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)