WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- With a booming, raspy voice, infectious laugh and enough stories to fill a dozen memoirs, Jamie Hildreth was one of the most beloved figures within the Houston Astros' organization.
Hildreth's unexpected passing while in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Friday at the age of 72 leaves the Astros with a void that will be difficult to fill. As their longest tenured employee, one who had indelible relationships with the club's top partners and who made business meetings feel more like gatherings among lifelong friends, replacing Hildreth seems nearly impossible.
"He was everybody's friend," recently retired Astros broadcaster Bill Brown said. "When he walked into a room, he always had a smile on his face; he always made you feel better by the time you left."
Hildreth, who most recently served as the Astros' senior vice president of broadcasting and alumni relations, joined the club in 1987 as the director of broadcasting. In his three decades with the team, Hildreth worked in sales, sponsorship and broadcasting.
His career was based not on numbers, but relationships, a philosophy that worked in his favor as he brokered deals with top sponsors, mentored young people and managed the Astros' radio and television announcers and engineers.
"He had a personality that lent itself toward people wanting to be around him," said Brown, one of Hildreth's closest friends. "He could combine social time with business time and make people understand how valuable it was to have a conversation, with baseball being a conversational sport. He just attracted people who wanted to have a good time around him."
Hildreth's passing happened during his annual trip to Astros Spring Training, in advance of the club's first game of the Grapefruit League season.
"Words cannot express how shocked and devastated all of us are right now," Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan said in a statement. "Jamie gave so much of himself to the Astros' organization, and was loved and respected by so many in the Astros family and beyond. He had the unique ability to light up a room, no matter where he was. He was one of those people that, no matter where he may be, someone would recognize him and come over to say hello.
"He truly was a special, one-of-a-kind individual and will be greatly missed. This is a very difficult time for us. We are in mourning over the loss of a very, very special man."
Hildreth worked under three owners: John McMullen, Drayton McLane and Jim Crane. While front offices tend to be fluid, especially when ownership changes hands, Hildreth remained a valuable piece of the front office through all three regimes, providing stability in essential areas of the business operation.
"Jamie was a vital part of the Astros' organization for over three decades," Crane said in a statement. "His knowledge of the industry and great ability to connect with people were invaluable. He has left an indelible mark on those of us that were fortunate to work with him. We send our deepest condolences to his many friends and family members."
Hildreth's ties were not solely on the business side. He forged close relationships with Astros players such as Craig Biggio, who has known Hildreth since his rookie season in 1988. Biggio said he last spoke with Hildreth less than a week ago.
"What does he mean to me? Jamie was a great, was a great friend," Biggio said. "We worked together for 30-plus years. He just was a great person, he loved people, and anybody that ever met him knows that. You saw that in him and that's why he was great in his job. He loved people."
Former Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker, who worked closely with Hildreth from 1995-2004, called Hildreth's passing "heartbreaking."
"He was one of those guys that was always bigger than life," Hunsicker said. "He always had a smile on his face. He was Houston Astros through and through. He lived for 'em. He was great to the people that worked for him. If you didn't like Jamie Hildreth, there's something wrong with you."
Prior to joining the Astros, Hildreth had a successful career in radio -- which included stops at KRBE and KTRH in Houston and KTRM/KALO in Beaumont, Texas. He was nominated in 2014 for induction into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. Also in '14, Hildreth received the Fred Hartman Award for long and meritorious service, given annually by the Houston Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Houston, majoring in radio and television.
Hildreth is survived by his wife, Theresa, two sons, Jeff and Shane, and five grandchildren: Hayward, John, Alexandra, Audrey and James. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the Astros Foundation in his honor. The Astros Foundation will create an annual scholarship in Hildreth's memory for a student to attend the University of Houston in broadcasting.
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.