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Chris Welsh’s unforeseen journey from St. X to the Reds broadcast booth

By Jason Gargano · August 28th, 2013 · Cover Story
cover_chriswelsh_jf26Photo: Jesse Fox
Baseball announcers have unique relationships with fans of the game. Among baseball’s many pleasures is its leisurely pace, which gives announcers plenty of time for small talk — talk that often leads to deep, sometimes perversely intimate relationships with those who listen to them. 

Dedicated fans usually spend at least three hours a day watching (or listening to) their favorite teams play, which means the voices of those teams’ broadcasters are a constant fixture in their lives, often as present as family and friends. The phenomenon seems to be even more acute in Cincinnati, where ratings for the Reds local television cable broadcasts on FOX Sports Ohio are among the best in Major League Baseball (MLB). Yes, we like our baseball around here, and we feel as if we know the guys who broadcast it to us each day.

Chris Welsh — aka “The Crafty Lefthander,” aka “The Creeper,” dubbed so due to the fact that his velocity-challenged fastball as an MLB pitcher was said to “creep” up to the plate — has developed such a relationship with viewers in Reds Country. Sure, his vocal delivery might not be as polished as his play-by-play partners' over the years (George Grande from 1993-2009; Thom Brennaman from 2010-present), but, as the “color guy,” his genial, self-deprecating personality (probably a must for a guy who sported a 22-31 record and a 4.45 ERA over five MLB seasons as a player) and unique, well-researched insights (he embraced Sabermetrics long before it was in vogue) have made him an indispensable part of Reds TV broadcasts for more than 20 years.

“He’s the best at what he does,” says Grande, who still does a handful of games with Welsh each year after retiring from full-time broadcasting in 2009. “He exemplifies what a great color commentator should do: He does his homework before he gets to the ballpark; he does his research when he gets to the ballpark, talking to managers, coaches and players; he’s into the game from the first pitch to the last pitch; and he reacts to what happens during the course of the game.”

For Welsh, it’s all a little surreal. A Cincinnati native (he’s lived in Northern Kentucky for the last several years) whose love of baseball has been at the forefront of his life for more than 50 years, he still can’t believe his good fortune — first as player who beat the odds to get to the big leagues, then as a broadcaster for the very team he grew up rooting for.

“Unbelievable — I wouldn’t have bet you 25 cents that that would have happened,” he said during a recent extended conversation over iced teas at Mt. Adams Bar & Grill, that signature Welsh smile enveloping his face.

In fact, CityBeat met with Welsh multiple times in recent weeks (both in the booth and out) to discuss his life in baseball — from his various fortuitous encounters with legends of the game to his unceremonious exit as a player to his extensive pre-game preparations as a broadcaster. And, in case you were curious, he did so with as much good-natured enthusiasm as he brings to Reds telecasts each night.

The making of a ‘Crafty Lefthander’

Chris Welsh was a baseball-mad kid, the son of a plastics salesman who moved the family from Delaware to suburban Cincinnati in the early 1960s. “I was always the first one on the diamond, and I was always a pitcher,” Welsh says.

Welsh’s dad, who grew up in New York City, was a big fan of Waite Hoyt, a former Yankees pitcher who was the colorful voice of the Reds on radio from 1942 to 1965.

“During the rain delays he would tell all the old Yankee stories and tell tales about (Lou) Gehrig and (Babe) Ruth and traveling on trains and everybody getting rowdy and wild,” Welsh says. “I actually have reel-to-reel tapes that my dad collected of Waite Hoyt broadcasts. I haven’t listened to them in, like, 40 years. I have a box of them. When he passed away he made sure I got that box.”

Welsh came of age as a baseball player just as the Big Red Machine was kicking into gear in the early 1970s, a magical era for an entire generation of kids inspired by the example of local-boy-done-good Pete Rose. It can’t be a coincidence that an inordinate amount of Cincinnati natives would make MLB rosters in the 1980s, including Daryl Boston, Bill Doran, Richard Dotson, Leon Durham, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Hume, Lance Johnson, Dave Justice, Barry Larkin, Len Matuszek, Roger McDowell, Ron Oester, Pat Tabler and Bill Wegman. 

And, of course, Chris Welsh, who grew up behind Moeller High School, where he would watch future major-leaguer Buddy Bell play second base for the Crusaders.

Yet, when it came time for high school, Welsh attended St. Xavier instead of Moeller.

“I could have ridden my bike to Moeller, but I ended up driving across town to go to St. X,” he says, laughing. “I don’t really know why. Turned out OK, although when I was at St. X, Moeller won the high school baseball championship.”

A solid but unspectacular pitcher for St. X, Welsh says he didn’t get a sniff from MLB or college scouts after graduating high school in 1973. Undeterred, he decided to walk on at the University of South Florida, where he was lured as much by its sunny climate and attractive ladies as its baseball program. 

He would pitch only two innings as a freshman, but by his junior year he was a regional all-American, an evolution Welsh credits to his uncommon command of the curveball, which he learned to throw via a contraption his dad bought from former major-league player and longtime pitching coach Johnny Sain.

“He had constructed some kind of little gizmo where you put a baseball on a stick and it would spin,” Welsh says.

“My dad brought it home to me and said, ‘This is what Johnny Sain said to do.’ He got me Johnny Sain’s book. I had that book for years. I had notes in the margins about pitching deliveries.”

The New York Yankees drafted Welsh in the 24th round following his junior season. But, after he was offered just $500 to sign with the Yankees, he decided to return to South Florida, which had just hired Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts as head coach.

“He came in and saw me pitch one time and said, ‘That’s never going to work in pro ball.’ I said, ‘I was 10-3, I had 1.70 ERA, I had 10 complete games.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you, son, it’s not going to work in pro ball.’” 

Yet, ever the open-minded student of baseball and beyond, Welsh listened to Roberts’ suggestions.

“That year we remade my delivery into a pitcher who could do something other than just throw a curveball,” Welsh says. “He helped me a lot. He was one of the guys who got me to the major leagues.”

Big leagues, here I come

The Yankees grabbed Welsh again, this time in the 21st round of the 1977 draft. He made it as high as Class AAA with the Yankees before being traded to the San Diego Padres in a six-player deal in the spring of 1981. 

“I was delighted,” Welsh says of the trade. “I had no idea what it would mean to be a New York Yankee baseball player. I had no clue.”

The laid-back Southern California nature of San Diego and the freewheeling ways of Padres General Manager Jack McKeon (who would later manage the Reds) were more to Welsh’s liking than the straight-laced culture of the Yankees. More important, he would have a better chance to make the big-league club, which he did immediately upon his arrival in San Diego.

While his rookie year was anything but spectacular — he finished with a 6-7 record and a 3.77 ERA in 124 innings — Welsh did pitch two complete-game shutouts, including a three-hitter against the Reds in September. 

“If I could pick one game that I was the most proud of, that would probably be it,” he says.

Welsh fondly recalls a certain Hall of Fame Reds catcher who, after hitting a long drive that was caught against the 420-foot sign in centerfield, felt compelled to critique Welsh’s lack of velocity.

“(Johnny) Bench came running by the mound, and I’m thinking, ‘Shit, this is Johnny Bench,’” Welsh says. “And then he yells at me, ‘Go warm up!’ implying that I didn’t throw hard enough to provide enough power for him to hit it out.”

Better yet, as the “Star of the Game,” Joe Nuxhall interviewed Welsh on WLW radio, a surreal moment for a 26-year-old rookie who listened to the Old Lefthander’s nightly postgame show religiously as a kid.

Marty Brennaman, Nuxhall’s longtime partner in the radio booth, recalls Welsh’s exploits (or lack thereof) as a player.

“Chris Welsh was never going to blow anybody away with his fastball,” he says. “He was essentially a breaking-ball pitcher who had to locate in order to be successful. But he was very, very bright. He understood his craft. He understood what his strengths and what his limitations were, and he didn’t try to go out there and be something that he wasn’t.”

This ability to adapt popped up again and again over the course of Welsh’s career in baseball, and his crafty ways eventually landed him a roster spot with his beloved hometown team.

In 1986, after playing parts of four seasons with the Padres, Montreal Expos and Texas Rangers, Welsh found himself on the brink of baseball oblivion in part, he says, because of collusion, wherein MLB owners conspired to “shut out” free agents in order to save money.

“I was 31 and had no job in baseball,” he says. “But I was still pitching pretty well. I pitched a couple good games for the Rangers. I beat the Yankees as a starter the previous year, threw the ball well. I remember calling Tony LaRussa; he didn’t need me. I contacted everybody I knew in baseball. I got no response.”

Desperate, Welsh heard that Rose, who had returned to the Reds as a player-manager in 1984, was filming a TV commercial at Welsh’s old stomping grounds in South Florida. When Welsh showed up at the taping, Rose immediately recognized his fellow Cincinnati native.

Welsh recalls that conversation:

“Chris, how you doing? Good to see you! Who are you going to be with this year?” 

“Pete, didn’t you hear? I signed a deal with the Reds.” 

“That’s great! Glad to have you in camp, man! That’s awesome!” 

“No, not really. I called (Reds General Manager) Bill Bergesch, but he wanted nothing to do with me. I’m out of a job. I don’t know where I’m going to be.”

“That son of a bitch! I’m the one that runs this ballclub! You be down there at Al Lopez Field tomorrow at 8 a.m. and I’ll have a uniform and a locker for you.”

Sure enough, Welsh made the team. He started 24 games, a career high, finishing with a 6-9 record and a 4.78 ERA. He even hit a homerun. But life as a Red was short-lived. 

“I had a baby boy the year before in Texas,” Welsh says. “When I played with the Reds, I thought it would extend my career. As it turned out, I only played there one year, blew my knee out about three-quarters of the way through the year and never really came back and pitched that great.”

Welsh was released the same day as Pete Rose (who, though no longer a player, would remain the team’s manager through August 1989).

“I was shocked that I got released,” Welsh says. “I remember I was with my wife. We were driving up north of Clearwater (Fla.) on our little fall vacation. I picked up a newspaper and my name was in the baseball transactions. I pulled over and cried. She was pregnant. I’m going to have another baby in a few months. I said to her, ‘Now what am I going to do?’”

Welsh went to Spring Training the following year with the Expos, but he didn’t make the opening-day roster and his wife convinced him to “get on with a regular life.”

He started his own business, an employee leasing company, with some friends in Florida. But his mind was still on baseball.

“I started writing a newsletter on pitching called The Thinking Pitcher,” Welsh says. “I thought I could write a little bit, so I’d write it, edit it, lay it out. I had the old Pagemaker software back in the day when it would freeze up every 30 minutes and the computer would have to reboot.

“I put out a four- to six-page newsletter seven times a year,” he continues. “I would send it out to coaches. I advertised it in The Sporting News and Baseball America. I only had about 1,000 subscribers. It really wasn’t profitable, but it kept me in the game, it kept me in tune because I called some of my former teammates and said, ‘I want to do an interview with you about this and that.’”

The newsletter, which he produced for three years, was just another indication of Welsh’s endless curiosity about and passion for the game. 

It wouldn’t be long before that inquisitive nature would land him yet another job with the Reds.

Transitioning to the broadcast booth

“We went through a period of time where we interviewed a lot of people about who was going to be the color person,” Grande says. “As soon as Chris popped up it was a perfect match.”

The pair were partners for 17 years, the longest such run in Reds TV history. Grande — a broadcasting veteran who had been the anchor of ESPN’s first-ever SportsCenter telecast in 1979 — had one important bit of advice for Welsh when he was hired, the same advice Grande received while working as a college intern with longtime Dodgers announcer Vin Scully (who received the same advice from his mentor, Red Barber): Be yourself.

“‘You’re a ballplayer, you played this game,’” Grande says he told Welsh at the time. “‘You know the marketplace, you grew up in Cincinnati, you know Reds history. You know the game of baseball. You still have great contacts in the game of baseball. Just be yourself.’” 

Welsh has taken the advice to heart, injecting Reds broadcasts with his signature combination of lighthearted playfulness (see Bow Tie Tuesdays) and incisive analysis.

“My timing has gotten better, my word usage has gotten better, my comfort level on TV has gotten better,” Welsh says of his evolution as a broadcaster. “I don’t stammer too much anymore, I’m more concise with the points that I make. It helps to be in it for awhile.”

Marty Brennaman isn’t surprised Welsh was able to make a successful transition to the booth.

“I knew he was bright enough, I knew he was articulate enough,” Brennaman says. “But guys who are bright enough and articulate enough are a dime a dozen. That doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good baseball broadcaster. I think he combines the necessary elements: (1) being bright in a general sort of way, and (2) having baseball sense and having a complete understanding of the job that he had as a pitcher at the big league level and being able to translate that on the air in a manner in which people could understand it.”

Ironically, Welsh is now part of a rich Reds broadcasting tradition that includes his dad’s favorite announcer, Waite Hoyt — yet another surreal turn in a baseball career that continues to defy expectations.

“I think the fans of Cincinnati are fortunate that we’ve had a great history of wonderful people who have brought the game to them,” Grande says. “Marty and Joe are at the top of that list, but Chris Welsh is on that list, too.” ©



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