June 10, 2014 at 11:38 pm

Lynn Henning

Bob Welch was a winner in baseball and in life

Chicago — A person does well in life, professionally, and personally, and we seldom acknowledge what was achieved. Until, of course, that person dies.

You could argue Bob Welch, who was born in Detroit, raised in Ferndale, schooled at Hazel Park High and Eastern Michigan, and who died of an apparent heart attack Monday in Seal Beach, Calif., was anything but ignored or treated anonymously during his 57 years.

He was, after all, an accomplished — even elite — right-handed pitcher whose highlight moments began when he was 21 with an epic ninth-inning World Series strikeout of Reggie Jackson and spanned nearly two decades, 211 victories, and a room full of plaudits and trophies.

Welch won a Cy Young Award in 1990. He won 27 games in 1990 for the A’s, and only Denny McLain (31), Dizzy Dean (30), Hal Newhouser (29), and Robin Roberts (28) have won more games during the past 80 years. He was on a pair of All-Star teams, pitched in 17 playoff and World Series games, and yes, he did all of this while dealing with a disease: alcoholism.

“He was very, very obsessive,” his cousin, Hugh Welch, of Garden City, said during a Wednesday phone conversation. “I remember one time when he was young and I told him, ‘I think you’re gonna be a really good player.’

“And he said: I don’t want to be a good player. I want to be the best.”

Fondly remembered

Welch, who was 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, and chiseled like a marble column, pitched 17 years in the big leagues, for two teams: the Dodgers and the A’s. He was a first-round Dodgers pick in 1977 and 16 months later was in a World Series, staring down Reggie Jackson, the Yankees’ theatrical slugger, with two on, and two out, in the ninth inning of a game the Dodgers led 4-3.

It was a moment scripted for Jackson, baseball’s most flamboyant slugger of the 1970s. But Welch, who was 21, had been a College World Series star for Ron Oestrike’s Eastern Michigan team and seemed almost pleased by the tension and matchup.

He zipped a fastball that Jackson nearly turned into powder as Reggie corkscrewed himself into the batter’s box dirt with his swing and follow-through. But Jackson had missed. Disgustedly, and with Reggie’s personal dash of color, he feigned throwing down his bat as Welch and the Dodgers hugged and back-slapped on Dodger Stadium’s infield.

His life before Eastern Michigan and the big leagues had been a typical, blue-collar Detroit upbringing. His dad, Rubert, was a factory worker, and his mother, Lunell, was in charge of three kids at home.

Bob was a star at Hazel Park High and drafted by the Cubs out of high school. But the world was different in 1975. Unlike today, when prep stars are often guaranteed fully paid college if professional baseball doesn’t work out, Welch was looking at no such security. Rubert and Lunell convinced him to take Oestrike’s scholarship offer at Eastern Michigan.

He wasn’t disappointed. And neither was Eastern Michigan, which made it to the College World Series during Welch’s first two seasons, and finished as a runner-up to Arizona in 1976.

Welch hurt his arm during his junior season, which didn’t stop the Dodgers from making him a first-round pick. He was soon in the big leagues, carving a career record of 211-146, with a 3.47 ERA and a fine career WHIP of 1.27.

“We lost a good man today,” Tommy Lasorda, who was Welch’s manager with the Dodgers, said in remarks to the New York Post’s Joel Sherman.

Billy Beane, general manager of the A’s, the team for which Welch pitched from 1988-94, said: “This is a sad day for the entire A’s organization. Those of us who knew Bob as a teammate and a friend will miss him greatly.”

Also grieving were the Diamondbacks, who won the 2001 World Series when Welch was the team’s pitching coach.

“Though he was on our major league coaching staff for just one season,” Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall said, “it was certainly memorable.”

Beating the bottle

Throughout his life, alcoholism was a constant challenge. It was the subject of a book he wrote with George Vecsey: “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory.”

But in his post-baseball life, the Welch family, which had an annual August reunion on Harsen’s Island, believed Welch had his disease under control.

“Bobby would fly in for that,” Hugh Welch said, “into Little Rock (Ark.), and he would meet another of our uncles and his wife and drive them up here for those reunions. He was not drinking, and I don’t know if he had any relapses.

“But I quit drinking myself a couple of years ago and I remember saying to Bobby that it wasn’t nearly as hard as giving up tobacco.

“And he said: ‘That’s the way I feel, too.’ ”

He might have quit a couple of indulgences. But he didn’t quit baseball. Welch coached for The Netherlands during the 2006 World Baseball Classic. And he continued to work with young A’s pitchers during spring camp in Arizona. His personal story was as much a part of the instruction as those 17 years throwing in the big leagues, even if not every batter or at-bat was as celestial as that Game 2 triumph over Jackson and the Yankees.

Welch has three children who survive him: sons Dylan and Riley, and daughter Kelly, who posted this tribute to her dad Tuesday on Twitter:

“RIP to the greatest dad to walk the earth. You were my hero and I love you so much. I’ll always be your little girl.”

Well played, dad, that life of yours, in all respects. Well played.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Bob Welch, who won the American League Cy Young Award in 1990 after winning 27 games for the Oakland Athletics, died of a heart attack Monday at his home in Seal Beach, Calif. He was 57. / Getty Images
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