Kornacki: Remembering Bob Welch, my classmate and friend

Moments with Bob Welch had a way of being richer because he was so invested in the moment.

Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

Bob Welch can’t be dead. Can he?

Upon learning on Tuesday afternoon that Welch, my classmate and friend at Eastern Michigan University, had died of a heart attack Monday night at his home in Seal Beach, Calif., I couldn’t believe it. He was only 57.

Welch leaves behind three grown children whom he loved deeply and some very special memories. He won the 1990 Cy Young Award by winning 27 games for the Oakland A’s; had some enduring World Series moments with Reggie Jackson; and very nearly led Eastern Michigan’s Hurons to a national championship.

Welch was so full of life, passion and accomplishment. He was imperfect, though, and admitted to that in a book — "Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Ballplayer’s Battle With Alcoholism" — he co-authored with New York Times columnist George Vecsey.

I got to know Vecsey when he was writing that book, and we’d talk about what Welch was like while leading EMU to the College World Series in 1975 and 1976. The Hurons — led by head coach Ron Oestrike, who developed players as well as anyone I’ve known in any sport — finished second to Arizona in ’76.

Pro scouts came to see Bob Owchinko, who would become a first-round pick of the San Diego Padres, but it was Welch who really popped their eyes out. The hard-throwing right-hander had great stuff and no fear.


But he lived just as hard as he threw, often heading to the Suds Factory or some other watering hole in Ypsilanti. Mich., after practice.

His career could’ve been a short one, but the 1981 book with Vecsey chronicled how he changed in an Arizona rehabilitation facility and learned how to deal with the demons of alcohol.

Welch was taken in the first round in 1977 by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and was called up to the majors 12 months after that selection.

The Ann Arbor News sent me to Chicago to interview Welch at Wrigley Field during his rookie year, and it was a surreal moment. He loved being part of a classic franchise and now was pitching in such a quintessential ballpark so soon after college.

How could Welch have gone so far so fast?

It was because he had ice water in his veins. I pulled up a YouTube video of Welch striking out Reggie Jackson with the tying run on second base and two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. Bobby’s coolness in the moment still sent a shiver down my spine all these years later.

Welch blew a fastball by Jackson on the first pitch of their nine-pitch battle, which was as good as any seen in the Fall Classic. Jackson nearly lost his balance from the might of his swing.

Welch knocked down Jackson on the next pitch, but Jackson collected himself and stepped back into the box. Then he fouled back three straight pitches before taking another high, inside fastball to make it a 2-2 count.

"This kid doesn’t have anything short when it comes to guts," NBC-TV analyst Joe Garagiola said at the time.

Jackson fouled back yet another pitch before Welch missed with a high, outside pitch. Jackson, with a full count, stepped out to remove his helmet and wipe his brow. The drama had built to this telling moment.

Welch came in with one last inside fastball that Jackson swung at from his heels and missed. Welch celebrated with the Dodgers while Jackson stomped off shouting before throwing his bat in the dugout.

Jackson hit a long homer off Welch days later in Game 6, but the reports of Welch’s death only mentioned the classic strikeout he got against the Hall of Famer.

Welch worked relief and started some in his first two seasons, but began establishing himself as a front-of-the rotation starter in 1980. He moved onto the A’s in 1988, and won the Cy Young in 1990 by going 27-6 with a 2.95 ERA. Nobody had more victories in a season since Denny McLain’s 31 for the 1968 Detroit Tigers.

I found myself once again writing about Welch for the Detroit Free Press during spring training with Oakland in Scottsdale, Ariz. Welch spotted me and began swearing like a sailor, smiling all the way. That’s how he was around those he knew.

"It’s been all these years since I last saw you," Welch said, "and now you expect me to drop everything and tell you my life’s story."


We both laughed. Moments with Welch had a way of being richer because he was so invested in the moment.

He finished his career at 211-146 (.591) with a 3.47 ERA. That compares quite nicely to the 254-186 (.577) and 3.90 ERA of Jack Morris.

However, Welch lasted on the Hall of Fame ballot just one year. Only one of 499 voters checked his name on their ballot.

Welch was on five World Series teams, winning it with the ’81 Dodgers and ’89 A’s. And he received another World Series championship ring as pitching coach for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks.

The kid from Hazel Park High and EMU went far, and now he’s gone from this earth. But he left some very special memories behind that will last longer than any of us.