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Bob Welch, former Dodgers phenom and 1990 AL Cy Young winner, dies at 57

Bob Welch (James Drake/SI) Bob Welch spent 17 years in the major leagues, split between the Athletics and the Dodgers. (James Drake/SI)

On Tuesday afternoon, the Oakland Athletics shocked the baseball world by announcing the sudden death of former AL Cy Young winner Bob Welch. According to the team, Welch passed away due to a heart attack on Monday night at the age of 57.

Welch spent 17 years in the majors with the Dodgers (1978-1987) and A's (1988-1994), serving as a key member of five pennant-winning teams and winning one World Series with each club. He earned All-Star honors twice, in 1980 and 1990, and won the Cy Young in the latter year after going 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA; he remains the last pitcher to win 25 or more games in a single season. He finished his career with a 211-146 record and a 3.47 ERA.

A Michigan native, Welch was chosen by the Dodgers as the 20th pick of the 1977 draft out of Eastern Michigan University. Just over a year later, with 140 minor league innings under his belt, he was called to the majors, debuting on June 20, 1978 with two scoreless innings against the Astros in relief of Tommy John. Welch made a total of 10 starts and 13 relief appearances for Los Angeles that year, notching three shutouts and three saves en route to a 2.02 ERA in 111 1/3 innings. His performance helped the team win its second straight NL West title and NL pennant, and in Game 2 of the World Series against the Yankees, he put together the most memorable moment of his career, and one of the most indelible moments in the history of the Fall Classic.

With two out, two men on for New York and the Dodgers clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth inning, manager Tommy Lasorda summoned Welch out of the bullpen to face Reggie Jackson, whose five homers in the previous year's World Series — three in the deciding game — had sent L.A. home in defeat. Welch won the nine-pitch battle and sealed the victory by throwing high cheese past Mr. October:

That showdown has remained etched in my mind for three and a half decades, because the next morning’s paper featured AP special correspondent Jules Loh’s updated take on the immortal poem Casey At the Bat, which I clipped from the newspaper. To this day, it remains tacked to the bulletin board in my childhood bedroom in Salt Lake City, its words not only burned into my memory but also part of a trail that led me to this career and this space. I shared the Loh poem at my Futility Infielder site in 2001, and at The Strike Zone last year.

Jackson got even with Welch by homering off him in the Game 6 clincher as the Dodgers lost. Welch couldn't hold onto a rotation spot the next year; as it turns out, he was battling a severe drinking problem during the 1979 season. From a 1982 Sports Illustrated piece by Jim Kaplan, on the occasion of the publication of Welch's autobiography, Five O'Clock Comes Early:

A shy boy, he began drinking to relax around girls and to mask a growing fear of injury and death. By the time he reached the Dodgers in 1978, he was blacking out so often he couldn't even remember his drinking bouts. Welch's cocktail hour began much earlier than five o'clock. He would duck into the clubhouse for beers during games and once arrived at the park drunk and insulted the Giants' Terry Whitfield, a player he barely knew. Under the influence, Welch's pitching declined rapidly, from a star rookie in 1978 to a little-used reliever in 1979. At that rate, Welch believes, he wouldn't have lasted long.

Fortunately, [recovering alcoholic and former Dodgers star Don] Newcombe was around. "There's a player on the team who drinks two fifths of Scotch a day," he told me during the 1979 season. Newcombe was shadowing Welch and gathering information, standard operating procedure among some rehabilitation workers. Alcoholics can't be cured by hints; they must be confronted. When the Dodgers buttonholed Welch after the 1979 season, the evidence was too overwhelming for him to deny. He agreed to enroll at The Meadows in February 1980.

Welch spent 36 days in rehab that spring, and began winning his battle with the bottle. He went 14-9 with a 3.29 ERA in 32 starts for the Dodgers in 1980, earning All-Star honors for the first time on a team that lost the NL West via a Game 163 play-in against the Astros. He was a starter on L.A.'s championship team of 1981, though his lone World Series appearance was a dud; he was pulled after failing to retire any of the first four hitters he faced as a starter in Game 4, though the Dodgers came back to win. He put up a 3.07 ERA (118 ERA+) while averaging 13 wins and 212 innings over the next six years, a span during which Los Angeles won two more NL West flags. He earned down-ballot consideration in the Cy Young voting in both 1983 (15-12, 2.65 ERA) and 1987 (15-9, 3.22 ERA and a league-high four shutouts).

The Dodgers traded Welch to the A's as part of a three-team, eight-player deal in December 1987, a move that helped both clubs, who won their league' respective pennants and met in the 1988 World Series. While an injury-plagued L.A. team pulled an upset fueled by Kirk Gibson's pinch-homer and Orel Hershiser's dominance, Welch helped Oakland claim its only win of the series by striking out eight and allowing just one run in five innings in Game 3.

As he had in Los Angeles, Welch emerged as a rotation mainstay for the A's as they won three straight pennants under manager Tony LaRussa from 1988-90. Over that span, Welch won 61 games and averaged 231 innings with a 3.21 ERA (117 ERA+). He didn't pitch in the earthquake-interrupted 1989 World Series, the only one of the three won by Oakland; the quake damaged both his family's current home as well as a condominium they had just purchased.

Fueled by a beefy 5.2 runs per game of offensive support from an offense led by "Bash Brothers" Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Welch won 27 games in 1990, which still stands as the highest total in the majors since Denny McLain won 31 in 1968. Those 27 wins trumped the 21 of Boston's Roger Clemens, who otherwise put together what would today be considered a superior performance: a 1.93 ERA, 8.2 strikeouts per nine and 10.6 WAR to Welch's 2.95 ERA, 4.8 strikeouts per nine and 3.0 WAR. Clemens would go on to win five more Cys, however, while Welch would never again scale those heights.

A free agent that winter, Welch parlayed his big season into a four-year deal worth over $14 million from the A's; the White Sox and Red Sox also contended for his services. The pact didn't pay off, however. Though he threw 222 innings in 1991, Welch's ERA ballooned to 4.58, and shoulder and elbow problems forced him to the disabled list four times over the next two seasons. He threw 235 1/3 innings of 5.81 ERA ball for Oakland in 1993 and '94 combined, losing his spot in the rotation in '94 and retiring at the age of 37.

After his retirement, Welch worked as a coach for Arizona State University and for the Diamonbacks; he oversaw the latter team's pitchers in 2001, when they upset the three-time defending champion Yankees in the World Series. He served as a special instructor for the A's during spring training and was in uniform at the Oakland Coliseum assisting the coaching staff as recently as last month.

Testament to Welch's impact on the A's could be found in a flood of Twitter-based tributes from the organization — former teammates, current players and minor leaguers — via OaklandClubhouse.com editor Melissa Lockard, who summarized:

https://twitter.com/oakclubhouse/status/476433435360522241

Via a lengthy Scout.com profile from Kimberly Contreras, A's farm director Keith Liepmann recently had this to say about Welch's impact on the organization's young players:

“Bob is passionate about everything he does in baseball,” Lieppman said. “His enthusiasm is off the charts and he is not influenced by draft status or money. He just cares for people and is willing to help anyone. He lightens up every room he walks in. We have described him as the ‘radiant coach.’ He's like the sun emitting positive energy in a variety of situations. He roots for the underdog and his only fault is that he only sees with optimism and possibility."
Fifty-seven years is too damn short for any life, but Bob Welch left behind a strong legacy, both for his on-field success as a player and a coach and his off-field triumph over alcoholism.
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