Welch remembered as all-around winner, true friend
Former Cy Young Award winner shared friendship with MLB.com columnist Spencer
LOS ANGELES -- It was Friday, June 30, 1978. The Dodgers were in Cincinnati for an old-style doubleheader. These teams didn't much like each other, their rivalry as intensely competitive as any in Major League Baseball at the time.
Bobby Welch was a kid with three spotless relief appearances under his belt when he was assigned by manager Tommy Lasorda to make his first big league start in the second game. Welch was fired up as a general state of being, all day every day, so you can imagine how he felt before taking on the Big Red Machine at Riverfront Stadium.
Welch and I had developed a bond in Spring Training, the kid pitcher and the relatively young beat writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, sharing a wide range of interests.
Welch loved to shoot hoops, and that's where we'd spend quality time when he'd sneak away from Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. My cabana was right next to the court, and Bobby would come over when nobody was watching to shoot his sweet jumper and talk about growing up in Michigan.
Welch had signed out of Eastern Michigan University in 1977, a first-round pick, and shot to the big leagues with his 96-98-mph heater and big curveball. He also had a nasty slider, but the Dodgers at that time did not want their pitchers throwing it, concluding that it was not good for the arm's well being. It was fastball, curve and change for that club.
So, here we are on this big day in Cincinnati. I'm entering the press gate for Game 1, Tommy John on the mound for the Dodgers, when I see Welch -- looking like a kid off the street -- standing off to the side in animated conversation with a security guard.
The man, it turns out, doesn't believe that he's not only a Dodger, but a Dodger who is going to pitch the second game. I came over to calmly intervene.
"This is Bob Welch, sir," I said, "and he's the Dodgers' Game 2 starter. So you really should let him in the park."
Allowed entry, Welch dressed and shut down the Machine for six innings on five hits and no walks, striking out six. Bobby would never let me forget that he had a single and drove in a run in that game.
One scene I remember involved Pete Rose -- who else? He was trying to intimidate the kid pitcher in a scene at third base when Rick Monday came flying to Welch's defense, giving "Charlie Hustle" a piece of his mind.
Dusty Baker hit a two-run homer in that game, the start of a remarkable relationship between the veteran left fielder and the young pitcher. Dusty always seemed to come through when Welch was on the mound. I know Dusty is hurting today, having loved Bobby like a brother.
The Dodgers completed the sweep of Rose and Co. that day, and it was in part on the wings of Welch that they went on to win the National League West. They took the Yankees to six games in the World Series before losing to Reggie Jackson and his friends.
Welch and Mr. October had one of the all-time Fall Classic confrontations, Welch finally getting a heater past Reggie. In his custom, however, the big bopper got the last word.
My friendship with Welch is one of my enduring memories of that magical season. We sat together on the team plane, in the far back section where the fellas liked to play cards and could get a little wild. Bobby had the window seat, talking up a blue streak most of the time. Welch was just a kid in love with a girl and the game -- and, yes, he also loved to have a good time.
Not yet established as a starter, Welch didn't have a particularly memorable 1979, a terrible season for the Dodgers. When we met at Dodgertown the following spring, Welch seemed different, more reserved.
One morning, Welch pulled me aside and said we needed to talk. He told me he'd gone through alcohol rehabilitation treatments in an Arizona clinic during the offseason and wasn't sure how to reveal it. It was a rare thing at the time in sports, an athlete coming clean with a substance problem.
Welch decided that he wanted me to write the story first, before he said anything publicly, and then have a press conference after the story appeared. It was the highest personal compliment I've ever received, and, naturally, I did as he suggested that day.
Welch mentioned my role in this in his autobiography, "Five O'Clock Comes Early," written with George Vecsey, the esteemed New York Times columnist. Welch said that he trusted me to tell the story accurately before word got out, thanking me. That small part I played in helping send him on his way to a wonderful career is my proudest achievement as a journalist, by far.
Dealt to Oakland after the 1987 season, Welch took it up a notch for the A's, winning 27 games and the American League Cy Young Award in 1990. He retired with a 211-146 record for a .591 winning percentage that summed him up nicely.
Bobby Welch was a winner, in every respect. And I've never known a man with more personal integrity.
When Welch was let go by the D-backs after serving as their pitching coach during their 2001 World Series championship season, he never let it bother him -- or squawked. It was not his style. He told me the whole story but asked me not to write it, and I honored that request, as I'd always honored his friendship.
Welch loved working with young kids as an A's special instructor in recent seasons, imparting some wisdom. He was 57 when he passed away -- far too young, like his old buddy, Steve Howe.
My heart aches today, right along with all those teammates and fans who loved this very special guy. Good friends, true friends, are as rare as 27-win seasons. Rest in peace, Bobby Welch.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.