View With a Perspective : Oakland Pitcher Bob Welch Has Learned to Deal With Himself and With His Life in the Bay Area
From the back of their house in the Marina district of San Francisco, Bob and Mary Ellen Welch can see the sparkling blue of the bay and the orange spires of the Golden Gate Bridge.
From the front, they can see damage and redevelopment in one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake of last October.
Perspective , Welch and Webster would agree, comes in many forms, and it seems to have come together in 1990 to help shape a pitcher whose often combustible emotions interfered with his success and to help shape the pitcher’s reaction to a 12-2 record that is the best in the major leagues--and more.
“Right now, Bob is the difference between being in (a virtual tie for) first place and a distant second,” General Manager Sandy Alderson said of the Oakland Athletics’ status in the American League West.
At 33, Welch is enjoying the best first half of his 13-year career with the Dodgers and A’s, and is headed, perhaps, for a start in the All-Star game and his first season of 20 wins.
“I know exactly where I stand, and it’s all wonderful, but I have to put it in perspective,” Welch said, bringing up that issue himself.
The point being that 12-2 is nice, but what does it mean contrasted with the death last summer of his mother or his father-in-law’s current battle with cancer, which has drawn Mary Ellen and the Welches’ year-old son, Dillon, to her parents’ home in Michigan.
“I mean, you go back to an empty house at night and think about that and you don’t have the time or inclination to get too thrilled with your own situation,” Welch said.
Then, too, there’s the perspective that stems from the birth of a first child last summer--"A baby doesn’t give you much time to worry if you’ve been pitching good or bad"--and the expected birth of a second in September.
Then, too, there are the views from a house severely damaged in October, the night that Welch was scheduled to start Game 3 of the World Series but instead joined Mary Ellen in a traumatic battle with traffic and fears in returning to the Marina area, where Dillon was left with friends. All were safe, but the Welches’ new house, expected to be available a month later, wasn’t ready until April.
“You don’t go a day in that area without being reminded, but we’re not really fearful,” Welch said. “I mean, naturally there was a period when we wondered if we were doing the right thing, but we couldn’t have moved in if there hadn’t been a lot of seismic upgrades, so we’ve come to be pretty comfortable with it.”
Mix in the experiences of a career in which Welch overcame alcoholism to become a consistent winner, and it’s no wonder that he has found a new comfort zone on the mound, the ability to recognize when his admittedly hyper personality is threatening to disrupt the flow.
“Rock and fire,” A’s pitching coach Dave Duncan said of Welch’s typical response to trouble. “He couldn’t get the ball and throw it fast enough. His control suffered. His stuff was affected. Now he backs away and resets his tempo and rhythm.
“I haven’t seen him lose his emotions once this year. He knows what he has to do because he knows himself now and can identify what happens when he loses control.”
Welch wasn’t bad before. He won 17 games in each of his first two seasons with the A’s, 13 or more in six of his 10 years with the Dodgers. He won 137 games in the 1980s, and only Jack Morris and Dave Stieb won more.
But now, Duncan has honed a forkball that Welch first learned from Ron Perranoski, and Welch has a better knowledge of the league and himself. Those perspectives, which have allowed him to come to grips with occasional adversity, and the Duncan concept of pitching a shutout pitch by pitch, inning by inning, have enabled Welch to become consistently what Manager Tony La Russa calls the complete pitcher, with the emphasis on pitcher .
“He’s no flash in the pan,” La Russa said. “He was outstanding in Los Angeles and outstanding here the first two years. He’s simply continued to improve, to get better. Whatever the situation--good, bad, in between--he’s continued to pitch, and as long as he remembers to pitch and not throw, he has a lot of ways to get people out.”
Through the first two months of this delayed season, Welch has been the leader of a staff dominated by Dave Stewart. He has a nine-game winning streak and the league’s third-best earned-run average, 2.53. He has pitched into the seventh inning in 14 of 16 starts, the A’s winning 14 of the 16.
All of it--the emphasis on better mental preparation and greater control of himself--Welch had heard before. He heard it from Perranoski and Red Adams, his Dodger pitching coaches. He heard it from teammates Don Sutton and Tommy John. He heard it, but maybe wasn’t prepared to implement it, particularly with his adrenaline pumping in competitive situations.
“I used to think that all I had to do was pump my fastball,” Welch said. “I used to think, ‘OK, I’ll get out of this real quick,’ and that’s what would happen--I’d be out of there real quick. I mean, I’d fall into the trap of competing with myself instead of the hitter.
“I still don’t think I’ve become a complete pitcher, because there hasn’t been a time when I felt that I couldn’t have pitched better, but I do think I’m improved, because I understand the mental part now. From first to last batter, I’m ready to go with every pitch. I’m ready mentally at the start of every game.
“We have an outstanding defense, so my object is to get the batter to hit it as soon as I can. I’m trying to throw more innings by making fewer pitches.”
And obviously, he has his best shot at 20 wins, though he insists that he isn’t looking beyond his next start, isn’t thinking about about how this success might weigh on his free-agent eligibility when the season ends.
“I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do it but haven’t done the necessary things,” Welch said of 20. “Obviously it’s not the easiest thing to do or everyone wouldn’t talk about it. I saw (Fernando) Valenzuela do it in Los Angeles and I’ve seen Stew do it twice here.
“It takes tremendous determination and concentration. You have to be on top of it mentally every start. It’s not easy staying zeroed in, but I’m better prepared that way now.”
An added plus is that Welch, like Steve Carlton with Tim McCarver, has his own catcher to remind him of what he needs to do. On a roster that includes Terry Steinbach, an All-Star catcher, Ron Hassey and his .174 batting average are still in Oakland, some say, only because of his relationship with Welch. Hassey has caught 46 of his last 48 starts, Welch going 28-9.
“When you’re hitting a buck seventy, it’s nice to know your name will be in the lineup once or twice a week, at least,” Hassey said. “I’m honored to be his personal catcher and I think I have a pretty good hold on Bob. I think I know when to talk to him, when not to. We have great respect for each other, which is not to say there aren’t times we don’t do some screaming. You don’t want it all mellow.”
Determined to get Welch back in sync, Hassey screamed to such an extent during a recent game in Chicago that they had to be separated to prevent a fight in the dugout. That night, they had dinner together, keeping it all in perspective.