Bob Welch Won Games and Saved Lives
My friend Bob Welch keeled over and died on Monday. He was 57.
Bob was a terrific pitcher but far more important he was a pioneer in rehabilitation from substance abuse.
I have heard from dozens of people – some in my profession – a few famous names -- who were sober, day by day, because Bob Welch, star pitcher, had gone public about his addiction to that dangerous drug called alcohol, and how he took treatment for it.
Bob was intense and sweet, goofy and smart. He picked good people to admire – Dusty Baker, his teammate, and Sandy Koufax, on his visits to the Dodgers. Writer-friends like Lyle Spencer and me would roll our eyes at Welchie’s nervous energy, but then he would drop some words of wisdom from that puppy-dog presence.
The day in Los Angeles in 1985 after Jack Clark won the pennant with a home run, I visited the Dodgers’ clubhouse, which was close to empty.But there was Bob, fidgeting in his locker, tossing stuff around, keeping busy.
He whispered to me: “A lot of the guys are out in the back getting hammered. I choose not to.”
That was the language of The Meadows, the place Bob had gone to save his life, when he was 23 and already suffering blackouts from binge drinking. The Dodgers had intervened, via wise club officials like Al Campanis and Don Newcombe keeping an eye on him, and using the contact with their oil sponsor to send him to rehab.
Bob went off to Arizona for treatment and accepted the fact that he was a drunk, would always be a drunk, and needed to make choices, day by day.
Later, while I was helping him write his 1982 book, “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle with Alcoholism,” I stayed at the Meadows for a separate family week, That week was great for me, clearing up some stuff, not that substance was a problem. I saw plenty of myself in Bob, the nerves, the fears, the desire to succeed, like The Band song by Robbie Robertson about Bob Dylan, “Stagefright” – “But when we get to the end/ He wanna start all over again.”
Bob was wonderful to work with -- smart and intuitive and demanding, just like Martina Navratilova, the other athlete I helped write a book. They both thought like writers, like editors.
Bob and Mary got married and were living in San Francisco, the city he loved so much, when he pitched for the A’s. The night before he was supposed to pitch the third game of the 1989 World Series, the four of us went out to dinner. He was twitching even more than usual. He confided that during the workout he had pulled a groin muscle (taking grounders at short, the big kid) and did not know if he could pitch.
The next day he was getting treatment in the clubhouse at Candlestick Park, jittery, praying to his late mother, whom he loved so much, to get him through this injury. Suddenly, the stadium began to rock, plaster falling on the training table.
“Mom! I didn’t mean this!” he blurted. When the region recovered from the earthquake, he never did pitch in the Series. The new home in the Marina District had a huge crack in it, and yellow emergency tape across the door. It took them many months to move in.
We kept in touch after the marriage broke up. He loved coaching, for the Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series, and with young players after that.
I would hear from people who played golf with him, who saw him at old-timers events. He looked great. He was sober. He was still nuts. Every few months I would track him down, in Arizona or California, and he would tell me about his athlete’s joints falling apart, about the three kids, about how he was keeping sober, day by day.
I am heartsick, but I know other people who are sober because he went public so early, so openly. That’s far better than his Cy Young Award.
* * *
Bob Welch's funeral will be Saturday, June 14, from 2-4:30 at the Grayhawk Golf Club, Scottsdale, Arizona. In lieu of flowers, the family will suggest a donation to a charity. More information shortly.
6/11/2014 04:25:08 am
6/11/2014 05:20:05 am
Life is short, regardless of your final age. The key is how you live it..
6/11/2014 05:35:57 am
I am one of the countless people who Bob unknowingly had a profound impact on. Thanks for the book. Thanks for this blog item. Thanks for the interview on The Ticket today.
Mike from Whitestone
6/11/2014 07:00:52 am
Thanks GV and more importantly, thanks Bob. You showed someone lost like I was the road to recovery is nothing to be ashamed up. You did it under the spotlight too. It gave sobriety another 'brand-name' for me. I never took the mound in the big show but it was always on my bucket list as a little guy. Anyway, you taught life lessons with the courage to change the things you could. One day at a time, your power of example and many other good people (RIP Mom with 21 yrs sober) are part of my 24 years clean, just for today.
6/11/2014 07:13:09 am
Dear Mike (and others):
6/11/2014 02:25:55 pm
While playing baseball at UNLV during the late 80s, Don Newcombe was invited to speak to our team about alcohol and drug abuse. One of the vivid examples he shared with me and my teammates that day was about happening upon on very inebriated Bob Welch in the gutter/alley on the first night of a long road trip. He had a huge wad of cash (meal money for the entire trip) hanging out of his pocket. Don told us that Bob was lucky that someone hadn't killed him for that cash. Furthermore, he shared how addiction can derail even the most talented individuals. The story of his battles with personal demons made an impact on me for sure.
6/12/2014 12:46:37 am
Ted: Thanks. Don Newcombe is a great person. I saw him as a kid rooting for Brooklyn, and have gotten to know him as a reporter. He stopped drinking cold in middle age, swearing to his wife that he would never drink again. He has been responsible for keeping an eye on many Dodgers. He'll turn 88 on Saturday and is still working. Also, when Al Campanis made some dumb statements on live TV, Newcombe, as an African-American, never wavered in defending his friend, saying there was not a racist bone in him. This is a guy you want on your side. And he was on Bob's side before Bob knew it. GV
6/11/2014 11:53:02 pm
One month shy if my 23rd birthday, after years of fights/arguments/confrontations, countless blackout nights, my mother gave her powerlifting son a book that saved his life. I read the book 31 years ago... I've very proudly told my story to countless people w/ an assist to George Vecsey and Bob Welch. Bob made me realize that I was not alone. Reply saddened by his passing, I remain grateful that I got to "know" Bob Welch.
6/12/2014 12:49:20 am
Wow. Thanks so much. That book was all Bob. He put himself out there. Absorbed the lessons of the rehab center, and never forgot. Have a good day today, George.
6/12/2014 03:52:02 am
Sorry for the loss of your friend, George. As you know, my family has struggled with this disease and this book was pointed to many times during the course of our difficult journey. It is an eye-opening book and I'm sure it has helped many people identify themselves as addicts, too, which is the first step to recovery.
6/12/2014 04:29:03 am
Di, thanks so much. Absolutely true. The first step is the recognition. Bob identified with the guy in Skid Row...and had a high image of himself, and did not want to be that. It's a start. He could narrate the goings-on with a drinking group at the next table in a restaurant. Knew the roles. Ask Dave about the dinner in Montreal.
6/14/2014 06:25:24 pm
Thank you for the wonderful tribute to Bob. Growing up he was someone I looked up to, and after reading "Five O'Clock" even more so. He was kind to me by replying to my many fan letters. It was always nice to check up on him in the news to see where he was after the Dodgers. Thanks again George.
6/15/2014 12:47:51 pm
Mr. Vecsey, thanks. I was 13 when Welch came to the big leagues, and he always was one of my favorites--especially after I read the book you two did. I never had a problem with alcohol, and still don't. I think at times that it might be in part because, when I was at an age where those choices were about to come up, I read Bob Welch's account. Red Barber said of another pitcher who also was an alcoholic, Waite Hoyt, that he conquered his biggest enemy, himself, and went on to help a lot of other people. So did Bob Welch.
7/22/2014 07:43:35 pm
I saw him give an after game interview, before he had alcohol problems. Well spoken. He looked good in Dodger blue. He could really pitch.
9/21/2014 11:11:38 pm
Don Newcombe is a great person. I saw him as a kid rooting for Brooklyn, and have gotten to know him as a reporter.
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“I don’t think people understand how Covid affects older Americans,” Mr. Caretti said with frustration. “In 2020, there was this all-in-this-together vibe, and it’s been annihilated. People just need to care about other people, man. That’s my soapbox.”
---Vic Caretti, 47, whose father recently died of Covid at 85.
---From an article by Paula Span, who covers old age for the NYT, which currently has 2646 comments, the majority criticizing the American public – and public officials – for acting as if the pandemic is “over.”
Classic wishful thinking, at a lethal level.