The seconds were ticking off in the race for the one baseball record no one will ever break, and Bob Watson of the Houston Astros, standing at second base in Candlestick Park during a game early this season, knew he had a chance to set it. As the ball rocketed off teammate Milt May's bat and headed deep to right, Watson tagged up and held his breath. Home run! Elated, Watson forgot all about the record and started to jog home. His teammates, alerted by a message flashed on the scoreboard that major league baseball's 999,999th run already had been tallied, began to yell at him, and Watson started to sprint. He just beat Cincinnati's Dave Concepcion, who was rounding third 2,000 miles away, to score the millionth run.
"I guess I wasn't thinking about myself," Watson said later. And that, as any Astro will tell you, is the kind of man he is. Having gone quite unnoticed for nine years despite his superior play, Watson had his shoes enshrined in the Hall of Fame for something that only haphazardly involved him—and even then he almost blew it.
If you live outside Houston, chances are you may never have heard of Watson. Even for those who live there, it has not been hard to overlook him. Watson played for a long time in the shadow of Jimmy Wynn and Cesar Cedeno in the Houston outfield. More often than not he was celebrated only for such oddities as accidentally breaking the jaw of Montreal's Tim Foli, being showered with beer by the fans in Cincinnati or scoring that millionth run.
Yet all this time Watson has been averaging .294, which at the end of last season tied him for 10th place among active National Leaguers. Heartened by a switch this season to first base, his best position, he has had a 13-game hitting streak and is among the league leaders in average (.328) and runs batted in (57). Still, he has received scant support in the balloting for next week's All-Star Game. According to the latest tally, he stood a very distant third among players at his position, even though his batting average is higher and he has more RBIs and home runs (12) than either Steve Garvey or Tony Perez, the two men outpolling him. The only way he can make the team is if National League Manager Walter Alston selects him as a substitute.
"A lot of people ask me if I'm disappointed with the way the name Bob Watson has been tossed around," he says. "Not really. I'm not flashy. I don't steal many bases or hit many homers. And the club hasn't done that well in the past. It doesn't bother me. If I had done something to be more recognized, the club might have won more."
At least ballplayers give him his due. "Watson is my toughest out," says Pitcher Don Sutton of the Dodgers. "He's a consistent hitter who makes contact." And Tom Seaver of the Mets says, "He hits anything, and that's the sign of a good hitter: one who doesn't just hit your mistakes but hits your good pitches."
In baseball terms, Watson is a batter who "fights" the ball. He is called The Bull for his size (6'2") and strength, but his swing is that of spray-hitters Joe Torre and Tommy Davis, who have given him batting tips. Watson forgoes the slugger's looping uppercut for a downward chop; the results are some of the hardest liners since Frank Howard's.
"You're trying to play hard pepper with the pitcher," he says. "If you swing early, you go to left; on time, to center; later, to right. That way they can't defense you." The Giants play Watson to pull, most teams line up straightaway against him and the Mets figure him to hit to right with an inside-out swing. All, in truth, are guessing.
"If I have any formula for success, it's not to take batting practice," says Watson. "The last four years, I've taken very little after May 15. I'll take it the first night in a city to see what the background is, or if we have a day game I'll take four or five swings, but that's all. In batting practice you're hitting pitching that's not even half speed. You can hurt a back or leg muscle. What I'll do is take out a fun-go bat and swing it maybe 100 times at imaginary pitches—high and low, down the middle, in and out."
If Watson is not a pitcher's best friend, he at least understands them. Coming out of Los Angeles' Fremont High School, where his graduation was sandwiched between those of Padre Bobby Tolan and Dodger Willie Crawford, he aspired to be a big league catcher, and probably would be one had he not injured his throwing arm in the minors. "Pitchers still come to him for advice," says lefthander Dave Roberts of the Astros. "Sometimes he may tell me to stop throwing fastballs, and he's right. I'm the kind of pitcher who needs to mix up his pitches to be effective."