It is one of baseball’s slightly capricious jokes that Bob Welch is the only No. 3 starter in nearly 100 years to have no starts in a World Series. It is a statistical and geographical quirk that Welch would have pondered on and enjoyed.
His passing Monday at age 57 makes that a bittersweet experience.
Welch pitched for 17 years in two different cities, Los Angeles and Oakland, and for differing reasons he belonged equally to both. His best years metrically were in Los Angeles, though his best years for traditional stats were in Oakland and his best was 1990, when he went 27-6 and won the Cy Young Award. He was a classic power pitcher -- high walks, high strikeouts, routinely dominant and someone around which a team could build a mighty pitching staff.
And he also told the story of his own battles with alcohol in “Five O’Clock Comes Early,” which not only told his own story but helped others tell and change theirs from despair to triumph. You may judge for yourselves which was most important.
Because he is among the few players in the game’s history with only two stops on his baseball card, he had time to develop roots with two different fan bases. And because he decided to tackle his problems in public where others could be helped, he touched the rest of the nation as well.
This matters for anyone who pursues sports as a career, because while the perks are considerable in the active years, the enduring payoff is in the memories one holds and leaves behind for sharing. With more teams and more players staying only briefly in one place or another, the players who get to stay anywhere long enough to create legacies, and then make their stories live beyond the playing field are the luckiest ones of all.
Legacy, of course, is one of those concepts that has been shorthanded into pointlessness in recent years. Example: LeBron James. Every game he plays is adjudged by pundits and their targets to be some sort of indelible watermark on his legacy, as though a legacy is actually a living document that gets to be edited and altered for good and bad every few days.
This is wrong. A legacy is a building, valuable only when completed. Bob Welch’s legacy is that of an important, even central, figure in two of the sport’s most enduring teams in the 1980s. This we know by the fact that the Dodgers and A’s each made the postseason four times while he was with them, and though neither will be considered dynastic, both ended up as a champion at least once, and both needed Welch’s considerable contributions.
Well, the 1989 team would have, anyway, had it not been for Loma Prieta.
Oh, Welch was a significant part of the ’89 A’s team that won 99 games and its division by seven, and so seamlessly laid waste to both the American League and the Giants. But that World Series was bifurcated by the earthquake, leaving Oakland manager Tony La Russa the rare luxury to use only Dave Stewart and Mike Moore as starting pitchers. Welch threw on the side twice, and stayed loose during the break, but that was his sole contribution, as a geological asterisk.
The last team to dare so brazenly was the 1918 Cubs, who used only Hippo Vaughn and Lefty Tyler to lose to the Red Sox.
True, this is a tenuous link to Welch, but legacies have lots of roots. Welch was important, and popular, in two cities, and valuable in countless others -- that’s what matters. He cast a long shadow with those whom he played as well as with those whom he entertained.
That, children, is a man’s legacy, one that lives beyond his death.