Hardball

As Bob Watson has found, the only thing tougher than playing for the struggling Houston Astros is running the world-champion New York Yankees.

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 I didn’t maintain my composure, I could really hurt somebody. And on two occasions, when I was put in threatening situations, I, unfortunately, did hurt some guys. So I worked hard to stay on an even keel. And it had a lot to do with me being consistent as a player and as a human being. In fact, if I wasn’t the type of guy that I am, I probably would’ve broken here last year—especially with Mr. Steinbrenner.”

August 27, 1996: Somehow it was never the same for Watson after that day, when he traded outfielder Gerald Williams and pitcher Bob Wickman to the Milwaukee Brewers for utility man Pat Listach and pitcher Graeme Lloyd. When the new Yankees arrived in the Bronx, they had serious injuries unknown to Watson: Listach, a fractured bone in his foot that kept him out for the rest of the season; Lloyd, bone spurs in his elbow. When Steinbrenner heard the news, Watson says, he “hit the roof” and threatened to fire him if he didn’t “get the thing rectified.” All Watson could do was file a grievance against the Brewers with the league office saying he was hoodwinked and requesting compensation. “It was a nightmare,” Watson says, “and it wasn’t even my fault. I just wasn’t told the truth.”

From that point on, according to Yankee insiders, Steinbrenner (who did not respond to a request for an interview) hounded Watson almost daily, with phone calls from Tampa and closed-door meetings in the Bronx. The typical scenario: Steinbrenner ranting out of control, pointing a finger at Watson; Watson remaining tight-lipped, only occasionally squeezing out “Yes, Mr. Steinbrenner. Yes, Mr. Steinbrenner” in a very low voice. “When he was screaming like that,” Watson explains now, “I just keyed down, because if I keyed up we would have train wrecks.”

Although Watson is nonconfrontational, he did confront Steinbrenner once during that period, telling the owner to fire him if that’s what he really wanted to do. “I just figured,” he says, “that if I lost my job then—well, I haven’t had a paid vacation in thirty years. The only thing I would have felt bad about was that I didn’t get to complete something.” He even considered quitting, but only for a fleeting moment. “The thing was, the team was still in first place, and I didn’t want to just abandon them like that. I also worried that if I quit, it might affect the guys in the clubhouse.”

In the end, of course, Watson was vindicated, as the Yankees shocked the baseball world by winning their first championship since 1978 and Lloyd, aided by cortisone shots, was magically transformed into one of the team’s biggest post-season heroes, retiring all but one of the fifteen batters he faced. To this day, however, Watson has never received an apology from Steinbrenner. “And I definitely wanted one. But did I expect one?” he asks with a chuckle. “Well, yes, I did. But I guess that’s just not the way he is.” He pauses, looking out a

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