Former player, GM feted for work with assistance program
By Richard Justice
HOUSTON -- Bob Watson's friends came from all over the country on Tuesday to honor his 52 years in baseball and to tell him how much they respect him and how much they care for him.
Teammates remembered him as a ferocious competitor and a great teammate during his 19 seasons in the Major Leagues. Later, as general manager of the Astros and Yankees, Watson was ... Well, let's allow Joe Torre to pick up the story.
Torre removed a 1996 World Series ring from his hand and held it up.
"If it wasn't for Bob Watson hiring me [to manage the Yankees], I wouldn't have this," Torre said of the ring that still holds a special place in his heart, two decades later.
Torre would go on to win three more rings with the Yankees, but that first one marked the end of a long journey.
"I waited a long time for that sucker," he said.
Plenty of people in and around baseball feel the same way about Watson, 71, and they were happy to be on hand on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park when the Astros honored him during a pregame ceremony.
Watson received the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) Lifetime Achievement Award for his years of work on the non-profit organization's board of directors and Grant Committee. Former Astros such as Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, Larry Dierker, Jimmy Wynn, Phil Garner, J.R. Richard, Jeff Bagwell, Enos Cabell, Gerald Young, James Mouton and Ron Cook helped celebrate the occasion.
BAT was founded in 1986 to assist members of the baseball family in need. Last year it raised and awarded $2.8 million to fulfill some of the 70 monthly requests for assistance from former players, executives, scouts, groundskeepers and others.
When Watson worked as the czar of discipline for Major League Baseball, he gave players the option of "giving me their fine money or giving it to BAT. They gave it to BAT."
"I think of all of his accomplishments, the one that sticks out with me was his involvement with the Baseball Assistance Team," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "He was crucial to the organization really growing to a level that it was sustaining itself. Hundreds of people who've benefited from that charity owe a debt of gratitude to Bob for the good work he did in that area."
Watson was surprised and touched by the honor. When he runs down the list of his accomplishments, he begins with hitting a home run in his first World Series at-bat (in 1981 for the Yankees) and hitting for the cycle in both leagues.
"And the second time," he said, "I did it in order -- single, double, triple, home run. I don't think that has been done too many times."
Watson also holds a special place in baseball history as the player who scored Major League Baseball's millionth run. He scored the historic run for the Astros on May 4, 1975, on a three-run homer by Milt May against the Giants at Candlestick Park.
In the end, though, it's his work for BAT that seems to have given him the greatest sense of fulfillment.
"It was an avenue for me to give something back," he said. "BAT does a whole lot that you folks don't know anything about. It's those of us in the baseball family helping one another."
As Hall of Famer Ryan said, "He's had so much impact on the game. What he's done with BAT is important. It's the game taking care of people in need."
When Watson and Torre were players, they had such a similar hitting style that, as Torre said, "It was always easy to strike up a conversation."
Later, Watson was a player in Atlanta when Torre managed the Braves for three seasons (1982-84).
"As a manager, you realize the guys you can count on," Torre said. "Bob was always one of those guys. Whether he was talking to a young player about something, he was helping the team one way or the other."
Watson is moving a bit slower these days. He undergoes dialysis three days a week and has a pacemaker. But as he said, "I've cheated death a few times. I am really happy. I've got some great people here. All of these people here came out to see me. I wouldn't do it any different, any different."
Among the many friends and former teammates who showed up to honor Watson, Torre may have spoken for all of them when he said:
"He's honest. He cares a great deal. He has a passion for the game because he's been in so many different aspects. He's just a good man."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.