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Astros Great and Trailblazing GM Bob Watson Battling a Terminal Illness

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Bob Watson is one of those forgotten Astros. He was the team’s power-hitting first baseman back in the days when it was impossible to hit homers in the Astrodome. A two-time All Star, he just missed out on the team’s glory years, since he was later traded to the Red Sox during the 1979 season. His numbers look pedestrian (139 homers with 782 RBI and a .297/.364/.444 slash line for his Astros career) when compared with Jeff Bagwell's and Lance Berkman's.

But Astros fans should remember what Watson meant to the team and baseball, especially after the revelation last week that Watson is dying from kidney failure.

The Astros, who have seemingly retired the number of every semi-successful player in team history, never saw fit to retire Watson’s number, nor has the club seen fit to honor him in any way. But he’s not a man who should be allowed to fade into obscurity. He scored the millionth run in MLB history on May 4, 1975, racing home from second base on a Milt May home run against the Giants to score mere seconds before Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion touched home plate across the country during a Reds game.

Then there’s this. Watson was the first African-American in MLB history to be hired as a general manager.  This happened when Drayton McLane gave him the Astros job on October 6, 1993. Watson kept the Astros job through the 1995 season, when he left the Astros to take over perhaps the most prestigious GM job in baseball, with the New York Yankees. Watson’s tenure in Houston was rather nondescript in many ways — I never quite understood the trade of Luis Gonzalez to the Cubs for Rick Wilkins, for example — but his tenure with the Yankees was much more successful.

The Yankees won the World Series in 1996 after years of wandering in the desert. While it was Gene Michael who was responsible for bringing franchise icons Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera to the Yankees, it was Watson who traded for Joe Girardi and Tino Martinez before the 1996 season started, then brought onboard Cecil Fielder and David Weathers during the season — all players who played key roles in winning the World Series for the Yankees that season. And it was Watson who made Joe Torre the manager. The 1996 Yankees reunited in The Bronx last week, but Watson was absent. But it wasn't because the Yankees forgot about him; it’s because Watson is battling a terminal illness.

“I really wanted to be there,” Watson told The New York Daily News, "but my health won't allow it. I am battling Stage 4 kidney failure. Not too many people know about it.”

He’s currently undergoing what’s known as nocturnal dialysis, a seven-hour process that Watson administers three times a week. He told the New York paper that doctors have given him two to ten years to live.

It’s rather shocking news about Watson, especially seeing as how he had already survived not only prostate cancer but also working for McLane and Steinbrenner. And it’s also shocking because Watson — nicknamed The Bull as a player — was one of those big guys who looked immune to injury and disease. He was also a guy who worked to make the majors, moving from catcher in the minors before making the Astros as an outfielder. He primarily played left field in his first seasons with the Astros, but it’s as the team’s starting first baseman from 1975 through his trade to the Red Sox midway through the 1979 season that he’s best remembered.

This is not a plea for the Astros to find some way to honor Watson, especially since it seems that Watson probably could not make the event. This is just a way to let many Astros fans, most of who weren't following the Astros in the 1970s or who weren’t around when he was the team’s GM, know a little something about an Astros player who may have fallen between the cracks.

Just because the Astros were bad for most of the 1970s, and just because his career numbers look slight when compared to those of the likes of Bagwell and Berkman, the team’s two greatest first basemen, doesn’t mean his playing career shouldn’t be celebrated. And just because he didn’t make the flashy trades of Gerry Hunsicker doesn’t mean his tenure as Astros GM should be forgotten.

Bob Watson made history twice, as a player and then as a GM. And now, we hope, those Astros fans who never heard of Bob Watson know a little something about a man who should be celebrated as a legend.

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