On April 23, 1982, the Yankees traded Bob Watson to the Braves for minor-league pitcher Scott Patterson.*
By then, the Bravos had already made some NL noise with a 13-game winning streak to start the season. But acquiring Watson to fortify the bench appeared to be a helluva get. As it turned out, in ’82 and, especially, ’83—two seasons that saw Atlanta go down to the NL-West wire with L.A.—Watson would get some big and memorable hits.
Watson, who had just turned 36, was finishing up an impressive career as one of baseball’s more underrated hitters. A powerfully built right-handed, line-drive machine, Watson played the majority of his career in the Houston Astrodome (aka MLB’s Grand Canyon), a notoriously difficult park for power hitters. Nonetheless—even after 3 mostly successful years in Boston and The Bronx—any fan of any NL West club knew how dangerous Watson was. Indeed, by the time he hung up the cleats after 19 seasons, Watson went .295/.364./.447 with a 129 OPS+.
Playing for the Astros between 1966-79, Watson only made two NL All-Star teams—but, as a 1B/OF, those were tough squads to crack. Coming up as an OF**, there was Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose, Billy Williams, etc. Then transitioning to 1B fulltime in ’75, there was Willie Stargell, Tony Perez, Steve Garvey, etc. Quite a logjam.
With the Braves: For that crazy-to-the-end ’82 campaign, Watson hit .246/.323./.421 for the Braves. In 130 PA, he was used mostly as a PH and occasional platoon for Chris Chambliss, whom he’d ironically replaced in New York two years prior. In ’83, his numbers were even better – .309/.376./.490 in 170 PA. True to form, he pretty much pulverized LHP – .849 OPS in ’82 (106 PA), then a gaudy 1.074 OPS in ’83 (114 PA).
Against the main-rival Dodgers in ’82—a team with formidable LHP—he was .308/.367/.577 with 2 HR & 6 RBI in 30 PA. In ’83 against L.A., he went .333/.415/.458 with 1 HR & 7 RBI in 29 PA. And maybe it was no surprise that, as a longtime NL West player, he was a lifetime Dodger-killer. In 684 PA vs. L.A., he was .307/.380/.448 and, as a Yankee in the 1981 World Series, he mauled the Dodgers to the tune of .318/.385/.636 with 2 HR & 7 RBI in the 6-game loss.
For his career, Watson only saw post-season action in 1980 & ’81, but boy, did he make the most of his time on the bigger stages. In 4 series & 67 PA, he went .371/.403/.565. And no, he didn’t take an AB in the 1982 NLCS vs. St. Louis.
Additionally, he had a couple other notable career accomplishments. He was the first modern player to hit for the cycle in both leagues (Houston in 1977 and Boston in 1979). In 1975, Watson was credited with scoring baseball’s millionth run. For his career, he hit 117 homers on the road and 117 homers vs. RHP; he hit 67 homers at home and 67 homers vs. LHP. Kinda weird.
In 1993, he joined Houston’s front office, becoming MLB’s first black GM. In 1996 as the Yanks’ GM, he became MLB’s first black GM to win a World Series. But we’ll try not to dwell on that one, other than to say that he found working for George Steinbrenner less than fulfilling. (Of course, it wasn’t the first time he had a hand in upsetting Steinbrenner.) Watson’s quote about The Boss: “If things go right, they’re his team. If things go wrong, they’re your team. His favorite line is, ‘I will never have a heart attack—I give them.’” Charming, huh?
If you ask Atlanta fans of a certain age about Bob Watson’s stint with the Braves, they’ll all mention one glorious moment. On August 13, 1983, with the Braves in another late-season deathbattle with the Dodgers, Watson capped one of those crazy back-and-forth pennant-race games with a walk-off, 2-run homer off Steve Howe before a packed Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. (To see Watson’s HR & highlights of the 8-7 win, go to 1:00:20.)
Though the Dodgers had won 7 of 10 games vs. the Braves at that point, Atlanta took a 7-game lead on L.A. that Saturday night. Unfortunately, Watson’s exhilarating HR provided that season’s high-water mark. The ride from the 13-game winning streak to NL West title to seeing another division flag on the horizon derailed almost immediately afterward.
Two days later, Bob Horner broke his wrist and was replaced at 3B by someone named Randy Johnson. Atlanta finished the season by winning only 17 of the next 45 games. The talented Dodgers, just 2 years past a World Series title, crept past them for the division title, then promptly lost the NLCS to the “Wheeze Kids” Phillies***, a club they’d beaten 11 of 12 games during the regular season.
The Braves wouldn’t finish over .500, or even play a meaningful August game, until that magical year of 1991. We didn’t know it at the time, but Watson’s HR was as it good as it was going to get for quite a while.
*Curiously, Patterson went onto a successful acting career, starring in three entries to the “Saw” torture-porn franchise—plus seven seasons as a regular on the “Gilmore Girls” TV series.
**That ’72 Houston outfield was pretty outrageous with Watson (OPS+ 141), Jimmy Wynn (OPS+ 146; they called him “The Toy Cannon” for good reason) & a young César Cedeño (OPS+ 162) skipping liners through the Dome’s prodigious power alleys.
***1983 was a pretty good year for Philly sports. Not only did the Phils win the NL title, the 76ers won the NBA championship. The NHL Flyers won the Patrick Division title, but were upset in the playoffs. Local Big East school Villanova went 24-8 and made the NCAA’s Final 8, ultimately bowing to Phi Slama Jama. Only the Eagles, who went 5-11 in an NFL strike season, were bottom-feeders.