1 PITCH AT A TIME

With the same resolve that governs his life as a recovering alcoholic, Bob Welch has pitched his way to a Cy Young-caliber season
September 16, 1990

Bob Welch seemed surprised by the sound of his own voice. The Oakland Athletics pitcher had just beaten the Texas Rangers 4-2 for his 22nd win of the year, the most productive of all his 13 major league seasons. He had more victories than anyone in either league (win No. 23 would soon follow) and was a prime candidate for the American League's Cy Young Award. His team was marching inexorably toward its third straight AL West championship. And any day now, his wife, Mary Ellen, would give birth to their second child.

So when Welch said after the game that "there were times out there tonight when I felt I had nothing else on my mind but the next pitch,'' his deep-set blue eyes popped open in wonder. Could he, a 33-year-old perpetually in a hurry, a nervous gum-chewer and ferocious consumer of mineral water, a man with a busy present and a tumultuous, even tortured, past, really be capable of that level of concentration? Well, yes, in fact, he could. Because he knows now that a game is better taken one pitch at a time. And he knows, at long last, that life is better taken one day at a time.

He learned that lesson the hard way, for Welch is a recovering alcoholic. "Today, I'm doing well, yes, but sobriety is something I must deal with every day," he says. "The problem will never go away, and if I should ever fall back into the situation I was in...."

For the past 10 years Welch has successfully dealt with his addiction with that firm day-to-day resolve. But until this year he had had a hard time incorporating this form of existentialism into his life on the pitching mound. "The difference between this season and the ones before," says A's manager Tony La Russa, "is that there were times, maybe once every five or six starts, when something would happen in a game—a bloop hit, a disputed call, a touch of wildness—and Bobby couldn't deal with it. Now he can."

"I don't know whether it was nerves or what, but Bobby would respond to adversity by rearing back and trying to overpower the opposition," says Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan. "He has recognized that as a drawback. Now he'll step back, collect his thoughts and return to the game plan. You don't see Bobby letting a game get away from him anymore. Now he neither looks back nor forward. Winning 20 games could have been a distraction for him. When he reached 17 wins so early [Aug. 2], people started asking him about 20. But he was determined to never look past the next game. He knows the future can be a distraction. And so can the past."

The past, indeed. This is the same Bob Welch who was a World Series hero as a 21-year-old rookie. In June 1978, the Los Angeles Dodgers called up Welch from Triple A Albuquerque. On Aug. 5 of that year, he replaced the injured Rick Rhoden in the starting rotation and promptly shut out the San Francisco Giants to halt a six-game Dodger losing streak. He was the winning pitcher when L.A. clinched the division crown on Sept. 24, shutting out the San Diego Padres 4-0. For the half season, he had a 7-4 record and a 2.03 ERA. But all that was mere stage-setting for his big moment: Oct. 11 at Dodger Stadium, Game 2 of the '78 Series against the New York Yankees.

The situation: The Dodgers are leading 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth. The Yankees have Bucky Dent on second, Paul Blair on first. The Dodgers will go two-up in the Series if they win, having beaten the Yanks 11-5 in Game 1. Welch, in relief of Terry Forster, has retired Thurman Munson on a line drive to right and now faces Reggie Jackson, who has driven in all three New York runs. Welch is instructed to stay with his best pitch, the fastball. It's power against power.

Jackson swings and misses the first pitch, almost falling down with the effort. The next pitch is ball one, up and in. Jackson fouls off three straight pitches before Welch throws ball two. Jackson fouls off another pitch. Welch throws ball three, high. The crowd of 55,982 is up and yelling. Can the rookie do it against the game's most famous slugger? The runners move with the pitch. Welch cranks up and throws another heater. Mighty Reggie has struck out!

"That was the best show I've ever seen," said Dodger centerfielder Bill North afterward. Says Welch now, "It was all downhill after that."

It was for a while, anyway. Jackson homered off Welch in Game 6 as the Yankees, winners of four consecutive games, won the Series. In '79, Welch, plagued by a sore arm, won only five games. But his real struggles were off the field. Since his junior year at Hazel Park High in suburban Detroit, Welch had been a drinker. In the blue-collar community of Ferndale where he was raised—his father, Rubert, was a machinist in an airplane-parts factory-bars represented the center of social life. "I did what everybody else did," says Welch of his youthful boozing.

Trouble was, he couldn't handle the stuff. During his three years at Eastern Michigan University, Welch drank even more heavily, but he was a good enough athlete to shake off the after-effects and star as a pitcher. However, not long after he joined the Dodgers, his teammates noticed that he got drunk too easily and too often. He was an embarrassment at team social functions, and once, before a 1979 game with San Francisco, he appeared blotto on the field and belligerently challenged Giants outfielder Terry Whitfield to a fight.

Fortunately the Dodgers were among the first professional teams to have a functioning drug and alcohol abuse program, and their director of community relations, former pitcher Don Newcombe, is himself a recovering alcoholic. Welch was persuaded to commit himself to The Meadows, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Wickenburg, Ariz., in January 1980. He stayed 36 days, and when he returned to the Dodgers, he was a dedicated disciple of Alcoholics Anonymous.

About this time, his long courtship of Mary Ellen Wilson, whom he had dated since high school, reached a critical juncture. When Welch had been called up to the Dodgers in '78, Mary Ellen moved with him to Los Angeles. Theirs was a sometimes stormy relationship—"We'd rip each other's heads off from time to time," he says—and some of the squalls were obviously induced by his drinking. "But there was one powerful thing in our relationship, and that was love."

Neither, though, was prepared to make a commitment, so in 1981 they agreed to separate and remained apart for nearly two years. Then at Christmastime in 1983, Welch made a decision. "I was making good money, and I was going good on the field, but I'd lie down at night and feel empty," he says. "Something was missing. So, what the hell, I decided to call this girl and see if she wanted to get married." Mary Ellen joined him on Jan. 10 in Dallas, where he was giving a talk to an NCAA convention. Nine days later they were married.

As a pitcher Welch had by now developed into a consistent if not spectacular winner. From 1982 through '87 he won 80 games for Los Angeles and lost 62, and he had accomplished this with basically only two pitches, an above-average fastball and an overhand curve. Acutely aware that he needed a third pitch, he experimented unsuccessfully with a straight changeup and made sparing use of a split-finger fastball. But not until he was traded to Oakland in December 1987 did Welch find what he needed.

Duncan, the game's ranking pitching guru, told him to forget the straight change and concentrate on the split-finger and to seek out the A's resident experts on the pitch, Dave Stewart and Mike Moore. "With our club," says Duncan, "the split-finger is a team project."

Welch became an apt pupil. "It's made a difference with him," says Stewart. "The pitch has kept those lefthanded hitters off him." Says catcher Ron Hassey, "Guys who win 20 games have three pitches."

A third pitch is not the only change in Welch's style. With La Russa and Duncan as calming influences, he has gradually gained control of the excitability that occasionally overwhelmed him—most especially, it seems, in playoff games, in which he has a 6.23 ERA in eight appearances. Welch is still hyperactive off the mound, but now he's resolutely cool on it. His newfound serenity was sorely tested last year. On Thursday, July 27, 1989, at 1:30 p.m., his first child, Dylan, was born in San Francisco's Children's Hospital. The next day, at 12:30 in the afternoon, at Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, Ky., his mother, Lorine, 67, died of pancreatitis. Welch was scheduled to pitch in the Oakland Coliseum that night against the Seattle Mariners.

"My mother was the type of woman who would trade her life to know we had a healthy baby," he says. "She fought a hard battle to stay alive long enough to have that happen. I told Tony [La Russa] I was leaving that day, and my father-in-law drove me to the airport for a 3 p.m. flight. But we got there too late. So I rescheduled my flight for midnight and went back to the ballpark and pitched."

He left after seven innings—leading 6-3 in a game the A's eventually won 8-7—to catch the plane. "My mother was buried on Sunday," he says. "I had some pictures of my baby boy with me, and in the funeral home I lifted up her hands and placed those pictures with her. I've never experienced anything in my life like what I went through at that moment."

Less than three months later, on Oct. 17, Welch was scheduled to start Game 3 of the '89 World Series, against the Giants in Candlestick Park. At the time, the Welches were getting ready to move into a condominium in San Francisco's Marina District at the edge of the Bay. At 5:04 p.m., only minutes before Welch was to take the mound, the Bay Area was shaken by the now famous earthquake, and much of the Marina went up in smoke. Welch's building was not severely damaged, but it would be months before the family could move into the condo. The Series would not resume for nearly two weeks, and because the A's swept the Giants in four games behind Stewart and Moore, Welch never did get his start. It was the end of a chaotic, emotionally wrenching season.

There are still jagged fissures in the streets and sidewalks near the Welch home. There is a vacant lot where an apartment building once stood, and the hum of construction work is heard throughout the Marina, FOR RENT signs are the signature of the Quake of '89.

But inside the Welch condo it is bright and busy this late Saturday afternoon. Dylan, blond and blue-eyed, is now 13 months, and the Welches' second child is due within days. Guests have just arrived: Mike Maguire, a lawyer from Wilmington, Del., with four of his children. Welch and Maguire exchange high fives.

"Well, man, we're still walkin'," says Welch.

"Not a drink between us," says Maguire, a portly, round-faced man of 49.

They embrace. "I guess you could say we're classmates from The Meadows," Maguire explains. "We were both there in January 1980. I, of course, was there for my sinuses. At least that's what I kept telling the stewardess on the flight out to Arizona after my 19th martini. Bob was already there when I checked in, and the first person I see as I walk through the door is Don Newcombe. Now, I'm a baseball nut from way back, a big Phillies fan. So here I am, standing next to that old Dodger, Big Newk. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. 'What in hell are you doing here?' I ask him. 'I thought you were already dry.' And Newcombe tells me he's there to give Bob a little encouragement. Then I see Bob. Well, he and I became great friends. We'd jog together. And I'd be the simulated batter when Bob would work out twice a week with a minor league catcher sent up from Phoenix. I'd stand there and say, 'God, I promise I'll never drink again if you'll just see to it that none of these fastballs hits me.' "

Welch gives Maguire a friendly poke in the arm and says, "C'mon, we gotta go get some pizza."

"Classmates," says Maguire. "At least I guess that's what we are."

"Nah," says Welch, smiling wickedly at his friend. "We're alcoholics."

Welch is still taking life one day at a time. It's just that the days are getting better and better.

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWelch fanned Jackson in a memorable Series showdown in '78, but the glory was fleeting. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROMaguire and Welch became buddies in rehab and have stood by each other ever since. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROMary Ellen, Dylan and Bob await the arrival of the next Welch.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)