Bob Welch: In search of a better life
Posted by athomeatfenway on March 12, 2012
Glorious things come to mind when thinking of Bob Welch, the right handed power pitcher with a 211 – 146 record & 3.47 ERA over 17 years. He is the last major leaguer to win 27 games. He pitched in 4 World Series, earning rings in ’81 and ’89.
Welch is the winner of the 1990 Cy Young, trumping Roger Clemens even though his E.R.A. was 2.95 and Roger’s was 1.93.
As a Dodger he played with Garvey, Baker, Sutcliffe and Fernando. As an Athletic he teamed with Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Ricky and Jose.
As a 21 year old, he struck out Reggie Jackson in the ’78 Series.
I did not used to think of Bob Welch as a former alcoholic who was on a sure fire path to an early death. Doomed until Fred Claire and Tommy LaSorda intervened.
Reading this book changed that perception.
Five O’Clock Comes Early. A Cy Young Award Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory. Bob Welch and George Vecsey. (1982). 1991/Fireside edition.
“Of course, the Welches are a drinking family.”, writes Welch.
The Welches lived in Ferndale, MI and sent Bob to Hazel Park High School. His family came from Paducah, KY. They were driven by the Great Depression and WWII employment opportunities in the Motor City.
The Welches came north in search of a better life.
“Of course, the Welches are a drinking family.”
He remembers talking his first drinks at age 10 at a wedding, when he and a cousin guzzled down abandoned 7 & 7’s.
He got drunk for the first time at age 15, when he chugged a bottle of Mogen David before attending a football game with a bunch of friends who each slugged down a bottle of pre-game booze.
“Some of the other kids couldn’t keep it down…I was a good drinker. I could guzzle down a lot of beer, too, more than most guys.”
“Pot or cocaine made me jump around, want to eat, want to go to sleep…I liked depressants and I liked the feeling of getting drunk…You could sit in a bar all night and drink and tell stories and laugh your ass off.”
Young Welch’s daily passion for drinking became a daily habit early on. He suffered from frequent black outs, not remembering his verbal abuse of family, friends and strangers, or his physical destruction of property, or the embarrassing scenes in restaurants.
By the time he reached the major leagues he was lost; a 21 year old reliever for Tom LaSorda’s Dodgers, drinking beer during games and kicking in hotel doors at night.
Welch was set up to fail. He grew up in a drinking home. His habit grew unchecked until he was on the path of self-destruction.
The search for a better life is Mr. Welch’s journey.
Hazel Park kids were tough. They were greatly competitive in sports, and equally competitive when chasing women, drinking beer or playing pool. After a game, Hazel Park folk head for the Rainbow Bar to trade insults, cuss up a storm, eat pizza, and buy a round. “And drink some of those beers just to show I was one of the guys.”, says Welch.
Raised on Howard, Giff and Dandy, bred on McLain, Kaline, Harwell and Lolich, Bob Welch was equal parts Detroit fan and local sports star.
It wasn’t all about baseball, though.
He loved to shoot the basketball. He was so confident that he sought games against black players in the city. He won the Detroit City P.A.L. Championship while moonlighting on the West Side Cubs.
He was unable to sit still.
He was an often injured kid. By the time he was 8, he broke his arm, fractured his collar bone and took 10 stitches in the head in 3 separate instances. Parrot fever threatening his life at age 11, causing a 39 day hospital stay and requiring Bob to wear drainage tubes in his ears for 1 year.
His injuries persisted until his sophomore year in college, when he tore up his knee and committed to stop taking risks with his body.
“I thought the scouts were interested and I got it in my mind to be the next Mickey Lolich. I kept waiting for the Tigers to draft me.”
But, the Cubs took him in the 14th round of the 1974 draft and offered $5,000. “…hell, I could have cleared 5 grand selling marijuana in the neighborhood.”, wrote Bob.
Welch chose college instead of the Cubs. Many schools wanted him, but Eastern Michigan State’s Ron Oestrike and Roger Coryell cared the most about him.
Welch drank his way through EMU. He drank right through freshman and sophomore years and into the subsequent off season when he toured Japan with a college all star team coached by the famed Ron Dedeaux of U.S.C..
“You’ve got to stop drinking. You act just like an alcoholic when you’ve had a drink.”, Deadeaux told him.
That was the first time anyone had confronted him about his drinking. He denied and deflected Dedeaux. But he never forgot what the Coach said.
As a junior, Welch progressed well toward the June draft until his elbow exploded. Surgery was required. As he rehabbed, most of the scouts disappeared. All of them except for the Dodgers’ Dale McReynolds, that is. McReynolds kept showing up. He liked what he saw.
He was picked by the Dodgers in the 1st round of the 1977 Draft. The team flew Welch to L.A.. They wined him, dined him and had Dr. Frank Jobe examine him. They suited him up for a tossing session at Dodger Stadium.
Welch remembers Dodgers Stadium being so bright and clean that day that you could eat off the floors. (A striking contrast to the dirty, run down park operated now by Frank McCourt.)
Nobe Kawano gave him a uniform. He dressed silently near Don Sutton, Tommy John and Davey Lopes.
The Dodger brass watched Welch throw in the bullpen. “…and I knew I had some really nasty shit.”
His agent, Bob Fenton arranged a $55,000 signing bonus and off to AA San Antonio went Welch.
After striking out many and walking few in the minors, LaSorda called up Welch. He debuted on June 12, 1978. He was still 21 years old.
Lasorda used him in relief 10 times. He started Welch in 13 games. The pride of Hazel Park went 7 – 2, with a 2.02 ERA and 3 saves. Welch did not deliver an overall good performance in the World Series, but he did have his star moment when striking out Reggie.
Welch would contribute in relief and as a starter in 1979, too, going 5 – 6, 3.98 with 5 saves. But he was displaying risky behavior. He learned that he could slip into the dugout during the game and down a can of beer before anyone noticed he was gone, or so he thought. In addition to getting a buzz-on during games, he showed up for games hammered. Team mate Rick Sutcliffe sobered him up more than once.
Bob was getting drunk every day. He was drunk as soon as he had one drink. He frequently stayed up all night drinking.
None of this was new. Bob had been acting this way since college. No one except Rod Dedeaux had said anything to him about it.
That changed in January of 1980 when the Dodgers arranged an intervention.
The rest of the story is about how Welch stopped drinking and faced his fears during an extended stay at an Arizona rehab facility.
Hats off to LaSorda and Claire for making Welch the first participant in a newly established alcohol treatment program with The Dodgers. They saved his life. He owes the last 15 years of his baseball career and everything else to them.
You’ll find the balance of the book honest, ugly and renewing. If you have a friend you suspect is an alcoholic this book is of special value. You’ll learn there are 20 questions. If you answer yes to 3 of them, you are an alcoholic.
Baseball is life. Baseball is about so much more than just baseball.
Choose your cliché.
This is one book that proves it.
This book is the story of how Bob Welch found a better life.
Go Sox !