Sarah's Take: Welch remembered as star pitcher

Sarah's Take: Welch remembered as star pitcher

Just a few hours ago, I learned that one of my childhood baseball heroes, Bob Welch, passed away at the age of 57. I am still in disbelief because Welch was the first rookie that I remember watching.

The Michigan native spent 17 years in the Majors, splitting time between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics. While with the Athletics in 1990, Welch won 27 games, the last time that a Major League pitcher won more than 25 games in a season. The previous year he helped the Athletics win the World Series that was marred by a large earthquake. He never reached the same level as he did in 1990 when he won the American League Cy Young Award, but during his career, he always was a quality starter.

The Dodgers drafted Welch in the first round of the 1977 amateur draft. His journey to the Majors was extremely quick. The following June, Welch made his Major League debut as a reliever. He quickly gained the confidence of manager Tommy Lasorda, so Lasorda used Welch in crucial situations.

During the 1978 World Series, the second consecutive season for the classic matchup between the Dodgers and the New York Yankees, Welch -- as a rookie -- struck out the Dodgers nemesis Reggie Jackson with tying runs on base to preserve a victory. This has gone down in World Series history as one of the most dramatic moments, and it convinced everyone that the 21-year-old phenom had ice water running through his veins.

This wasn't the case. The 1979 season was forgettable for Welch. Older baseball fans contributed Welch's struggles to the "sophomore jinx." At eight, I didn't understand the "sophomore jinx." After all, Welch had the same unhittable pitches, namely a blazing fastball, and sometimes he had great control, while at other times, he had difficulty finding the plate. In my child's mind, I sensed something was wrong with Welch other than the "sophomore jinx." Even now, 35 years later, I don't believe in "sophomore jinx" even though I understand continued success in the Majors requires daily adjustments.

I was correct. Welch silently was battling alcoholism, and the illness affected his performance. Welch's career could have been ruined by alcohol, but Don Newcombe, a recovered alcoholic, knew the signs of a person abusing alcohol. After the season, Newcombe confronted Welch about his illness. Just before the 1980 season began, Welch checked himself into an alcohol rehabilitation center. After he won his Cy Young Award, he wrote a book titled "Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Cy Young Award-Winner Recounts His Greatest Victory." In his book, Welch publicized his battles with alcohol. I read the book, and it helped me to understand the illness.

In 1980, Welch pitched a one-hitter where he only faced 27 batters. He was vital to the Dodgers' 1981 world championship over the Yankees who had triumphed over Los Angeles in both 1977 and 1978. Welch became the veteran of the Dodgers starting rotation after Burt Hooton and Jerry Reuss left Los Angeles. Over the years in the Majors, Welch transitioned himself from a power pitcher to a finesse pitcher. He developed a terrific curveball that enabled him to continue collecting the strikeouts.

After the 1987 season, new general manager Fred Claire traded Welch to the Athletics for shortstop Alfredo Griffin, who stabilized the Dodgers infield defense that helped the team to win a world championship in 1988. While in Oakland, Welch learned how to throw a split-fingered fastball, which extended his playing career. For the last six years of his career, he pitched with a large bone spur in his elbow. If the doctors removed the bone spur, Welch would have needed Tommy John surgery.

Since Welch loved baseball so much, in his retirement, he coached in both the Oakland and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations. He connected with the young players and enjoyed teaching the young pitchers his immense knowledge. In recent years, he frequently visited Dodger Stadium, the place where his career began.

Baseball lost a fun-loving pitcher who seldom backed down from a challenge. Welch triumphed over alcoholism to be an outstanding pitcher. His confrontation with Reggie Jackson during the 1978 World Series as a 21-year-old rookie won't be forgotten by anyone who saw it, even though Welch won't be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Sarah D. Morris can be reached at sarahmorris27@gmail.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.