Don Welke's Presence Felt Throughout Padres On Deck Game
SAN DIEGO — Don Welke loved baseball. More specifically, he loved prospects.
The Padres chose to honor that love in memoriam this week, renaming their annual prospects game at Petco Park the Don Welke On Deck Classic.
Welke, a renowned talent evaluator who most recently served as Padres vice president of scouting operations, died on Sept. 19 at age 75. He spent more than 50 years in baseball, beginning as a scout for the Reds in 1965 and growing into one of the most influential scouts in the game, developing a long list of protégés that includes Padres general manager A.J. Preller.
The third edition of the Padres' prospects game was played Thursday night with Welke’s family in attendance and his name prominently displayed all throughout the stadium. A montage honoring his life and career played on the video board prior to first pitch, and a moment of silence was observed in his memory.
“The biggest thing is Don loved prospects, he loved scouting, he loved grassroots baseball, he loved seeing young kids on the way up and seeing kind of who the next great player was going to be,” Preller said. “This was a game he’d be most comfortable at, so we just felt it was really fitting to name the game in Don’s honor.”
Welke worked his way up from being a scout and before long played an integral role in building some of the best teams of the last 50 years.
He was a key component of the Royals' playoff teams of the 1970s, the Blue Jays’ back-to-back championship teams in 1992-93, the Orioles' playoff teams of 1996-97 and, most recently, the Rangers’ back-to-back World Series teams in 2010-11. In 2014, he left the Rangers to join his protégé in San Diego after Preller was named Padres GM.
Preller and his staff quickly concluded following Welke’s death that the prospects game should be renamed in honor, especially in light of the fact the Padres annually play the game against prospects from the Rangers, the last two organizations Welke worked for.
“We talked about it with the family and just I think ultimately it was obviously pretty fitting,” Preller said. “Rangers and Padres, it’s two teams he had a big impact on, two organizations that he had a big impact on.”
Welke’s influence goes beyond the field of play. Affectionately known as “Coach”, Welke made a habit of familiarizing himself with employees from top to bottom in every organization he worked for. He had nicknames and even occasionally personalized songs for almost everyone he worked with, from the elevator operators to the young interns to the front office officials occupying corner suites.
“As good of a baseball mind, he was an even better person, one of my closest friends for sure,” Preller said. “I think the biggest thing to me was just his ability to connect with everybody. He’d be the guy who’d have a nickname for the sales intern and two minutes later he’d be in the owners office recommending a big trade or free agent signing.
"His ability to connect with people in all walks of life, not just baseball, et cetera, he loved that. He loved to be at a game and kind of pretend like he wasn’t really paying attention, messing around with the usher or the elevator person, but at the end of the day he was doing his job. He was watching, doing it with his style.”
Preller, who was 23 years old and just starting out in baseball when he met Welke, kept his composure in discussing his old friend but acknowledged not having Welke beside him for the game was going to be difficult.
But through renaming the game in Welke’s honor, the longtime scout’s presence will still be felt throughout.
“He was a guy (I) spoke to almost daily for the last 15 years. It’s going to take a lot of getting used to (not having him here),” Preller said. “Looking over when one of the guys does well or asking his thought about this prospect or this player, him looking over and giving me that glance, that kind of knowing look, that this guy is going to be pretty good, that will definitely take some getting used to.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever fully get over that, but seeing his name up here, it’s appropriate. He loved this game the last few years. He would have loved it tonight. He’s a guy that basically gave his life to baseball and loved the scouting end of it, and he made a lot of impact on the people here today.”