There’s an old adage, one that you’ve likely experienced in your own lives — that when events occur, good or bad, they often happen in groups of three. This has been the case quite often in Athletics franchise history and the events have, for the most part, gone in the A’s favor.
There have been multiple examples of this since 1901. The A’s have 9 World Championships and 15 American League Titles to show for it, including one of the only three-peats in baseball history. A decade later, the 1988-1990 teams won three more consecutive AL Championships. Those ‘88-’90 teams lost two of their World Series, but fast-forward to 2014-2016 and they lost much more — three members of those teams passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, in three straight years.
Saturday marked the four-year anniversary of the loss of starting pitcher Bob Welch. Then in 2015, outfielder Dave Henderson died suddenly of a heart attack. And in 2016, baseball’s first real super-utility player Tony Phillips also abruptly passed. Welch and Henderson were just 57 years old and Phillips was a mere two months away from his 57th birthday.
It’s all a bit strange and certainly oddly coincidental, there’s no denying that, but that’s not what this is about. (But if you happen to come across anything besides an old proverb that makes any sense of this, feel free to comment or drop me a line on social media because it’s all a bit much for me, personally). This weekend we should be celebrating the life of not just an extraordinary ballplayer, but an extraordinary human being. Bob Welch was one of my childhood heroes and later in life I am proud to have been able to call him my friend, so I consider him to be both of those things — as does, I’m sure, anyone else whose life he touched.
Welch spent the majority of his career in Los Angeles after being drafted 20th overall in the 1977 MLB amateur draft by the Dodgers. He was always doing something extraordinary on the field. In what was quite possibly the best-known moment of his career, a rookie Welch struck out Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson (who had since moved on from Oakland to the Yankees), with two on and two out in ninth inning of Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. While that was one of his main claims to fame, Welch was the type of guy who’d always remind you that Reggie got revenge in Game 6 of that series, taking him deep for a two-run home run.
The Dodgers lost that series but Welch did win two Worlds Series rings in 1981 with L.A and in 1989 with Oakland. Another notable moment in his career came during that second World Series without Welch ever throwing a single pitch. Scheduled to start Game 3 in the Battle of the Bay against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park, Welch never got the chance. The Loma Prieta earthquake shook both the city and The Town, leading to the postponement of the World Series for 10 days. It concluded after that with the A’s sweeping the Giants in four games. (I know, you ALL know this - but isn’t it just fun to say?!)
While striking out Reggie over a decade earlier may have been Welch’s most well-remembered, epic career moment, his 1990 season was even better. Actually spring training didn’t go well for Welch in 1990, and the first batter he faced in the regular season hit a homer. It was the farthest indication of what was going to happen that season. Welch ultimately posted a 2.95 ERA, punching out win after win for the A’s and making his second All-Star Game appearance — this time as the starting pitcher for the AL. Welch went on to win 27 games and the Cy Young Award that season. He was the first pitcher to win 27 games since Hall of Famer Steve Carlton did so for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972. No one has surpassed 25 wins in a single season since and it’s extremely unlikely that anyone ever will.
After 10 years as a Dodger and 7 as a member of the A’s, Welch retired after the 1994 season at age 37. He went on to change a lot of people’s lives after that — but then again he always had been someone who changed people’s lives. He was one of, if not the first, professional athlete to admit openly that he suffered from alcohol addiction early in his career. He wrote a book (that is worth the read!) with New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey called Five O’Clock Comes Early, and was an inspiration to many others suffering from addiction.
He became a pitching coach and helped the 2001 Diamondbacks become World Series champions. When I met Bob he was working as a pitching coach for the A’s minor leaguers and we sparked up a conversation one day at Phoenix Muni during spring training, only a couple years before the accident that took his life. Just like everyone else I was, well, a bit shocked that he wanted to chat with me about baseball — to me he was one of the most famous players in the world.
I was a huge fan when I was a kid, yet instantly put at ease by his demeanor. He was humble and genuine almost to a fault, and to be honest he reminded me so much of my father (who is one of the nicest people you will ever meet). He was respectful and nice. He never forgot me and would often spend an entire game sometimes just talking about baseball or worrying that if we stayed for extra innings we were going to miss our flight home. He’d remember the little things about the “little” people — about everyone he met it seemed.
Teammates described him after his passing as “the best teammate,” who had “the most sensitive heart.” He oozed “generosity and humility to a fault,” according to Melissa Lockard who attended his memorial.
It was Welch, actually, who encouraged me to start writing about the game again (after a few years off I had been a bit intimidated by the idea of putting work back out there). He convinced me to at least start a blog because I was knowledgeable and understood the game in the right way. While I don’t know about all that being true, that is just the kind of man Bob was. According to my experiences with him along with those of his friends and teammates, Bob truly did treat “every person he encountered the same way, with utmost respect,” and kindness. He had some incredible moments on the field but was a more incredible person off the field. He is very much missed.