Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Welch versus Reggie was a classic moment
By David Schoenfield
It's not quite my first World Series memory, but all these years later, I can still see Bob Welch striking out Reggie Jackson.
It may seem strange that a showdown from 36 years ago is still remembered so vividly, especially because it was only Game 2 and Jackson's Yankees ended up winning the World Series anyway, but I know a lot of fans my age or older recall what felt at the time like an epic battle for the ages: the young rookie fireballer against the iconic slugger.
Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990. No pitcher has won more than 24 in a season since.
It was the top of the ninth of the 1978 World Series, with the Dodgers holding a 1-0 series lead. The Yankees had defeated the Dodgers the year before, and you either loved the Yankees or hated them, even back then. You certainly loved or loathed Reggie. Most of us with common sense loathed him. It didn't matter if you were a Dodgers fan; you were rooting against the Yankees.
The Dodgers led 4-3, but the Yankees got two on with one out against Terry Forster. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda called on his 21-year-old rookie with the 95 mph fastball to face Thurman Munson and then Jackson. He got Munson to fly out. Up stepped Reggie. Invincible Reggie. He was coming off that three-homer game to clinch the 1977 World Series, and back in the day before we were told clutch hitting didn't exist, nobody was more clutch than Mr. October.
The battle lasted six minutes, Welch throwing fastball after fastball after fastball, Reggie nearly stumbling out of his shoes once or twice. (Check out that swing on the first pitch!) On the second pitch, Welch came high and tight and knocked Reggie on his rear end. Reggie fouled off four pitches and ran the count full. The great Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek in the booth (with Tom Seaver) made it seem like the biggest moment in baseball history, with Dodger Stadium going absolute bonkers. How could a 9-year-old kid not love this? Not love baseball?
Welch reared back for his ninth pitch. Reggie wasn't going for a mere game-tying base hit. Not Reggie. He was trying to hit one all the way back to the Bronx. Welch blew it by him.
Welch died of a heart attack Monday night at age 57. He had a terrific career, winning 211 games and the 1990 American League Cy Young Award with the A's. The sabermetricians tell us that wins for pitchers don't matter, but on a career level they certainly do matter, and 211 wins is a lot of wins. When Welch won 27 games in 1990, he didn't really deserve the Cy Young Award -- imagine the outcry today, considering Roger Clemens went 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA that year -- but you know, 27 wins is still 27 wins, and no pitcher has won more than 24 since.
Welch was a durable, reliable right-hander who averaged 32 starts per season between 1980 and 1991. He was more than an innings-eater -- his career wins above replacement of 43.5 is essentially identical to Jack Morris' 43.8, not that Welch's Hall of Fame case ever took off. (He received one vote.) He was usually overshadowed by a pitching teammate, first Fernando Valenzuela and then Orel Hershiser with the Dodgers, later Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley with the A's. Interestingly, although his 1990 season may be overrated, Baseball-Reference actually rates him as the best pitcher in the National League in the rabbit-ball season of 1987, when he went 15-9 with a 3.22 ERA for the Dodgers while throwing four shutouts.
Early in his career, Welch struggled with alcoholism. He overcame it and wrote a book, "Five O'Clock Comes Early: A Young Man's Battle With Alcoholism," first published in 1981.
I don't how many of you remember the book, but it was a pretty big deal when it came out because Welch had apparently hidden his problems. What many also don't remember: Jackson got a small measure of revenge later in the series. In the 10th inning of Game 4, Roy White walked with one out. With two outs, Jackson singled to keep the inning alive, and then Lou Piniella singled in the winning run. He then hit a two-run homer off Welch in Game 6 as the Yankees won the series.
But I don't remember that. I remember the rookie striking out the icon.