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Bob Welch

April 19, 2007
 

Happy 

Chapter 1 (1981)

Bob Welch doesn’t look happy. It’s 1981. I was 13 that year, and though I was withdrawing abruptly from the collecting of baseball cards—this card one of just a few I bought that year—I’m sure I still viewed the life of the major leaguer as the happiest possible existence. And who among major leaguers could be happier than a 24-year-old former number 1 draft pick who threw blazing fastballs, who had just cracked the vaunted Dodger starting rotation with a promising 14-9 record, and who had just a short while before that authored one of baseball’s greatest moments?

Yes, just a short while before this unhappy picture, Welch had been called on to preserve a 1-run lead in the 9th inning of game 2 of the 1978 World Series. As he warmed up by firing a few of his electric fastballs the announcers remarked on the 21-year-old rookie’s lack of experience (just 14 games in the majors thus far) and on his reportedly boundless potential. There was one out, two men on, and two of the most dangerous and fearless hitters in the game due up. Thurman Munson stepped in first and flied out. Then Reggie Jackson strode to the plate.

When the confrontation was over, Dodger outfielder Bill North would tell Time Magazine that it was “the best show I’ve ever seen. The game’s best fastball hitter up against a kid who throws as hard as anybody in baseball.”

The at-bat would take seven minutes to unfold. The count would go to 3 and 2.

“It was like the 15th round of a heavyweight championship fight and you knew both guys had won seven rounds,” North continued. “Bob just aired it out and said, ‘Hey Reggie, here it comes. If you can handle it, you deserve it.’ It had to end in a home run or a strikeout.”

With his home crowd roaring Bob Welch reared back one final time and fired. When Reggie swung ferociously and missed, Bob Welch burst into myth.

Welch began to come back to earth almost immediately, allowing a deciding Yankee rally (including a single by Reggie) in the 10th inning of the very next game and giving up two runs (including a home run by Reggie) in another loss in the Yankees’ series-clinching win in game 6. But like the 1975 Carlton Fisk home run, Welch’s spot in the limelight seems to have shucked off the more prosaic details of his team’s eventual defeat as the years have gone by to take its place among the more treasured moments of baseball lore. I’m glad about this as a baseball fan who likes to sift through the jewels of the collective memory of the game. I’m also glad about this as someone bent on using baseball as a metaphor for my own life, for if eventual defeat obliterated the good moments my past would be a bucket full of ashes.

You can’t take shelter in those good moments. I doubt that Bob Welch ever tried to do so with his legendary strikeout of Reggie, but maybe he wasn’t immune to the very human urge to compare the swampy complexities of existence to the gravity-free clarity of glowing myth. I don’t really know what happiness is, but unhappiness could probably be defined as the painful, disappointing gap between life as it actually unfolds and life as it appears in quick-dissolving moments of exultation, victory, bliss.

Anyway, Bob Welch doesn’t look happy in this 1981 card. He looks like I probably did fairly often that same year, when I was 13. Baseball was shrinking from a happy, all-consuming passion to just one more thing that I wasn’t really that good at. My brother was heading off to boarding school. I drifted away from the close friends I’d made at my deskless hippie elementary school classroom and replaced them with empty space and an ever more complex fantasy life and a few superficial acquaintances. The next couple years were pretty rough for Bob Welch and me, but for different reasons: He drank too much, and I didn’t yet drink at all.

But things change. Welch got himself sober and won a Cy Young award, a World Series champion ring, and retired with 210 lifetime wins. As for me, I went off to boarding school at 15 and made some friends and started drinking booze and smoking pot. This was right around the time when Nancy Reagan was blanketing the airwaves with her message to “Just say no” to drugs, but when we got high we laughed until tears were rolling down our cheeks. Why in the world would I say no to that?

(to be continued)

25 comments

  1. 1.  It’s funny how time (and East Coast bias) plays tricks on you. I remember in vivid detail the Dodgers-Yankees World Series and the Welch vs. Jackson confrontations but the rest of his stellar career had faded into fog. 210 wins is a LOT and Bob Welch was very good for Oakland after LA and won 27 games in one season. Welch pitched well for 17 years but I can’t help but remember him as a 21 year old reliever.

    Note: I always thought that the flame-throwing RP in the movie The Natural was modeled on Bob Welch’s appearance in the ’78 series. Any thoughts?


  2. 2.  Baseballreference says he had 211 wins.

    I agree wholeheartedly about the highs and the lows. Dichotomy is everything, heaven is meaningless without hell, but the existence and even the relative frequency, of bad things in our lives doesn’t discount those precious moments when we are on top. Then, those wonderful, shining moments are cold comfort when we are in the dregs.

    As they say, you take the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, and what do you have? The fucking facts of life.


  3. 3.  1 joejoejoe, I had very similar thoughts to yours about Welch while thinking about him over the last couple days. First of all, I was stunned that he had that many lifetime wins. I do remember the year when he was chasing 30 wins but somehow I’d blanked on his prolonged success. As has been noted elsewhere (I think Bill James wrote about it) his lifetime stats are almost exactly the same as Orel Hershiser’s, a guy who’s spoke of at times as a legitimate HOF candidate (I don’t think Welch gets the same consideration).

    And like you I also thought of that great scene with the young reliever in the Natural when I was recalling Welch versus Reggie. Thanks a lot for mentioning that. I was initially thinking I’d work that into the profile, but somehow I didn’t get around to it…

    One other thing about the Welch-Reggie faceoff: it strikes me that it is the mirror image of a similarly hallowed World Series confrontation from a half a century earlier: Pete Alexander coming in to fan Tony Lazzeri with the bases loaded in game 7 of the 1926 World Series. In that matchup, the pitcher (not the hitter) was the living legend, and the hitter (not the pitcher) was the young, budding star. One key difference (besides that it was in the 7th game) was that the moment came in the 7th inning (Alexander mowed Murderur’s Row down for two more innings to clinch the series).


  4. 4.  My Topps collecting ended about a year or two before this ugly set came out — but I had a brief flare-up again in the early 90s when I wrote a column about the card-collecting hobby for a newspaper. Anyway, in that second stint I came across (not literally) a very cool Bob Welch card which was just a b/w portrait of his splitter grip.

    I found a photo of it published here:

    http://baseballcardblog.blogspot.com/2006/11/appreciation-cinematic-cards-from-1991.html

    Great stuff as always, looking forward to where this story goes next.


  5. 5.  2 Yes, as theme song lyricist Alan Thicke (who would later become famous playing a television character whose last name was a tribue to the greatest Met–and whose neighbor in the series was named Koosman) once wrote, “the world never seems to be liiiii-viiiing up to your dreams.”

    4 That is a cool split-finger grip card, mbtn01. Things really started to get sophisticated after I stopped adding cards to my shoebox. Thanks for that link to the Baseball Card Blog.

    Ah yes, the Baseball Card Blog. The gleaming many-decked luxury liner to my twine and driftwood life raft. It seems to be a really well put together, well-written full service depot for baseball card info.


  6. 6.  I just found this online (hat tip: filmfreakcentral.blogspot.com) and it is simply amazing. To sum it up, it is a meandering piece by Kurt Vonnegut about America and Bush. It is excellent, beautiful, fantastic writing and I didn’t know where to post it, but this seems remotely appropriate.

    http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/cold_turkey/


  7. 7.  6
    Thanks


  8. 8.  True to your thesis, I remember the Welch-Jackson confrontation vividly, but I don’t recall the runs Welch gave up the next day…

    The image is indelible in my mind, young Welch staring in for the sign, his face filling the frame of the television as we watched at a post-Yom Kippur meal. It was thrilling.\

    Of course, I remember the series being lost, but not the details of how. Just that moment is the one I really know.


  9. 9.  I remember all too well the ’78 series and that last game. Reggie’s three homers on three pitches game, including the aforementioned revenge shot off of Welch.

    But the game 2 K of Reggie was indeed a great and indelible moment, exciting enough at home on TV and must have been incredible in the stadium.


  10. 10.  9 Actually, Reggie’s 3-homer game was in ’77, which I think helped lend even more drama to the Welch-Reggie faceoff in ’78.


  11. 11.  Bob Welch and Steve Howe were two pitchers who had chemical dependency problems and shared names with 70’s rockers. Did 1930’s hurler Phil Collins lick toads?


  12. 12.  11 And don’t forget jazz organist and championship leadoff hitter Lonnie Smith in the chemical dependancy/musician all-stars.

    Another possible entry, if the rules are bent a little, might include ’70s backup catcher Bob Stinson. I don’t think Stinson had any substance abuse problems, but his non-baseball-playing namesake, the late great founder of the Replacements, certainly did. It all comes full circle in the latter Stinson’s Wikipedia entry: “Among Stinson’s heroes was guitarist Steve Howe from the group Yes. Early Replacements lore has them playing ‘Roundabout’ at breakneck speed in a Minneapolis basement. The story may be apocryphal but Stinson’s affinity for Howe was real.”


  13. 13.  I was gonna make a “Sentimental Lady” comment but didn’t want to aim that high. No more!


  14. 14.  12.
    An obscure jazz reference on baseball toaster?
    I’ve got to check in !

    And of course, in the jazz world, there are also 2 different Lonnie Smiths and it’s always been very confusing as both play keyboard instruments(and neither one ever batted lead off for the Atlanta Braves):

    *Lonnie (Liston) Smith, pianist/keyboardist
    who recorded with Pharoah Sanders,Gato Barbieri and even Miles Davis on “Big Stuff”

    and

    *(Dr.) Lonnie Smith, jazz organist who is on one of George Benson’s earliest (and best ) recordings “the GB Cookbook”. He recently recorded a cd with my good friend, the guitarist, Peter Bernstein as well as another with John Abercrombie.
    Organ and gtr – it’s like baseball and hot dogs !


  15. 15.  And by the way, in what year did Bob Welch leave the Dodgers for Oakland and who was he traded for?


  16. 16.  14, 15 Holy John Coltrane, Batman, I think I mixed up the two jazz Lonnie Smiths! Apologies for that.

    Your second question, about Welch’s move from the Dodgers to the A’s, is likewise a snarl of possible confusion, so I’m simply going to paste in the entire complicated deal from baseball-reference:

    “December 11, 1987: [Welch was t]raded as part of a 3-team trade by the Los Angeles Dodgers with Matt Young to the Oakland Athletics. The Los Angeles Dodgers sent Jack Savage to the New York Mets. The Oakland Athletics sent Alfredo Griffin and Jay Howell to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Oakland Athletics sent Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst to the New York Mets. The New York Mets sent Jesse Orosco to the Los Angeles Dodgers.”

    Who did what to who now?


  17. 17.  11 12 I don’t think the player had a dependency problem, but he does share his name with an early ’80s rocker. Dave Stewart (Dodgers, A’s, Eurhythmics). The Dodgers used to have Welch, Howe and Stewart on the same roster in the early ’80s, the best guitar-playing pitching staff ever?


  18. 18.  16 Reading text descriptions of trades of more than two teams and more than one player per team hurts my head. I always end up writing them out in a table like the link below, so I can better understand it. After all, what’s most important is what happened to each team, who they traded and who they obtained.

    Still a fascinating trade, especially because all three teams made the playoffs, and two made the WS, in 1988.


  19. 19.  10 Apparently I am officially at or past the age where memories get blurry! Besides, the ’77 and ’78 WS were particulary tough to take for us Dodger fans (Reggie’s homers, Nettles’ glove, Reggie’s hip). Thank goodness for ’81.

    BTW, Reggie hit those three homes off Hooton, Sosa and Hough.


  20. 20.  17 So is there some guitar player named “Storm Davis” I should have heard of?


  21. 21.  20 No, but apparently there is now some white-guy indie hip-hopper using that name.


  22. 22.  Also in the early ’80s Dodger pitcher and Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick(y) Wright. The Dodgers traded half a band to get Rick Honeycutt.


  23. 23.  El Lay Dave, Stewart may have kept his nose clean otherwise, but he did have at least one embarassing moment: http://www.dodgerblues.com/content/features_moments.html#stewart

    I knew about Jimmy Smith, master of the Hammond B3, but not Lonnie Smith. FWIW, there were 3 different Joe Walshes who had brief careers many years ago. And Jim Morrison manned the hot corner for the Pirates for a while after he faked his death.


  24. 24.  If I could just add. The hollywood movie recreation of this scene occurred in the 1989 movie Major League.

    Charlie Sheen enters to the music “Wild Thing” and a screaming Cleveland crowd.

    The writer of the movie has been interviewed and stated that he was a young Dodger fan when Welch struck out Reggie Jackson.

    And he did a great job. I still get goose bumps when Charlie Sheen enters that game!


  25. 25.  Intersting your comparisons to The Natural. I was too young to have experienced the Welch VS. Reggie. However in the book version of The Natural Roy strikes out. Just like Reggie.



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