(Originally published 06/11/15 on OaklandClubhouse.com)
A little more than a year ago, the Oakland A’s and the entire baseball community lost one of its most cherished members. Bob Welch passed away on June 9, 2014 at the much too young age of 57. Kimberly Contreras and others who knew Bob keep his memory close and honor the impact he had on their lives.
May 28, 2014:
“Thank you Miss Kim. I’m coming in the morning to tell everyone I love them and then I’m finished for a little bit.”
True to his word, before packing up and heading to the beaches of Southern California for the summer, Bob Welch arrived at the clubhouse at Papago Park. As usual, he was there before the sun and most of the players, that next morning. He loved being the first person each player encountered to start the day. On May 29th, 2014, Bob connected with each and every player, coach, staff member who was there; ensured each knew how much he cared about him as a person; and posed for endless photos (selfies). This was evidenced by the mass update of profile photos across all social media platforms; Welchie was everywhere. And it was bittersweet. The guys loved seeing and spending time with Welchie, but they were sad to see him leave for the summer.
This small group of Oakland’s farm hands spent almost two months in their own little world. They were part of something very special and it didn’t take long for even the most-unhappy among them about being “left behind” to sense what was happening.
I know because I was fortunate to have been there for most of the “season.” I’ve worked many Extended Spring Trainings with different organizations, and from Day 1, this group was special; it included Bob Welch. His presence was in every fiber of every uniform, and in the heart of every person he encountered. His warm, welcoming spirit seemed to permeate the grass and his positive energy spread through the leaves on the trees; you knew he was there without visible or audible proof. But if you wanted to see the 1990 AL Cy Young Award winner, the sure bet was to look to the pen. The “ten pack” was his office, the unmistakable voice was his calling card, and his door was always open.
Bob shared life-lessons at every opportunity and included multiple personal and relatable examples with the goal of the boys learning from his mistakes. I have no confirmation but I always believed he used the interaction between him and me to show the boys how to treat women with respect and kindness. Because that’s the only way Bob knew how to treat people, especially women.
Lisa Saxon, a pioneer for women in sports reporting, and a personal hero of mine, knows this to be true. Choosing just one example to share with me was a challenge. The following is from 30 years ago. Could have been from three. Same Bob:
“When I was covering the Dodgers , Bobby was one of a handful of players who would go out of his way to help me. He would run interference for me in the clubhouse, when some of his teammates were out of line. He even helped me out at the team hotel. In 1984 when the team was checking into the hotel in St. Louis, the security guard tried to throw me out because he thought I was a hooker (really!). I was wearing blue suit and low heels. Most of the players who saw this happen laughed or did nothing. But Bobby, Bill Russell, and [Dodgers’ long time traveling secretary, who passed away not long ago] Billy DeLury stepped forward. I eventually got the key to my room — and an apology.”
Lisa adds: “Bobby Welch was a wonderful human being, always quick to greet everyone with a smile and a kind word.”
Anytime I was in his presence, my inner 12-year-old took over; the “me” who was at Dodger Stadium for Game 2 of the 1978 World Series for the epic 9 (though it seemed like 19) pitch at-bat that took down Reggie Jackson, but I didn’t care. Matter of fact, I was uncharacteristically shameless about it. Who could blame me? Bob Welch the man, was even better than Bob Welch the childhood hero. It was unreal. The boys would hang on his every word; not because they had his pictures on their teenage wall (ahem), but because of who he was with them. They could recite his awards and accomplishments, and of course they were impressed, but the reverence was based on something more valuable; personal interaction.
Tanner Peters, spent much of the 2014 season rehabbing at Papago. The right-handed-pitcher shares the importance of Welchie’s honesty:
“Whether it be about on the field or off the field issues he told us how it was. And as a young man and player each of us could relate to that. We could all relate and pass on everything he had to tell us.”
As the month of May drew to a close, there was a sadness about his departure. But, in a great example of selflessness, each of the young men echoed the sentiment of being happy that Welchie would be spending so much time with his daughter Kelly before she left for college in the fall. They also understood that he wouldn’t be able to stay away for good.
Whether it was insight, a premonition or just emotional responsibility, the priority Bob placed on “telling everyone he loves them” before leaving Arizona was his final gift to that special group. There was, at the very least, some emotional closure, 12 days before he passed away.
Late Monday, June 9, 2014, darkness fell in the hearts and those who knew and loved the man Keith Lieppman, Oakland’s Farm Director, calls, “The Radiant Coach” because of the blinding bright energy and outlook that would radiate from his presence, as his time on earth came to an abrupt end at his home in Seal Beach, California.
One year later, AJ and his power bat are rehabbing, and Billy is now a member of theChicago Cubs’ organization. No matter where they are, their love and admiration for Bob is prevalent. Never mind the fact that neither is a pitcher, as is a recurring theme, Bob focused on the life of the young man, and baseball was a common connection:
AJ Kubala remembers the necklace Welchie wore:
“It said “carpe diem” which translated to “seize the day”. Welchie never let a day go by that he didn’t make the best of. He is not someone you come by every day. Welchie was the man.”
Regarding the specific words he valued most from “the man”:
“Welchie taught me to always believe in myself. His exact words were, “You’re a great ball player, man. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different.”
Billy McKinney, even now, as a member of the Chicago Cubs organization, and with the initials “BW” on the brim of his cap, reflects upon, and is grateful for, his time with Welchie.
“He taught me how to play the game hard and to be confident.”
McKinney’s lasting impression of Welch:
“The way he made people feel good about themselves and always made them laugh.”
Shortly after, and unbeknownst to them, half of the group already sad for having to say goodbye to Welchie for the summer, boarded a plane for Burlington, Vermont, excited to start the season as the Vermont Lake Monsters. They learned of his passing as they changed planes. Included in this group: A.J. Burke and Kyle Wheeler. Both have moved on to a new adventures in life, and they carry Welchie wherever they go:
“Bob always had a way of making you feel special. If you needed to vent about anything or just be picked up after a bad outing, Welchie was always the guy. He had a way of making you laugh no matter what kind of mood you were in.
I still have saved on my phone; a voicemail he left me, as well as our last text conversation from shortly before my daughter was born.
Welchie was the best guy to go to for advice and even our last conversation was full of advice for me not only on the field, but off the field about being a great father and husband.
I miss that man dearly and I would love nothing more than to sit down in the bullpen with him and shoot the breeze one more time.”Kyle Wheeler:
The early morning meetings, talking with Bob were the best. He would talk to us about how to live so we would get the most out of life: break little rules, take risks, do what you can because you only have one life to live. Mistakes may be made, but you turn them into lessons learned.
One particular lesson that has helped change the way I see things, was about fear. Bob said, “FEAR is an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real.” That has stuck with me and has helped with any obstacle that comes my way. I know I can get through it because I have no fear.
Bob not only preached that we make the most out of life, he was a shining example of how life should be lived. Love and miss you Bob!!
The other half of the Extended Spring boys learned later that morning of the terrible loss. Lana Akau Chris Kohler, Dakota Freese, With Papago at the epicenter, the grieving began immediately, as did the sharing of memories, and then of course, the laughter.
Lana Akau remembers:
Welchie was not only a coach, but also a friend. He could make your day turn upside down in the best way, just by seeing him. There was never a dull moment with him. Always with the positive vibe in the clubhouse; always making us laugh throughout the day.
Welchie was far from only being a coach, he was such a great man and great friend. He taught us all life lessons and taught us the game of baseball. He kept everyone so loose! Getting to the field everyday was exciting because you couldn’t wait to hear what joke he would crack that day or what he would do.
He is deeply missed in our organization and I know he’s looking down on all of us and proud of where we are today. RIP Welchie!
Dakota Freese simply states what everyone echoes:
“Love you, Bob. Miss you. Wish I could just have one more talk with you.”
Jose Chavez, who, like so many have echoed, enjoyed just being in the presence of Bob Welch. Chavez knows he was a great man who made everybody laugh and cared about each person in the clubhouse. As a catcher, Chavez holds on to specific advice he received from the fiery right handed pitcher:
“He told me:’ You gotta be tough and always have the best attitude for your pitchers. Because, if the pitcher sees you’re upset or sees you with your head down, he will go the same way. You must be mentally tough and bring your best attitude even, and especially when things are not going well.’ I remember that every day. R.I.P Welchie.”
Blake McMullen, who retired from baseball in 2015:
“Welchie taught me numerous things about baseball; I could talk to him for hours about the game, but it wasn’t just our talks about baseball that made me enjoy being around him.
Welchie taught me to not take things for granted; and to make the best of everyday because you never know when it will be your last. Even though I only got to spend a few months with Welchie, he impacted my life tremendously.”
After a beautiful memorial service, where every part of Bob’s life was represented and where every person in attendance felt that they were special to Bob because that’s how he made you feel, it was time to play baseball. The newly drafted A’s reported to the clubhouse at Papago for the final season.
Though we knew we would not see Welchie when we looked to the “ten pack”/ bullpen area, pain and heartbreak were fresh the first time on the fields. I attended a scrimmage three days before the first game. Yes, I wanted to see the newest “Baby A’s”, but I also needed to be there to grieve. As I made my way to the “ten pack”, crying harder as I neared, I crossed paths with one of the new boys. He had no idea who I was or why I was there. It was then I realized that this group of young men would not enjoy the riches of Welchie. I felt bad for them; they’ll hear the stories, but they won’t know HIM.
It was at this moment when the group from Extended Spring we bonded for life; the last group that would ever truly KNOW the blessing of having the personal mentoring of Robert Lynn Welch.
June 20 marked the opening night of the Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL). The AZL A’s hosted the Angels, and paid respect to our beloved Welchie just before first pitch. Rehabbing catcher, Luke Montz shared a few words as players from both teams lined the path to home.
Behind home plate, the best grounds crew in the league marked “35” behind home plate.
Then, as the teams took to their dugouts, a jersey matching the home team A’s, with the number “35”, was hung on a hangar inside the dugout. This tribute to Welchie was from his friend and fellow pitching coach, Carlos Chavez who explains the inspiring way Bob was in the dugout for every game.
“It was a no brainer for me. He was there for all those kids for the year and a half he was with us, and he was a big influence on them. There was no way I was not going to have my bullpen coach with me in the AZL last year. The starting pitcher of every game was responsible for taking the jersey to the dugout (both at home and on the road.)
Welchie was there with us as we prepared for and played each game.”
Welch and Chavez were seemingly connected at the hip. Carlos absorbed every morsel of insight and perspective he received from his mentor. The credentials and track record of undisputed success were often secondary to Welch’s gift of teaching. Among the many lasting memories, Chavez will always remember:
“The love and dedication that he had for the game; the knowledge that he would share with me and/or our players is something I will never forget, I will be forever grateful that I got to meet and become very good friends with Bob Welch.”
As the short-season Vermont Lake Monsters start their season, Chavez will serve as their pitching coach. He requested, and will be wearing the uniform number 35. There is no more natural fit than this, in my book. The legacy of all that is Bob Welch will live on with his friend, Carlos.
Mid-September marks the beginning of the Fall Instructional League (otherwise known as “Instructs”). Many of Oakland’s scouts exchange their radar guns for uniforms and work with the young farm hands they drafted and signed. Among this group of hands-on evaluators was Oakland’s Midwest area scout, Rich Sparks.
Like his dear, longtime friend Bob Welch, Sparks is also a Michigan native. The history of the two friends, is deeply rooted in their love of the game of baseball and in their commitment to making a difference in the lives the kids.
Sparks reminisces about key components of a conversation that would always take place, no matter how long it had been since the last time:
“No matter how long it had been, since we last saw each other, it was always as if no time had passed at all.
In person, there was always the big hug, and the way he made you that he was even happier to see you than you were to see him. (Whether or not it was true, he made you feel that important.) Our conversations would usually start by us looking at each other and saying, “Gotta get that bunt down.” That’s what Chuck Mikulas the old high school baseball coach would always say to his players.
I take from him a patient approach when teaching hitting, as he would with pitching. The importance of the mental side before the techniques or mechanics.
One piece of advice that I will never forget: he said, “Never let them see you sweat.” Translation: if they see you don’t trust yourself, how can they trust you?
I know this: Bob Welch may have been the most genuine person I had ever been associated with.”
As a tribute to his dear friend, Sparks wore the “35” jersey exactly 4 months after the day it was last worn by the man himself.
I still believe Oakland should retire the number #35. But, I digress.
Spring training 2015 marked a new era of Cactus League play for Oakland. So long Phoenix Municipal Stadium and the fields at Papago; and Hello (newly renovated) Hohokam Stadium and (huge, state of the art clubhouse and completely reconstructed fields) at Fitch Park in Mesa. True to their history, there are signs, symbols, and pictures of Bob Welch at both Hohokam Stadium, as well as at the Lew Wolff Training Center, at Fitch Park.
Keith Lieppman, who long ago named Bob “the Radiant coach” notes the many ways Welch is acknowledged by the staff, in addition to other ways previously shared, including:
• Some coaches have a small shrine with just a BW patch that is sitting on their locker shelf to serve as a mantra to do something good or funny or emblematic of his connection to other people.
• There is a chair in the pitching coaches meeting room that was left open in remembrance of him in which no one would sit.
• Many of the discussions in the room amongst the coaches would reference “What Would Welchie Say?”
• His picture is in the equipment manager’s room and also displayed throughout the [player development] complex [Fitch]. They serve as silent reminders of his presence and positive attitude which easily generates a feeling of joy and a desire amongst those who knew him to continue to pass it on.
There are very few days where he isn’t referenced or mentioned verbally via a funny story or insightful moment.
His legacy has no bounds as it resonates from clubhouse attendant to General Manager. He was not picky about who came on board his Mr BW’s wild ride.”
Many of those who were part of that 2014 Extended Spring group have moved on in life and are no longer with Oakland or some aren’t in baseball at all. Those young men, who are all successful in their path of life, hold the same memories and lessons they learned from Bob, because he cared about who each of them as a person, first and foremost, and then baseball entered the discussion.
All memories are personal and specific, but they share a common theme: if you knew Welchie, you loved him and he loved you…and that’s something that can never be taken away.
Scott Emerson, the A’s bullpen coach and longtime minor league pitching coach, beautifully expressed who Bob was and how each of us who knew and loved him, feels. It is the perfect ending to this parade of memories from the past year.
“Bob was a great coach and friend, but most of all he was a man of great character. Welchie came to the park everyday thinking of others, not of himself. He made everyone feel like he was their best friend.
It was always story time when Welchie was around.
He was a baseball Encyclopedia; remembered every hitter he faced and could go into great detail about a at bat, someone had off him in the 1970’s.
I am thankful for his friendship. He taught me a lot about baseball and about life. Bob may be gone, but he will never be forgotten. We all love and miss him.
Robert Lynn Welch
November 3, 1956 – June 9, 2014