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Bob Welch seemed surprised by the sound of his own voice. The Oakland Athletics pitcher had just beaten the Texas Rangers 4-2 for his 22nd win of the year, the most productive of all his 13 major league seasons. He had more victories than anyone in either league (win No. 23 would soon follow) and was a prime candidate for the American League's Cy Young Award. His team was marching inexorably toward its third straight AL West championship. And any day now, his wife, Mary Ellen, would give birth to their second child.
So when Welch said after the game that "there were times out there tonight when I felt I had nothing else on my mind but the next pitch,'' his deep-set blue eyes popped open in wonder. Could he, a 33-year-old perpetually in a hurry, a nervous gum-chewer and ferocious consumer of mineral water, a man with a busy present and a tumultuous, even tortured, past, really be capable of that level of concentration? Well, yes, in fact, he could. Because he knows now that a game is better taken one pitch at a time. And he knows, at long last, that life is better taken one day at a time.
He learned that lesson the hard way, for Welch is a recovering alcoholic. "Today, I'm doing well, yes, but sobriety is something I must deal with every day," he says. "The problem will never go away, and if I should ever fall back into the situation I was in...."
For the past 10 years Welch has successfully dealt with his addiction with that firm day-to-day resolve. But until this year he had had a hard time incorporating this form of existentialism into his life on the pitching mound. "The difference between this season and the ones before," says A's manager Tony La Russa, "is that there were times, maybe once every five or six starts, when something would happen in a game—a bloop hit, a disputed call, a touch of wildness—and Bobby couldn't deal with it. Now he can."
"I don't know whether it was nerves or what, but Bobby would respond to adversity by rearing back and trying to overpower the opposition," says Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan. "He has recognized that as a drawback. Now he'll step back, collect his thoughts and return to the game plan. You don't see Bobby letting a game get away from him anymore. Now he neither looks back nor forward. Winning 20 games could have been a distraction for him. When he reached 17 wins so early [Aug. 2], people started asking him about 20. But he was determined to never look past the next game. He knows the future can be a distraction. And so can the past."
The past, indeed. This is the same Bob Welch who was a World Series hero as a 21-year-old rookie. In June 1978, the Los Angeles Dodgers called up Welch from Triple A Albuquerque. On Aug. 5 of that year, he replaced the injured Rick Rhoden in the starting rotation and promptly shut out the San Francisco Giants to halt a six-game Dodger losing streak. He was the winning pitcher when L.A. clinched the division crown on Sept. 24, shutting out the San Diego Padres 4-0. For the half season, he had a 7-4 record and a 2.03 ERA. But all that was mere stage-setting for his big moment: Oct. 11 at Dodger Stadium, Game 2 of the '78 Series against the New York Yankees.
The situation: The Dodgers are leading 4-3 with two outs in the top of the ninth. The Yankees have Bucky Dent on second, Paul Blair on first. The Dodgers will go two-up in the Series if they win, having beaten the Yanks 11-5 in Game 1. Welch, in relief of Terry Forster, has retired Thurman Munson on a line drive to right and now faces Reggie Jackson, who has driven in all three New York runs. Welch is instructed to stay with his best pitch, the fastball. It's power against power.
Jackson swings and misses the first pitch, almost falling down with the effort. The next pitch is ball one, up and in. Jackson fouls off three straight pitches before Welch throws ball two. Jackson fouls off another pitch. Welch throws ball three, high. The crowd of 55,982 is up and yelling. Can the rookie do it against the game's most famous slugger? The runners move with the pitch. Welch cranks up and throws another heater. Mighty Reggie has struck out!
"That was the best show I've ever seen," said Dodger centerfielder Bill North afterward. Says Welch now, "It was all downhill after that."
It was for a while, anyway. Jackson homered off Welch in Game 6 as the Yankees, winners of four consecutive games, won the Series. In '79, Welch, plagued by a sore arm, won only five games. But his real struggles were off the field. Since his junior year at Hazel Park High in suburban Detroit, Welch had been a drinker. In the blue-collar community of Ferndale where he was raised—his father, Rubert, was a machinist in an airplane-parts factory-bars represented the center of social life. "I did what everybody else did," says Welch of his youthful boozing.