What did I know as a kid? So close to “nothing” that I’m shocked I even made it to middle school.
I knew I wanted people to like me, but understood so little about how other people thought or moved as a group that I could never keep up. Solitude was much easier to handle. I could sit in my room and keep track of the various nonsensical things I liked in my notebooks and watch sports and follow players and try to get an understanding on how the game worked, who was good and who wasn’t.
From this perspective, it was a lot easier to get a grasp on things. I could watch baseball, for example, and understand how it worked, what was supposed to happen and what was not supposed to happen. I knew that in a lineup, the fastest players hit first, the best hitters hit third and the biggest power threats hit fourth. I knew that power pitchers were big, burly guys and that control pitchers were older, a little funnier looking maybe, but could be counted on for seven or eight innings every night. And closers, even within the facial-hair-friendly world of baseball circa 1989-93, all had mustaches.
And from there, players fit neatly into these character sketches. The best leadoff hitters were Rickey Henderson, Brett Butler and the young Kenny Lofton in Cleveland. On the Red Sox, Mike Greenwell and Mo Vaughn fit that 3-4 combination perfectly. Roger Clemens and Frank Viola were the burly power pitchers and older, crafty veterans, respectively. Out in Oakland, Dennis Eckersley was the king of the mustachioed closers, all sidearm and brash showmanship.
But Eck had a teammate in Oakland that seemed to defy the stereotypes I had so carefully imposed upon the baseball world. Bob Welch could have been the crafty veteran who knew how to pitch and gutted out wins, but there was an artificial limit to that view that Welch exceeded — he was too good. When the A’s were gods and owned the league, as far as I was concerned, he was a quizzical piece to their puzzle. Beyond the raw power of the Bash Brothers Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, they had consistent hitting from Carney Lansford, Dave Henderson and Terry Steinbach, and the pitching staff was led by the dominant Dave Stewart in the rotation and Eckersley out of the bullpen.
And then I’d look on the back of Welch’s baseball card and be completely confused as to how he could have won 27 games and the Cy Young in 1990.
Welch, though, quietly served as a second ace on the A’s staff for a time, most memorably in 1990 when he racked up 27 wins — the most anyone’s had in either league since. He won the Cy Young that year on the backs of those wins, but the rest of his stats showed he knew what he was doing. His strikeouts were down at that stage of his career, but his 2.95 ERA was good for sixth in the league (and an ERA+ of 125). But as I rack my brain for an explanation as to why I didn’t take him as seriously as I should, even as he would beat my hometown Sox in the playoffs, all I can think is that he didn’t look the part.
There was a lot more to Bob Welch than met the eye, of course. He famously beat alcoholism early in his career and extended his baseball life to the point that he got to play in four World Series, winning two. After making his first All-Star Game in 1980 with the Dodgers, he hung around and finally got to play in a second in his marquee 1990 year. He later went on to win another World Series on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ staff as pitching coach in 2001 and never left the game, until last night, due to a heart attack.
I didn’t know him, obviously, and I never will. The guy I knew was a face on a card and a confusing figure on the mound who seemed to win games that violated my own preconceived, clear-cut rules of baseball. He was much more than that, though. He was a survivor and a winner and, from the stories that are coming out today, a much-loved teammate and coach in the game. I don’t know much more today that I did when I was 10, but I’m glad I know who Bob Welch was, and to know that giving people a chance can count for so much.