OAKLAND, Calif. — He was doing everything he could do, everything he could think of. The Dodgers got someone on base, he struck somebody out. The Dodgers tried to rattle him, he struck somebody out. Bob Welch was mowing them down and waiting for support, mowing them down and waiting for support. His teammates, the suddenly punchless Oakland Athletics, were giving him nothing to sit on in this Game 3 of the World Series and all he could do was go back out and keep throwing.
This is the story of a winner who came up empty Tuesday night. So what? The way they were talking, people didn’t think Bob Welch would last two innings. He had been erratic. He had been nervous, hyper. In his last game — against Boston in the American League playoffs — he had been shellacked. Now, the Athletics were depending on him to keep them afloat.
Ironic, isn’t it? Welch — who grew up in metro Detroit — a man who once had been anything but steady, charged with keeping his team afloat? Ironic — and fitting. Once upon a time, Welch was a kid with a drinking problem. He might have needed a day- long sip to prepare for pressure like this.
Not anymore. Welch, who turns 32 on Nov. 3, came out smoking Tuesday, striking out eight before finally tiring in the sixth. He left with the score tied, 1-1, and what he did in those first five-plus innings will never show up in the box score of the A’s 2-1 win. It was significant nonetheless.
As the starter for a team trailing, 2-0, in this series, Welch was symbolic of the Athletics’ predicament. If the Dodgers rattled him, they might well rattle the Athletics for good, showing strength in Oakland’s home park. Who knows? The thing could be over in four.
Welch, you may remember, had played for the Dodgers for 10 years. They knew him well. And they knew this: He was a nervous type who was high strung in the early innings. So the Dodgers tried, right from the start, to drive Welch nuts.
Steve Sax singled to start the game. He danced back and forth off the bag.
“Look at me, Welch, over here,” he seemed to say.
Franklin Stubbs, the second batter, stepped in and out of the batter’s box.
“Now I’m ready, Welch, oops, now I’m not.”
There was enough movement to open a dance club — all of it meant to shake the man who had a reputation for being shakable. How did he respond? He threw nine times to first base. He shuffled his feet.
And he struck out Stubbs.
And he struck out Mickey Hatcher.
And he struck out Mike Marshall.
And he walked off the mound.
It was a strong moment for Welch, not unlike a similar World Series moment almost exactly 10 years ago — when a 21- year-old Welch struck out the mighty Reggie Jackson in the ninth inning of Game 2, Dodgers vs. Yankees. Welch was a budding hero for Los Angeles back then, so how strange to see him in an Oakland uniform, pitching against his former team for the first time.
But things change. People change. Nobody knows that better than Welch. There was a time when he would sneak into the dugout for beers during the game. There was a time when he came to the ballpark drunk and challenged San Francisco’s Terry Whitfield to a fight. There was a time when, drunk and depressed, he would be mean to friends, to his wife.
The Dodgers saw what was happening. After countless incidents, they finally approached him, and shortly thereafter, Welch checked into a rehab clinic — long before rehab clinics were common for pro athletes. It wasn’t small print back then, it was big news.
He went anyhow. “I knew it was that or the end of my career,” he would say. And unlike the Lawrence Taylors and Bob Proberts, once was enough. Welch learned a lesson. He cried in that rehab, brought in family and friends, confronted them, listened to them, and finally, he came out and he has been clean.
We hear all the time about the troubled, the sick, the drunk and the addicted; we rarely hear about the recovered. Bob Welch, right from our own streets, Hazel Park High, is walking proof that sometimes you can turn it around, you can beat your demons.
The man whom he struck out in 1978, Reggie Jackson, was in the stadium Tuesday night, retired now, watching his one-time nemesis try to keep his one-time team afloat. Funny turn of events, no? But times change, people change, and sometimes, believe it or not, it can be for the better. How very refreshing.