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About the Author
George Vecsey was a sports columnist for the New York Times from 1982 to 2011. He has written over a dozen books, including assisting on bestselling autobiographies of Loretta Lynn and Martina Navratilova.
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Five O'Clock Comes Early
A Young Man's Battle with Alcoholism
By Bob Welch, George Vecsey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Robert L. Welch
All rights reserved.
In the Shower
I was sober, and it was the saddest I had ever felt in my life. My tears mingled with the warm spray from the shower, and I slumped against the wall of the shower, and I cried and cried and cried.
I thought about other showers I had taken — the laughter in the clubhouse when five or six Dodgers were washing off after a game, the insults, the lies, the good times. Even when I'd give up a home run in the ninth inning to lose a ball game, when I'd feel angry at myself for letting my team down, I could always look ahead to better days. In this shower, I was down. I had never been so far down.
I thought about the showers I had taken with Mary Ellen, giggling and kissing and getting soap and water in our mouths, and washing each other's backs. That made me cry more, because Mary Ellen seemed so far away at this moment. I had never been so alone, so naked, so empty.
As sad as this shower was, I didn't want it to end, because there was nothing ahead for me, nothing I wanted to do. I had reached the bottom. If I stayed in the shower all day, all night, I wouldn't have to face where I was, or what I was. At least it was warm and private in that shower stall. Outside it was cold and frightening.
I couldn't believe this was happening to me. I was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who once in a while drank too many beers. I was twenty-three years old, the kid who had struck out Reggie Jackson to win a World Series game, and when I walked near the stands, women would call to me, and Mary Ellen was always waiting for me back home. I had it pretty good.
There were times when I'd tell jokes, seem happy-go-lucky, the life of the party. I'd try to entertain, be more at ease with people, make people laugh. But what it was, I usually had a buzz on.
That's a phrase I use a lot — getting a buzz on. People ask me what it means, how it feels, and the best I can say is "clumsy, woozy, good." At first, I'd laugh my ass off, until I couldn't talk anymore. I was funny at first unless I was drinking whiskey and then the results would be a lot more serious. The first beer was all I ever needed. If I had time for twenty, I'd drink twenty and get all fucked up.
That's another phrase I use a lot for the stage that comes after getting a buzz on. It means being truly drunk, sloppy. When I'd get fucked up, I'd have an "I don't give a shit" attitude.
I didn't drink all the time, but usually when I did, problems would happen, including wrecking my car or starting a fight or passing out. One night on the beach I had overturned my Bronco, damn near killing myself and two buddies. I knew all this about me, but I had always said I would take care of it soon. I kept promising myself, but what the hell, I was young. You're supposed to have a good time when you're young.
As the shower poured all over me — I'd been in there half an hour by now — I thought about how I had arrived at this place, The Meadows, the day before. I was way out in the desert in Arizona, feeling lost, with people telling me I was an alcoholic. I didn't believe I had that problem because I had always thought of alcoholics as Skid Row bums. I wasn't a Skid Row bum. I was Bob Welch the baseball player — a Dodger. I didn't belong at this place.
I was enraged. I didn't know it was going to be like this when I arrived the day before. They put you in one of those zoot suits, those pajamas, man, you feel like you're sick. You stay in those pajamas until you're a good boy, maybe three or four days. But if down the line you're a bad boy, they put you back in the pajamas again. That's horseshit. I could have sat around in my jeans and it wouldn't have made any difference. At The Meadows, they want you to feel like you're sick.
Everybody's walking around and the old pros at The Meadows, they look at you like, "What's your problem, young boy?" I remember the first guy who asked me, I told him, "None of your damn business." A lot of the guys with three or four days left, they mark off the time like they were in prison — big shots, they're gonna show you how the program works. They knew I was a baseball player so they'd snicker a little. "Man, they got you in the right place." I felt everybody was staring at me. I could even imagine their eyes on me in the private shower.
The longer I stayed under the spray of water, the more I could formulate my plan. I was going to dry off, get dressed, sneak out the back, and hitch a ride into Phoenix. From there I could wire Mary Ellen for some money to get back to Detroit. And at the airport, I could talk somebody into buying me a couple of beers and a few shots to forget about this place.
How did I get here? I felt a pulse of anger toward the sons-of-bitches who sent me here. Early in January the Dodgers had called me in Detroit and said they wanted to see me about something. I think I knew what it was about, but I got on the plane to L.A., got me a buzz on the way out. When I arrived in L.A., a guy named John Newton, who's a consultant to the Dodgers, told me I was an alcoholic. I didn't believe him but the way he put it, I was going to screw up my baseball career — my whole life, even — if I didn't stop drinking now. Not six months, not a year, but now. So then I decided to get on a plane and fly to Phoenix, to this treatment center.
One thing I have learned about being an alcoholic is that we are the greatest bullshitters in the world. It's part of our personality. John is an alcoholic, too, but I have to say he never bullshit me about The Meadows. I mean he never promised me any winter vacation. I couldn't say he lied to me. He told me they'd dry me out, teach me about alcoholism, and put me in groups where I'd be confronted about my drinking.
What he couldn't have prepared me for was my guts feeling like they were carrying a hundred pounds of sand. He never told me I'd be standing in the shower crying like a baby, afraid that I'd never go back to Mary Ellen, never go back to Dodger Stadium, never go back to laughing and cussing, never go back to being a picture on a baseball card. He never told me I'd feel lost and forgotten in a grubby little room which I was sharing with an alcoholic who had the shakes and snored in his sleep.
I remembered how John Newton turned me over to Pat Mellody, the director of The Meadows, a small, quiet guy who hadn't seemed very friendly as he drove out of Phoenix into the rolling hills. I remember how I took notice of the landmarks as if I were Hansel dropping bread crumbs in case I wanted to split. On the way to The Meadows we had stopped for tacos, and a couple of people were having beers, so I said, "Maybe I should have one before I go there," but Pat didn't smile at my little joke and of course I didn't have a coldie.
When we pulled up to The Meadows I thought what a dinky place, just a little old dude ranch on a hill, surrounded by mountains. It was nothing compared to the hotels where the Dodgers stay. I thought how I had arrived at those hotels with the Dodgers, and there'd be all sorts of people clamoring around: the autograph hounds, the fans, the groupies, the bellhops fighting to do favors for me. I looked around and nobody rushed over for my autograph. As Pat opened his car trunk and put my suitcase on the pavement, I noticed a few people lounging on chairs, and some others walking around. Everyone was curiously checking out the new arrival. But in my mind I wasn't just another drunk. I was Bob Welch of the Dodgers, No. 35 in your program, right-handed pitcher, the kid who struck out Reggie Jackson in the 1978 World Series. But if I had been honest about it, I was also the kid who got so smashed in the last week of the '79 season that they had to throw me into a cold shower to keep me from tearing down the clubhouse and starting a riot on the field. That was me, too.
Nervous and arrogant at the same time, I looked around to see if anyone was going to help me with my suitcase. Pat Mellody eyed me with a fishy look that said, "Carry your own bag. There are no stars at The Meadows, just people diseased with addiction who want to recover."
I checked in at the office, signed some papers, and started casing the joint like I always do, looking for ways I could get out, seeing if there were any good-looking women, wondering who was staring at me. They put me in this room with a wino in the detoxification section, near the nursing station, and they said our door had to be open at all times.
Then they sprung the real news on me, telling me that for the first few days they would regard me as medically ill and I'd have to wear pajamas and a robe to all meetings. I was really angry. In the Dodger clubhouse you walk around naked with reporters standing around taking notes, even a few women these days, but that's a clubhouse, home away from home. I didn't want to wear pajamas and bathrobe in the middle of the day around a bunch of strangers. I could feel myself getting real angry when the nurse bought in these blue pajamas. I was thrilled when they didn't fit me. The nurse said I could wear my jogging suit until they came up with new pajamas. That was a small victory. My only victory.
All dolled up in my jogging suit, I put on some cologne and sauntered forth to further my investigation of the joint. I avoided all those alcoholics. I avoided the counselors' eyes. My counselor was a woman named Lynn Brennan, a soft and gentle-looking lady, around forty years old with piercing green eyes. I felt like those eyes could see right through me, and I didn't want any part of that. "I really want to help you," she said, "but the only way is if you help yourself. I can be really tough. I can really be bitchy at times." I was looking for a safe harbor and I tried my luck at the nursing station. I figured nurses would be more sympathetic than counselors. Maybe I could bullshit them, do my cute-little-boy act, flash my pale-blue eyes on them. Man, I know how women feel when I flash my eyes on them.
"I have a few beers, but I'm not an alcoholic," I told them. "I can stop whenever I want. I'm just here to make the Dodgers happy — so I can start the season again."
They stared at me and nodded. It wasn't until much later that I would learn how often they had heard that story. But I think I knew down in my guts that they knew. Everybody knew. The winos knew. The teen-age drug addicts with their bruises and scars knew. The puffy-faced housewives knew. All the patients knew that Bob Welch was an alcoholic. I wasn't ready to admit it but deep down inside I knew my career as a Dodger was in jeopardy, and if my career was in jeopardy, what would the people back in Hazel Park think of me? What would my parents think about their baby, Bobby, screwing up? What if I blew it? What if I couldn't beat this stuff?
If I was an alcoholic — and I wasn't sure — I felt like this place had been waiting for me all my life, waiting for me to screw up. I had been practicing getting screwed up, wrecking cars, picking fights, messing up my life.
The shower was still pouring all over me, my eyes were pouring tears, and I felt my body shaking with sobs deep in my stomach. The shower was warm but my legs were cold. I turned the hot water as high as it would go. I wasn't going to leave this shower until I knew: How was I going to get out of here?CHAPTER 2
The thing that bothered me most as I cried in the shower was that they wouldn't let me call Mary Ellen. I wanted to hear Mary's voice, wanted to tell her I'd be back someday, inbetter shape, not the way I'd been the past year. But when I asked Lynn, my counselor, for permission to use the telephone, she told me no. Just flat-out no. I wasn't at The Meadows to call my girlfriend, I was there to save my life.
I remembered John Newton telling me that The Meadows would be the toughest challenge of my life, even tougher than pitching to Reggie Jackson in the World Series. But right now, Reggie Jackson was a long way off. I was scared, lonely, and I wanted a reassuring voice to remind me who I was. I wanted Mary Ellen Wilson.
The last time I had spoken to Mary was on the telephone from Los Angeles, right after my four-hour conversation with John Newton. I was in my hotel room at the Biltmore and I told her, "Mary, I just committed myself," like I had signed myself into a loony bit.
"Committed yourself to what?" Mary had asked. She thought I had committed myself to not drinking, like the New Year's resolutions and all the other promises I had made and broken.
"I committed myself to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Arizona, so I can stop drinking."
Mary's first instinct was to protect me and she had said, "You don't have an alcohol problem. You just drink too much."
Maybe I was trying to get sympathy and denial from Mary to reinforce that I was different, that I wasn't like those other people with their red, wrinkled faces, their shakes from years of drinking, their puffing on three cigarettes at the same time, the look of an alcoholic all over them. I guess I wanted to pull the old "that's not me" routine on Mary, I wanted to be reinforced. But I had just finished four hours with John Newton, the world's greatest talker, and I was full of the spirit.
"I'm telling you, Mary, this guy gave me a test, twenty questions, and I scored eight out of twenty. This guy says I'm an alcoholic."
Then Mary said, "Well, it's good you're going for treatment, because there will be psychologists there and you'll find out a lot about yourself." It was very important that Mary had given me support over the phone, that Mary thought I could get help at The Meadows.
Now that I look back, Mary was not aware I was that sick, that alcoholism is a disease. Most people don't want to realize that. When Mary finally joined me for family week, people kept saying that one of the key factors in our relationship was that Mary was the motherly type and I liked to be mothered. There were reasons I was sick and maybe there was even a reason why Mary didn't mind if I was an alcoholic. The counselors would later suggest that Mary and I had been searching for each other before we even met. But standing in the shower, crying my eyes out, I only knew that I missed Mary, that she was my girl, that I would feel better if she could be with me.
Sometimes I feel like I've known Mary all my life. We're just a couple of kids from Hazel Park, who had the same friends and the same way of doing things.
Everybody knows how much I love Mary Ellen. I'm comfortable with her, I don't have to put on any false airs when I'm around her. She knows me and I know her.
We're not married, and I can't claim I have any immediate plans in that direction. There are times I think my family is throwing hints that I should get it over with and marry Mary Ellen and have a few kids, but I don't think I'm ready for that yet. In some ways I'm in my middle twenties, but in other ways I've been sober only since January of 1980, and my sober personality is just forming. I've heard Ryne Duren, the former Yankee pitcher, describe how he had to go through adolescence at the age of thirty-nine, when he confronted his alcoholism. I guess I'm ahead of the game, doing it in my twenties.
Mary is just out of college, working at her first job. I give her a lot of freedom and she gives me a lot of freedom. She's got things she's going through, she's got to do things for herself. She wants to work. I was so happy when she got a job and came home with a big smile on her face. I could tell she felt good about herself.
Who knows what either of us is going to be like in another year or two?
Mary is slender, dark-haired, with an expressive face that lights up when she's happy and pouts when she's upset. She's the fifth of six kids in a close family. Living with me in California, she misses her family, especially the weeks before Christmas, when she starts looking out the window as if she expects a snowstorm to come whipping in off the Pacific Ocean. It's about that time I know she's dreaming about being home in Hazel Park making Christmas cookies with the snow up to her ass.
Mary and I grew up about six blocks apart, but we never met until my senior year in high school. She was a sophomore in my chemistry class, giggling with her four girlfriends and taking up time in class, and knocking over stuff in the laboratory. I was a jock, sitting in the back of the room, thinking more about the basketball game than chemistry. Depending on whether I had gone out for a few beers at lunch or not, I was either very subdued or boisterous. Alcohol made the difference.
Excerpted from Five O'Clock Comes Early by Bob Welch, George Vecsey. Copyright © 1991 Robert L. Welch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
One: In the Shower,
Two: Mary Ellen,
Three: A Tradition of Drinking,
Four: Addicted to Sports,
Five: The Fragile Athlete,
Six: Learning to Drink,
Seven: Majoring in Baseball,
Eight: Going West,
Nine: My First Alcoholic,
Ten: The Promised Land,
Eleven: The Series,
Twelve: Crying for Help,
Thirteen: People Were Watching,
Fourteen: Out of Control,
Fifteen: A Game of Twenty Questions,
Sixteen: Holding Back,
Seventeen: Part of a Family,
Eighteen: First Steps,
Nineteen: Letters to Mary Ellen,
Twenty: Family Week,
Twenty-One: Family Week — Monday,
Twenty-Two: Family Week — Tuesday,
Twenty-Three: Family Week — Wednesday,
Twenty-Four: Family Week — Thursday,
Twenty-Five: "Thanks for Being a Drunk",
Twenty-Six: Spring Training,
Twenty-Seven: The Season,
Twenty-Eight: A Warning,
Twenty-Nine: My Other Team,
Thirty: It's Still One Day at a Time,