IT’S A WICKEDLY COLD MID-JANUARY MORNING in the Bronx, and Bob Watson doesn’t really have to be here. In fact, the New York Yankees’ general manager and former Houston Astros all-star had at least two warmer options: his team’s off-season headquarters in Tampa, Florida, where he has worked nearly every day since the Yankees won the World Series last fall, and his home in the tony Memorial section of Houston, where he has lived since 1988 but which he refers to glumly as merely “my mailing address lately.”
Still, Watson happily flew into New York’s deep freeze with the intention of staying an entire week—and for no other reason than to oversee three possible salary arbitration cases, including one brought by center fielder Bernie Williams, last year’s post-season dynamo. “I could’ve talked with our negotiators and organizational people over the phone,” says Watson in his Yankee Stadium office, his elbows leaning on a paper-strewn desk flanked by foot-high stacks of manila folders. “But that’s not the way I operate. I like to be in the same room with my people, face to face, and go over things again and again. It goes back to the way I was as a player: I always wanted to do things right and be as prepared as I could be.”
He was baseball’s first—and remains its only—black general manager, but what Robert Jose Watson pulled off in 1996 was more than a matter of overcoming gigantic odds. It was closer to a minor miracle: He won a world championship (which he never did in 21 years as an Astros player and executive) in his first year running the Yankees; and perhaps more impressive, he survived a full season working for the team’s principal owner, George Steinbrenner, who is famous for firing nearly everyone in sight. Yet although he is Steinbrenner’s fourteenth general manager in 24 years, Watson has managed to keep his job because nearly every move he has made—every player he has signed, every trade he has orchestrated, every minor leaguer he has recalled—has turned out perfectly: from his preseason acquisitions of first baseman Tino Martinez and catcher Joe Girardi to the late-season pickups of slugging designated hitter Cecil Fielder and third baseman Charlie Hayes. “I had a great year,” Watson says abruptly, as if nothing more needs to be said.
On this day Watson, who turns 51 on April 10, is dressed in a rumpled white shirt, a red-and-blue tie, and gray pin-striped pants; like a lot of big, beefy former athletes—he’s six feet two and at least 40 pounds over his playing weight of 212—he looks strangely awkward in civvies. During his fourteen seasons as an Astros player (1966—1979), he was ominously known as the Bull, though his teammates thought of him as a gentle giant, a guy who kept mostly to himself and rarely lost his cool. “Growing up, I was always one of the strongest kids in my neighborhood,” he says, “and I knew if