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 wall-length window at the back of his office onto the frozen, desolate stadium field below. “You know,” he says finally, “I think all the difficult stuff I’ve been through in my career really helped me get through what happened last year. I really do.”
Born and raised in south central Los Angeles, Watson was a nineteen-year-old catcher-outfielder with limited fielding skills and a chronically sore shoulder but a terrific bat when he signed with Houston in 1965. For four seasons he played mostly in the minor leagues in such off-the-beaten-path towns as Cocoa, Florida, and Salisbury, North Carolina, where he quickly encountered racial discrimination the likes of which he had never seen. “It was total culture shock for a kid from L.A.,” he says. “Emotionally, I definitely wasn’t ready for it.” In Cocoa and Salisbury he couldn’t find a single hotel or apartment complex that accepted blacks, and until the Astros placed him in the home of a black family, he would do the most desperate things to get a semi-decent night’s sleep: He once even curled up on a wooden bench in a black-owned funeral home. What he remembers most about Salisbury isn’t his sleeping arrangements but an ongoing promotion that awarded free Salisbury steak dinners to home-team players who hit home runs. “Except,” he says, “that the restaurant serving those dinners wouldn’t serve blacks, not even out the back door. So I would end up hitting all these homers and giving away the certificates to my teammates.”
Racism nearly caused Watson to quit for good in 1969, when, after playing left field for the Astros on opening day, he was sent down to a double-A team in Savannah, Georgia, to work on his catching. “Our regular catcher, Johnny Edwards, was struggling, and they wanted me to take over for him,” he recalls. “But when I got to Savannah, I couldn’t get into a hotel. I said to myself, ‘This can’t be happening to me again. I mean, I’m coming from the starting lineup in the big leagues!’” Three weeks into his time in the minors, sleeping most nights on the ice-cold trainer’s table in the team’s clubhouse, Watson told his manager, Hub Kittle, that he just couldn’t take it anymore; he was packing it in—in fact, he had booked a flight back to L.A. But when his plane stopped over in Houston, Tal Smith, then the Astros’ assistant general manager, met Watson at the airport to deliver the news that he had been called back up to the majors. “If not for that,” he says now, “believe me, I was done. I was definitely ready to do something else.”
In a total of nineteen seasons playing for the Astros, Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Atlanta Braves, Watson logged impressive numbers: a .295 batting average, 184 homers, and 989 runs batted in. Still, he can’t help but wonder what might have been if he hadn’t played all those years in the dead air of the Astrodome. “If I played in almost any other ballpark,” he says, “I probably would’ve had about two hundred more homers and four hundred more runs batted in. But I don’t regret it: I think the ’Dome actually made me a better hitter. I learned how to hit the ball hard and not care where it went.” With a slightly downward swing that put a backspin on his longer fly balls and using bats as huge as forty ounces, he hit .300 or better six times in an era dominated by pitchers—and hit when it counted: .375 in two playoff series and .318 with two homers in his only World Series appearance as a player, with the Yankees in 1981.
Despite his genial demeanor, Watson was also one of the fiercest base runners ever to break up a double play. Once, in the mid-seventies, he barreled so hard into Montreal Expos shortstop Tim Foli that Foli was knocked unconscious and had to have his jaw wired back together. It wasn’t that Watson had a mean streak; it was just the way he thought the game should be played. “Bob was so incredibly businesslike and sensible,” says the Astros’ current manager, Larry Dierker, a former star pitcher who was Watson’s teammate for eleven seasons. “When all the young guys were out spending money on fancy cars and crazy clothes and gallivanting at all hours of the night, Bob was watching over his money like a hawk, wearing stuff that looked like it came from Sears, and staying home with his family.”
Yet in all his years in Houston, Watson never saw his team finish better than ten games out of first place. “If I learned anything with the Astros,” he says, “it was about losing—and about how much I hated it.” His most humiliating season, he says, was 1975, when he hit a career high .324, was named to the National League all-star team, and scored baseball’s one millionth run; the Astros, however, finished in last place, a laughable 43 games behind the Cincinnati Reds. “I mean, I did all that I could do personally that year,” he says, “and it still wasn’t good enough.”
After retiring from playing, Watson coached with the Oakland A’s for four seasons, moving up from minor league hitting instructor to major league batting coach to bench coach, and in 1988 he returned to the Astros as an assistant to general manager Bill Wood—though not without accepting a huge pay cut, from $120,000 a year to $40,000. “I knew I had to take three steps backward before I could move back up,” he says. Watson was chiefly in charge of Latin American scouting and development, and occasionally he handled contract negotiations. But paperwork was far from his forte back then, and in drawing up one of his first contracts, he left out a single word in a clause relating to an incentive bonus—the word “active,” as in active roster—and it ended up costing the Astros $30,000.
In 1992, five years into Watson’s apprenticeship, trucking tycoon Drayton McLane bought the Astros from John McMullen and promptly fired Wood and manager Art Howe. Watson figured he was next and packed his office belongings, only to find out shortly thereafter that he was being retained and would be asked to take over as general manager. “It’s funny,” he says. “Here I was, having my dream come true and with no doubt that I could do the job, and yet I still felt this huge pressure to be a role model for other blacks. I’m a workaholic anyway, but during the first year as general manager, I was overly concerned about everything. I knew if I did well, I could open a lot of doors.”
After leading the Astros to two straight second-place finishes, Watson quit with a year remaining on his contract (afterward citing new payroll constraints and uncertainty over a possible sale and move of the team) for the same position with the Yankees, agreeing to a two-year guaranteed deal worth $350,000 a season. At the time, observers couldn’t help but seriously question Watson’s decision to work in a pressure cooker like New York for a boss who had hired and fired a single manager, Billy Martin, five times. “Well, for one, it looks great on your résumé,” he says with a laugh now. “And for another, I’m a guy from inner-city L.A., and now I have the keys to the House That Ruth Built. Whatever the downside was, the upside was better.” He points to a blue-and-gold ring on the ring finger of his right hand: his World Series ring from 1981, when he was playing for the Bronx Bombers. “I’ve worn this thing every day since the day I got it,” he says. “I was always proud to be a Yankee.”
And he still is, although this winter was indeed a difficult one for the team. While managing somehow to avert all three arbitration cases, Watson nevertheless lost two star pitchers to free agency, including World Series most valuable player John Wetteland (now with the Texas Rangers); had his nerves frayed by Cecil Fielder’s weekly demands to be traded; and had to endure his $13.5 million off-season acquisition, pitcher David Wells, breaking his hand during a street brawl in San Diego. Now some preseason baseball magazines are picking the Yankees to finish as poorly as third place.
All of which, frankly, doesn’t seem to concern Watson one bit. “I’ll be the first to admit that we weren’t the best team last year,” he says. “But we were the team with the most heart and desire and the best attitude. And that’s the big question coming into this season: Are we still as motivated as we were last year?” It’s a question he says he answered for himself a long time ago. “Oh, I’m motivated, believe me,” he says. “I’m going after another dream. It has always been about the dream for me. It’s the only reason I’ve put up with so much for all these years.”