If you are looking for a ballplayer to root for this season, think about Bob Welch, No. 35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the world champions. Welch is not one of the Dodger hot dogs. If anything, he's among the hangdog element of the team, compared with Steve Garvey, Penguin Cey and Fernando. But Welch, a pitcher in his mid-twenties, may be the most courageous man in the major leagues, if comebacks are the measure of bravery and if self-mastery means as much as a low earned-run average.
Welch's heroism is that he came back from the bottle. In the summer of 1979, when Welch was known for a bright moment in the '78 World Series when he whizzed three strikes past Reggie Jackson of the Yankees to win the game, Welch was an alcoholic. He still is one--except now he's a non-drinking alcoholic.
How he began drinking and how he stopped is a story that Welch and co-author George Vecsey of The New York Times tell with compelling frankness. I have read more exhaustive first-person accounts of taming this disease, like "Drink: A Self-Help Book on Alcoholism," by Constantine Fitzgibbon. And I remember the polished literary style of "A Farewell to Alcohol," by Bill McIlwain, formerly of The Washington Star and now the editor of the Arkansas Gazette.
But Welch has a more intriguing story. He was a kid drinker. He was vamping his way into the bars of his Hazel Park, Mich., neighborhood when he was only 15. His talent for swilling matched his one for hurling baseballs hard and low.
Girls were on his mind, too: "Drinking made everything easier. It was a wonder drug. Science in action. I would get a buzz on and I would stop being afraid of girls . . . I was shy. The girls liked me, but I was scared of them."
Soon enough he became the standard future alcoholic who drinks on just two occasions--by himself or with others. But he didn't worry. He was a big man in college baseball now, at Eastern Michigan University. When sober, he believed the myth that alcoholics were only "shriveled-up old guys who live in cheap hotels on Skid Row, or just sleep in the streets."
By the time he went to the Dodgers in the summer of 1978, Welch was a morning drinker: I'd convince myself that nobody knew "I was sneaking off and getting drunk in the weight room, that nobody could see I was giggling and walking crooked toward the end of a game."
When the collapse came--he keeled over in uniform in the outfield at Candlestick Park in San Francisco--it was Welch's luck to be an employe of the Dodgers. It is a team whose owner, Peter O'Malley, is enlightened about a number of things, including the nature of alcoholism. O'Malley had Don Newcombe in the organization. Newk was the former Dodger great of the 1950s whose career came to an end in 1962, when he was a drunken has-been playing in Japan. Newcombe had his own brave comeback to sobriety and was now one of those who counseled Welch.
The team, standing behind its sick pitcher, arranged for Welch to receive help at The Meadows, an addiction treatment center in Wickenburg, Ariz. In the painful group sessions and the wrenching individual therapy there, no deceits were allowed: "You could lay off for 10 or 20 years and be worse than ever if you started drinking again . . . You could be a 'recovering alcoholic' but there is no such thing as a 'recovered alcoholic.' " He remembers one repeated message at The Meadows: "Every addict thinks of himself as a garbage can--no damn good. Here we learn to get rid of our garbage."
Welch's family came to the center, as well as some of his teammates and Tommy Lasorda. The disease is rarely brought under control without a support group. A crucial member of this group was George Vecsey. He is a reporter who knows that behind the merriness of sports is the hardness of life. That part of the sportswriter's beat is where some of the best stories--like Bob Welch's--can be found.
Welch is currently in Vero Beach taking spring training with the Dodgers. What I'm rooting for in Bob Welch is not that he wins a lot of games this season but that he keeps faithful to his new feelings about wanting to be a help to other alcoholics. Baseball will end for him, but that mission won't.