Magazine article The New Yorker

THE DISCIPLINARIAN; TALKING BACK Series: 4/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

THE DISCIPLINARIAN; TALKING BACK Series: 4/5

Article excerpt

Bob Watson, who is now fifty-nine, is a baseball lifer. After nineteen seasons as a big-league outfielder and first baseman, he turned to coaching, and then served for several seasons as the general manager of the Astros and the Yankees. Now he has a job befitting an elder statesman: chief disciplinarian for Major League Baseball. It is a job whose purpose, he says, is "to make people mad"--those people being, principally, the players, managers, and owners he has punished with fines and suspensions, but also their embittered fans. As a man of the old school, Watson has a natural forthrightness, and also a tendency to answer his own phone; the combination of these traits means that he sometimes finds himself arguing with complete strangers. For a lay equivalent, imagine a civilian getting Dick Cheney on the line to talk about our trade policy toward Taiwan.

James Devitt, a thirty-eight-year-old Red Sox fan from Larchmont, New York, and an employee at N.Y.U., is one such stranger. He was unhappy with the punishments meted out to several of Boston's players following a recent brawl between the Sox and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Yankees' Gary Sheffield, meanwhile, had shoved a fan at Fenway Park last month and got no punishment at all. What gives? Devitt dialled the number for M.L.B., on Park Avenue, and asked for Bob Watson's office--and there, suddenly, Watson was. "So I just asked him to explain the discrepancy," Devitt said last week. Watson's response, which Devitt found "unsatisfactory," was that the two situations were unrelated, and not worthy of comparison. Devitt persisted: "So it's O.K. to shove a fan but it's not O.K. to react angrily to being thrown at?" Watson said, "I made my decision," and hung up.

"I was, like, This is silly," Devitt said. "This guy who I kind of admired hung up on me and was being somewhat dictatorial about his decision--although he was nice enough to take the call." Sometimes it's better not to take the call. Devitt riffled through his old baseball-card collection and wrote a follow-up letter to Watson. "I admired you as a player and as a pioneering Yankee executive," the letter said. "However, your decision and subsequent treatment of me on the phone caused a change of heart. I am therefore returning all of my Bob Watson cards, which date back to 1976. Also included is a Bob Watson card from my son's collection--he voluntarily gave it to me after I recounted the incident. …

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