Bob Welch died Monday night. The news reports put his age at 57, which is presumably accurate and entirely implausible.
Welch always will be seen as the 21-year-old exhaling on the Dodger Stadium mound, glaring at New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson during a two-out, two-on, ninth-inning jam in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series.
Welch was less than four months into a big league career that began with a June promotion from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. Jackson was a year removed from his domination of the 1977 World Series — he hit five home runs in six games, including three in the finale — a performance that earned him the nickname “Mr. October.”
Though the 1978 confrontation between the rookie pitcher and the illustrious slugger did not determine the outcome of a Series the Yankees would go on to clinch six nights later, a video clip of Welch versus Jackson — power arm versus power bat — could be inserted into a time capsule depicting the allure the Fall Classic once had.
Welch’s first pitch was a fastball that found Jackson hacking with such ferocity he stumbled on the follow-through. The Yankees’ Bucky Dent, at second, represented the tying run in a 4-3 game, and the Dodgers’ outfielders, wary of a ball hit behind them, were playing deep.
A single in this situation works.
A three-run homer, Jackson thought, works better.
“This was all or nothing: the famous millionaire slugger was going to take the kid downtown,”
Roger Angell wrote in a New Yorker essay about the 1978 season.
“I was secretly hoping that Welch would attempt a change-up, because it seemed possible that the Jackson machinery would break into several pieces when he swung at it, but Bob Welch, too, wanted this entertainment pure.”
The entertainment remains pure on YouTube 36 years later. If you check it out, you’ll notice that Jackson’s nine-pitch at-bat takes more than five minutes, but the pace of the drama makes the five minutes go by faster than the home stretch of a Triple Crown horse race.
Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager doesn’t meet Welch on the mound to talk strategy. Jackson steps out of the box a couple of times, but only to remove his helmet and wipe the sweat off his forehead. He doesn’t take 15 seconds to unzip his batting glove, and 15 more seconds to zip it back tighter.
Between pitches, the NBC television cameras don’t focus on celebrities in the crowd or on the pensive faces of the managers. The Yankees’ Bob Lemon is seen in two quick close-up shots; the Dodgers’ Tommy Lasorda is seen from a longer-range view of the team’s dugout.
Through it all, graphics don’t clutter the screen. The speed at which Welch’s fastball moves is never quantified in miles per hour. The number of pitches he has thrown in his ninth-inning relief role — he replaced Terry Forster, who replaced starter Burt Hooton — is not noted because pitch counts weren’t considered relevant in 1978.
(Pitch counts nowadays still are not relevant for relievers, but viewers are informed of relievers’ pitch counts anyway. Baseball telecasts in 2014 adhere to the principle that there is no such thing as too much information.)
Denied the benefit of graphics, play-by-play announcer Joe Garagiola frequently updates the count and the situation, offering some subjective insights when he can.
Of Welch, he said: “This kid doesn’t have any shorts when it comes to this thing called guts.”
What Joe means: Welch has guts.
Garagiola is part of a three-man broadcasting team including retired shortstop Tony Kubek and pitcher Tom Seaver, who’s still active during a Hall of Fame career that won’t conclude until 1986.
But Seaver doesn’t drone on about technical subtleties few fans understand — for instance, how a four-seam fastball arrives at the plate sooner than a two-seam fastball, but without the movement — and confines his analysis to the emotions of an eyewitness.
“My palms are sweating up here in the booth,” Seaver says.
Welch isn’t backing down, and Jackson certainly isn’t backing down, and on the ninth pitch of the showdown, with the count full, Welch fires a letter-high fastball that Jackson precisely anticipates with a mighty swing — but misses.
The young pitcher is mobbed on the mound by teammates, who presciently suspect they’ve just watched a World Series highlight for the ages.
As for Welch? He still had a lot of living to do, off and on the field. In February 1980, at the Dodgers’ prodding, he entered The Meadows, an Arizona rehabilitation facility, for 36 days. Welch acknowledged his problems in a 1981 autobiography co-written with sportswriter George Vecsey, “Five O’Clock Comes Early: A Young Man’s Battle with Alcoholism.”
Ten years after his release from rehab, Welch won 27 games with the Oakland Athletics — nobody has won more than 25 since then — and the 1990 American League Cy Young Award. He pitched for 17 seasons, retired with a record of 211-146 and collected World Series rings with the ’81 Dodgers and ’89 A’s.
A terrific career by any measure and, given the obstacles he overcame, an inspirational career.
But Welch will be remembered for the night he was a 21-year old standing up to Mr. October, the night a rookie gripped a baseball in his right hand and conveyed body language in the form of a question: You want my best fastball?
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