “our talk,” as he called it.
Bob Welch at Papago.
He, then, pointed to his phone and apologized. He explained that he just sold his house in Colorado and needed to address the few items at hand. After I congratulated him on the sale, Welch explained in detail the personal reasons that led to the sale of the home.
After 10 minutes or so of sharing, what I considered very personal and off-the-record information, he stopped talking and looked me in the eye and asked, “Aren’t you going to write any of this down? How are you going to remember it?”
What I wanted to say was that I didn’t need to write down anything he just said because I knew I would never forget one word of it, but what came out of my mouth was something more rational, and equally valid: I was waiting to start the interview to record or write anything.
Welch’s response was adamant that the information he had been sharing with me, must be included in the interview. Because, he said, “this could help someone; even if this helps one person, you have to include it.”
I could end this story here, because the quote above tells you everything you ever need to know about Robert Lynn Welch: his life is about helping people…not about talking about helping, but actually helping. There’s a difference, and too many do the talking part, while Welch only knows how to do the helping.
At this point, I was smart enough to realize he was sharing Post Graduate information, in contrast to the elementary-level questions and topics I had prepared.
I was completely on board: if this information can help one person, it has to be done. Of course, it all blended together with the role he is playing in the A’s organization, and how it is all used to help the young men who are fortunate to spend their days gleaning his wisdom, expertise, and experience, and knowing how much he cares about each and every one of them.
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND INFORMATION
Baseball is all about numbers, right? Percentages, statistics, everything that can be counted and broken down to provide insight into achieving wins is counted; there are nine innings in a regulation game. Bob Welch’s 17-year career numbers include: 3,092 innings pitched, 506 games, 61 complete games, 211-146 win-loss record; 28 shut-outs, 1,969 strikeouts, 3.47 ERA; 1990 AL Cy Young award winner, two-time World Series Champion as a player (1981 with the Dodgers, 1989 with Oakland) and one as a coach (2001 as the pitching coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks; two-time All-Star, and one game where he, as the starting pitcher, hit one of his two career home runs and win the game, 1-0.
In world of recovery – substance abuse of any matter, but for this story, Alcoholics Anonymous – there are 12 Steps in the process. Bob Welch is a recovering alcoholic and his life was saved using the 12 Step Program. This is not news to anyone. His battle with addiction is well known, stemming from an intervention that was staged for his life-saving benefit in 1979 when he was with the Dodgers; his first full year in the major leagues.
“Bob is passionate about everything he does in baseball,” A’s Farm Director Keith Lieppman said. “His enthusiasm is off the charts…”
This bold move was orchestrated by legendary Dodger pitcher – now Special Advisor to the Dodger Chairman – Don Newcombe. Newk, along with Maury Wills, are both recovering addicts, and cared enough about Welch during his implosive 1979 season to do something to help save the young man’s life. This intervention, provided the foundation for Welch’s gut wrenching, autobiography entitled, Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victorywas co-written with New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey.
The honesty in this book shows who Welch is and how he lives his life to this day. It is his honesty and communication that allows him to have the greatest impact on the lives of young ballplayers – on and off the field. When he needed the help, there were so many who helped him, so he is doing the same for others.
BACK TO HIS HOME IN COLORADO AND THE NEED TO SELL IT IN THE FIRST PLACE
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, approximately 60% predisposition to addiction can be attributed to genetics. According to anyone with addicts in their family, the percentage is a whole lot more than that. The reason Bob sold his home in Colorado is because his first born son, Dylan, is also an addict. He began pawning any and all possessions in the Colorado home, where he lived, in order to satisfy his heroin addiction. Dylan also gained access to and drained a large amount of money from his father’s bank accounts; all to feed his addiction to heroin.
In 2013, Bob noticed the activity on his accounts, and then received confirmation from a friend, who saw the home in person, that essentially anything of monetary value had been sold. The hardest thing for any of us, as human beings, to do is to face the truth about ourselves and then address it. As parents, that seemingly insurmountable task is magnified when it involves our children. Dylan’s parents did what they had to do, rather than hiding from the truth, and sought help for the 24-year-old. They chose a treatment facility near Palm Springs, and after rebuilding and graduating from the program, Dylan now lives with his father in Arizona and continues on his road to recovery.
Soon, Bob’s younger son, Riley, will return to Arizona after coaching baseball in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and will likely begin a career in baseball operations. The youngest and prettiest of his children, daughter Kelly, will graduate from high school in May and then head off to college in the fall. When Bob leaves the Valley of the Sun at the end of May, he and Kelly will spend quality time together this summer at their home in Southern California. While in the LA area, Bob will be discussing the possibility to turn his book into a movie. Timely, poignant, and a true story of victory, both on the baseball field and off. No word yet on whether Brad Pitt will play the lead role in this movie, too.
Just as Bob is an active and engaged father with his three children, he understands the importance of his role in the lives of 100 young men he sees every morning before the sun rises at 64th Street and McDowell. As anyone who sets foot on the campus at Papago can see immediately, Welchie is both a magnet and a conductor: the way people are drawn to him, truly is something to marvel. His approachability and honesty are a rare blend; and his positive-but-not-Pollyanna disposition makes him a source of energy that feeds those within a one mile radius of him.
Just ask Oakland’s farm director, Keith Lieppman.
“Bob is passionate about everything he does in baseball,” Lieppman said. “His enthusiasm is off the charts and he is not influenced by draft status or money. He just cares for people and is willing to help anyone. He lightens up every room he walks in. We have described him as the ‘radiant coach.’ He’s like the sun emitting positive energy in a variety of situations. He roots for the underdog and his only fault is that he only sees with optimism and possibility. ”
The last time I looked around Papago, Bob Welch was the only Cy Young winner, the only multi World Series champion, and two-time All Star I saw. With credentials like those, one could expect to hear his ego approach, long before he is seen, but that is not the case. Welch explains that Carlos Chavez, Steve Connelly, and Garvin Alston are the pitching coaches who work on mechanics, etc. Bob’s role is to support those decisions, help put them into practice, and point out something if noticed. He is a reinforcement on the physical aspect, but he is a leader on the mental approach. This guidance is not exclusive to pitchers, either. If you are within an earshot of Welchie, then his words are meant to help you. Period.
The respect and admiration between Welch and the young players, is obvious. In many organizations, it is common to bring in well-known former team members to work with the young kids, but usually, they are in and out in a short period of time. Welchie is at Papago, first thing in the morning and ready to be the first one to greet and check-in with each young man as he arrives to start his day with a big ol’ dose of Vitamin Welchie!
Every day he shares advice based on life experience in order for the boys to not repeat many of the mistakes Bob has made in his life, but he doesn’t stop there. It’s never just words with him; Welch also models the behavior the young men should emulate, including how to conduct themselves in life, how to interact with others, and how to treat a significant other. The basis of all interaction is honesty, respect, and open communication. The key to the boys learning is watching him walk the talk.
“The players love him and no role is out of the realm for him,” Lieppman said. “Whether in the bullpen in an Arizona Summer League game or in the major league dugout he remains the same with attitude and presence. He’s funny and willing to self-deprecate in order to get his point across.
“He is very humble and the players recognize that he never brags about himself for pride or ego rather he uses his past to help players understand the game as he unselfishly presents his story. He is a great story–teller and brings the history of the game to the present with his description of events and moments from his career and others he’s been associated with.”
Seventeen-year-old hurler Jesus Zambrano, a native of Venezuela, is a fan of Welchie’s, both as a fellow pitcher and as a role model. I spoke with Zambrano, who told me in Spanish that the language is not a barrier for understanding Welchie’s messages.
“Whether it’s helping with drills, or practicing any skill, you don’t need an interpreter to understand how much Welchie cares about us,” Zambrano said.
Zambrano was impressive when I asked if he knew the awards/ recognition that Welch had received: there was no doubt or hesitation when he listed the World Series championships – twice as a player, once as a coach and he listed each team respectively – a two-time All Star, the 1990 Cy Young Award winner (he knew the year, and the number of wins he attained that year.) There was no doubt or hesitation, at all.
Catching prospect Kyle Wheeler offered this insight into who Bob Welch is to him, and to the team as a whole.
“First day of camp last summer, Welch asked, ‘What is fear?'” Wheeler said. “Not being sure how to respond, I said, ‘being scared.’
“He said, ‘Yes, but why are we afraid of fear? All fear is, is False Evidence Appearing Real! If you fear the guy on the mound you’ll never win, the day you realize that fear is false, is the day you will become a better player.'”
That message resonated with Wheeler.
“We make a guy [a pitcher] out to be better than what he is and then we are automatically down in the count before a pitch has ever been thrown,” Wheeler said. “Trust and believe in yourself, and your ability, and you can’t go wrong.
“Welchie is an awesome man, he makes us all smile. The knowledge he has of the game is what makes all of the guys want to learn more and more from him. Everyday it’s something new! Whether it’s sniffing an orange peel to clear your lungs, or why you throw a full count change up with runners on second and third with first base open.”
Wheeler says the advice and direction doesn’t end with on-field behavior.
“Outside the park, he always talks about doing the right thing: taking care of ourselves; not being influenced to do something just because others are doing it.; and especially with regard to, as he would say, ‘your gals,'” Wheeler said. “Open and close the door for them; take them out; make sure they know they are appreciated; and never, ever disrespect them.”
Additional life lessons from Welch to the young men include:
• Leave it at the ball park: separate a bad experience or a bad day at the “office” and don’t bring it home to your significant other
• Communication is key to all things on and off the field
• Know yourself, be honest with yourself, be true to yourself
Welch helps the players with their mental outlook.
“He had the opportunity to spend time with sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman and continues with many of the principles he was taught re: the mental game,” Lieppman said.
Among the players that Welch has seen marked improvement in are: LHPs Jose Torres, Alex Nolasco, and Jerad Grundy, as well as RHPs Cristhian Perez, Dominique Vattuone and Cody Kurz, who is coming off an injury-plagued 2013.
Most of us know the pain experienced when a player is released; we feel connected to them and we hurt for them. Unfortunately, it’s part of the business of baseball. For some, it is handled in a business manner, and nothing more. But not for a former player, like Bob Welch. Granted, he completely understands the business side of the game he has played all of his life, but he said he is as affected by each player being released today as he was back in his playing days.
Each player who is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to be counseled by a man of the caliber of Bob Welch understands this is an opportunity to be maximized to its fullest potential and to be appreciated to greatest extent. Infield prospect Joe Bennie confirmed that his daily goal is to essentially, “drain the brains” of each member of the A’s stellar coaching staff; just because he is a former Cy Young award winner, does not mean Welchie only connects with fellow pitchers. That’s one of the great aspects of having a man like him in the clubhouse and on the field each and every day.
As a kid, I hung his picture in my room until I left for college because he was a hero to me, on the field. As an adult, because of the difference he is making in the world, he is again, a hero.
As I look at Welch today, it is as if his success on the field were a mere vehicle for his true purpose which is to help people, even “just one person.” Whether that is accomplished on a grand scale by the production of his book to reach an audience that has yet to be impacted by its message, or if by his plans to work with a treatment center, such as the one that helped his son Dylan, or from both efforts, it will happen. Bob Welch has just scratched the surface on the impact that his life, his story and his struggle can help others in similar situations through theirs.
On June 9, 2014, less than a month after this story was written, and far too soon to comprehend, an angel here on earth was called home. Bob Welch, at the age of 57, passed away just one week after settling into his home in Southern California.
It will take the action of each person whose life was touched by Bob to fill the void he leaves behind of the unwavering belief in the good of all mankind, especially those who others may have cast aside.
His legacy lives on through his beautiful children, Dylan, Riley and Kelly. Through their lives, may each of them receive the love and support that their father showed to all he encountered through his.