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.
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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.
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