Elliott: R. I. P. Don Welke, former Jays scout, with arrangements
Arrangements: A church funeral and burial for Don Welke is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 5 in Don’s hometown of Harvard, Ill. at 10 am at Trinity Lutheran Church 504 East Diggins Street, Harvard, 60033) with the funeral to follow.
Immediately following funeral: Mt. Auburn Cemetery (20501 East Brink Street, Harvard, IL 60033).
In lieu of flowers, the Welke family has requested that donations be made in Don’s memory to Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI). Donate Online (Must register for a MLB.com account)
Donate by Check: Checks to: MLB Youth Foundation. Mail to: MLB Office of the Commissioner, 245 Park Ave. 29th Floor, New York, NY 10167 Attn: Steve Smiegocki.
Additionally: A celebration of Don’s life will be held in Carlsbad, Calif. in early November coinciding with the GM meetings.
By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
There are only a few games remaining at the Rogers Centre.
If you take in a home game take a moment to look at the banners hanging from the rafters in centre field and remember the late Don Welke. Welke, who was hired to scout for the Blue Jays in 1977, had a lot to do with banners from 1985, 1989 and 1991, as well as the 1992-93 World Series
Hopefully, beside Robbie Alomar’s retired No. 12 you will also see Roy Halladay’s retired No. 32 rather than part of the name Halladay and a No. 2 as fans saw last week during Tournament 12, as a hinge came undone causing the banner to fold.
Along with Bobby Mattick, Bob Engle, Al LaMacchia, Tim Wilken, Ellis Dungun, Chris Buckley, Wayne Morgan, Gordon Lakey and Wilbur (Moose) Johnson, Welke was one of the most reliable, trustworthy scouts in Pat Gillick’s inner circle.
Welke was involved in evaluating and scouting Dave Stieb, Pat Hentgen and John Olerud, who all wound up as major contributors to the Blue Jays. He died two days shy of his 76th birthday. He was with the Jays from 1977 until 1996.
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Like Roy Halladay with his scout and coach Bus Campbell, and Joey Votto with his former coach Bobby Smyth, Pat Hentgen was close to his scout, Welke. And in each case the player treated the coach/scout/mentor with respect.
Hentgen and his wife Darlene were driving home last week when his phone rang and since Hentgen had programmed in the number “Don Welke” was illuminated.
“I said ‘It’s Don, I have to take the call,’” Hentgen said from Dunedin where he was working at the Blue Jays instructional league. “Don sounded real good. I asked how he was doing.”
Welke’s reply, according to Hentgen, was: “Not too good. I’m in a hospital in Kentucky, I just wanted to call you. A nurse is helping me. I wanted to tell you what a nice young man you were. I have a list of people I want to call. I’d better go now ... the nurse is going to help me make the next call.”
Hentgen told Welke he “loved him and would pray for him.”
And then the scout and the ex-player said good bye for a last time.
It was a wet ride home for an emotional Darlene and Pat Hentgen.
A Michigan man, Welke drafted and signed RHP Hentgen from Fraser, Mich. in the fifth round of the 1986 draft. Hentgen pitched for 14 years going 131-112 in 344 games and making 306 starts. He was with the Blue Jays for 10 years with a 107-85 record and a 4.28 ERA, including winning the Cy Young award.
Pitching for manager Cito Gaston, he was 20-10 with a 3.22 mark, pitching 10 complete games. Hentgen walked 94 and struck out 177 in 265 2/3 innings to win the Cy Young award in 1996.
The next spring in Dunedin, Welke called me over to show me his Rolex. He took it off and inscribed on the back was “To Don, I couldn’t have done this without you.”
Some players -- back when we rode the buses to the park -- would point out the window, see a guy begging for money on the corner and say “Hey, there’s my old scout.” Ball park humour. Hentgen, Halladay or Votto were never like that.
A few years later I saw Welke and noticed he was not wearing his Rolex. He was almost in tears as he explained his trip to Venezuela scouting winter ball. At a stop light, he was sitting in the back seat, wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Next thing he knew, a robber stuck a gun into the cab, demanding Welke’s Rolex.
There went the watch. Gone.
Last year, Hentgen was scouting a high school pitcher in North Carolina when he ran into former Jays scouting director Tim Wilken, now of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The two spent five innings talking about the Blue Jays war room at draft time.
“Tim said that everyone in the room knew Don was known for not liking high school pitchers,” Hentgen recalled. “But he kept arguing to draft ‘Pat Hentgen from Fraser, Mich.’ Finally Pat Gillick said ‘Enough! If Welke wants him, we’re taking Hentgen.’ Gillick recognized that if Don finally wanted a high school pitcher, they would go that way.”
Wilken also told Hentgen, who owned a high-rising fastball, that vice-president Bobby Mattick said once in a meeting “If any of you pitching coaches try and teach Hentgen a slider ... I’ll have you fired.”
Zero pitching coaches decided to add that pitch.
When Hentgen was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, Welke made the trip from San Diego and was there with Gillick and Engle — just like old times.
* * *
Welke’s area included Illinois and he had asked Bobby Mattick to see this outfielder with the Southern Illinois Salukies. His name was Dave Stieb. In a blow out loss, Stieb was asked to mop up. Mattick liked Stieb as a pitcher -- not as an outfielder.
Toronto drafted Stieb in the fifth round of the 1978 draft and sent him to class-A Dunedin. Stieb wanted to play outfield and the Jays wanted him to pitch. The Jays allowed him to do both. At the plate, he hit .192 (19-for-99) in 35 games with three doubles, a homer and nine RBIs.
On the mound, he with 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA, walking one and striking out eight in 26 innings.
He never hit again.
Stieb was selected to seven all-star games with the Jays, going 176-137 with a 3.44 ERA in 412 starts. Broadcaster Buck Martinez has said that Stieb was the best player in the history of the franchise. Stieb had 103 complete games, including 19 in 38 starts in 1982. Stieb is one of 15 pitchers to make seven all-star game appearances including Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers, Lefty Gomez, Sandy Koufax, Trevor Hoffman, Sandy Koufax, Robin Roberts, Bob Lemon and Hal Newhouser, as well as Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel, Camilo Pascual, Billy Pierce, Chris Sale, Lee Smith, Justin Verlander and Billy Wagner.
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Welke and area scout Andy Pienovi watched Olerud and the Washington State Cougars. Gillick drafted Olerud, who had suffered a brain aneurysm and told teams he would not sign if drafted, in the third round. Gillick drafted Olerud, Baseball America player of the year, because Bo Jackson taught him that players “change their mind.”
Post draft Welke followed Olerud and his Palouse Empire Cougars in Alaskan summer League play. From Pullman, Wash., to the Hawaii Island Movers to Alaska to play the Anchorage Bucs, Anchorage Glacier Pilots and Mat-Su Miners.
Through all those games -- counting batting practice -- Welke never saw Olerud swing and miss once.
After Gillick’s ninth trip to the state of Washington, he signed Olerud. Gillick gave credit to his scouts as always.
“Don had a little more influence than Andy on that signing, it was probably 75-25 for Don,” Pat Gillick said. “Don was very patient.”
Gillick recalls going for diner with Olerud, who went on the win an American League batting title in 1993. the first time.
“I wasn’t too sure if he was going to be a surgeon the way he looked as his meal, deciding where to cut,” Gillick said. “He also sliced his meal into such little pieces. Don noticed the same thing when he took him to Denny’s after a game.”
Welke believed in Hentgen, who was also a high school shortstop, as well as LHP Jim Abbott, who was born with one hand and the Jays drafted in the 36th round in 1985. Gillick said that the Jays tried to sign Abbott, made him a good offer, “but his parents wanted him to attend university.” The Jays offered $50,000 US plus college.
Three years later, after pitching for the University of Michigan Wolverines, Abbott was selected eighth over all by the California Angels.
“Don got a little bit more imaginative after working with Bobby Mattick, seeing him look at Stieb the outfielder and see Stieb the pitcher,” Gillick said. “After that he was more outside the box.
Welke also drafted Willie Blair from Morehead State University in the 11th round in 1996. Blair pitched in 418 games in a 12-year career, making 139 starts
Welke was in the game for more than 50 years. Most recently he was vice president of scouting operations for the San Diego Padres. He had worked for the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds and the Blue Jays. He worked part time for the Royals and the Reds before the Jays hired him full time.
With the Rangers he signed free agents Martin Perez and Jurickson Profar, according to ‘Hot’ Rod Nelson’s SABR scouting data base.
Welke coached at Concordia College (now Concordia University) in Ann Arbor, from 1970-75 and was athletic director for a year at Evart High School.
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We emailed John Olerud’s parents to make sure they were aware of Welke’s death.
Dr. John Olerud replied:
“We loved Don Welke. He was a character! He had a great sense of humor. We exchanged Christmas cards every year. He and Pat Gillick showed up, out of the blue, a couple of years ago at the party at Safeco Field where I was honored by the College Baseball Hall of Fame with the George Bush Award. He stayed in touch all these years, long after John was done playing. We will miss him.
The National College Baseball Hall of Fame honored the post-college achievements of accomplished Seattle physician with the George H.W. Bush Distinguished alumnus award. Olerud was an All-American catcher at Washington State and led the Cougars to the 1965 College World Series under coach Bobo Brayton, a 2007 National College Hall of Fame inductee. Olerud then pursued a career in dermatology after balancing medical school and minor league ball for parts of seven summers.
He served as head of the dermatology program at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and along the way has contributed to more than 100 publications. His main area of research is diabetic wound healing and developing models to study wound healing. His clinical research and publications have been in T-cell lymphoma.
The Distinguished Alumnus Award is named after its inaugural recipient, George H.W. Bush, who played at Yale from 1946 to 1948 and eventually was elected the 41st President of the United States.
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One winter I flew to Vancouver for a coaches’ clinic and arrived a day early. Seattle Mariners’ scout Wayne Norton (Port Moody, BC) invited me to attend a banquet that night featuring guest speaker Jim Bouton.
At our table was Baseball Canada president Ray Carter, Bart Waldman, the Mariners general counsel who had pitched at Harvard University, Welke, myself and others. At one time the conversation went like this:
Waldman: “When I pitched at Harvard ...
Welke: “You went to Harvard? I went to Harvard too.”
Waldman: “Oh yeah, do you remember Prof. Jorgenson?”
Waldman: “How about Prof. McWilliams, did you have him?”
Welke: “Nope, can’t say that I do.”
Waldman: “Did you ever run across Prof Reynolds?”
Welke “No, I did not.”
Waldman then left the table.
Me: “Donald no way you attended Harvard.”
Welke: “Yes I did, I went to Harvard High in Harvard, Ill.”