Trouble was, he couldn't handle the stuff. During his three years at Eastern Michigan University, Welch drank even more heavily, but he was a good enough athlete to shake off the after-effects and star as a pitcher. However, not long after he joined the Dodgers, his teammates noticed that he got drunk too easily and too often. He was an embarrassment at team social functions, and once, before a 1979 game with San Francisco, he appeared blotto on the field and belligerently challenged Giants outfielder Terry Whitfield to a fight.
Fortunately the Dodgers were among the first professional teams to have a functioning drug and alcohol abuse program, and their director of community relations, former pitcher Don Newcombe, is himself a recovering alcoholic. Welch was persuaded to commit himself to The Meadows, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility in Wickenburg, Ariz., in January 1980. He stayed 36 days, and when he returned to the Dodgers, he was a dedicated disciple of Alcoholics Anonymous.
About this time, his long courtship of Mary Ellen Wilson, whom he had dated since high school, reached a critical juncture. When Welch had been called up to the Dodgers in '78, Mary Ellen moved with him to Los Angeles. Theirs was a sometimes stormy relationship—"We'd rip each other's heads off from time to time," he says—and some of the squalls were obviously induced by his drinking. "But there was one powerful thing in our relationship, and that was love."
Neither, though, was prepared to make a commitment, so in 1981 they agreed to separate and remained apart for nearly two years. Then at Christmastime in 1983, Welch made a decision. "I was making good money, and I was going good on the field, but I'd lie down at night and feel empty," he says. "Something was missing. So, what the hell, I decided to call this girl and see if she wanted to get married." Mary Ellen joined him on Jan. 10 in Dallas, where he was giving a talk to an NCAA convention. Nine days later they were married.
As a pitcher Welch had by now developed into a consistent if not spectacular winner. From 1982 through '87 he won 80 games for Los Angeles and lost 62, and he had accomplished this with basically only two pitches, an above-average fastball and an overhand curve. Acutely aware that he needed a third pitch, he experimented unsuccessfully with a straight changeup and made sparing use of a split-finger fastball. But not until he was traded to Oakland in December 1987 did Welch find what he needed.
Duncan, the game's ranking pitching guru, told him to forget the straight change and concentrate on the split-finger and to seek out the A's resident experts on the pitch, Dave Stewart and Mike Moore. "With our club," says Duncan, "the split-finger is a team project."
Welch became an apt pupil. "It's made a difference with him," says Stewart. "The pitch has kept those lefthanded hitters off him." Says catcher Ron Hassey, "Guys who win 20 games have three pitches."
A third pitch is not the only change in Welch's style. With La Russa and Duncan as calming influences, he has gradually gained control of the excitability that occasionally overwhelmed him—most especially, it seems, in playoff games, in which he has a 6.23 ERA in eight appearances. Welch is still hyperactive off the mound, but now he's resolutely cool on it. His newfound serenity was sorely tested last year. On Thursday, July 27, 1989, at 1:30 p.m., his first child, Dylan, was born in San Francisco's Children's Hospital. The next day, at 12:30 in the afternoon, at Lourdes Hospital in Paducah, Ky., his mother, Lorine, 67, died of pancreatitis. Welch was scheduled to pitch in the Oakland Coliseum that night against the Seattle Mariners.
"My mother was the type of woman who would trade her life to know we had a healthy baby," he says. "She fought a hard battle to stay alive long enough to have that happen. I told Tony [La Russa] I was leaving that day, and my father-in-law drove me to the airport for a 3 p.m. flight. But we got there too late. So I rescheduled my flight for midnight and went back to the ballpark and pitched."
He left after seven innings—leading 6-3 in a game the A's eventually won 8-7—to catch the plane. "My mother was buried on Sunday," he says. "I had some pictures of my baby boy with me, and in the funeral home I lifted up her hands and placed those pictures with her. I've never experienced anything in my life like what I went through at that moment."