Barry Waters behind 2003 bubbly at Yankee Stadium
Beloved traveling secretary paid for Dom Pérignon bottles out of own pocket
If one of the most inexplicable firings in Astros’ history hadn’t occurred, Barry Waters surely would have been at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. If history is an indication, he would have asked a clubhouse attendant to get the best champagne available in the Legends Suite for Cristian Javier, Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly.
Waters spent 34 years as a loyal servant with the Astros’ organization, first as a clubhouse attendant and then as the trusted traveling secretary. He loved the players, and the players loved him. So it’s time to correct one of the biggest myths from the six-pitcher no-hitter the Astros threw on June 11, 2003, at old Yankee Stadium.
Contrary to what some players in that game still believe, former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner did not send the pitchers champagne to celebrate. Waters ordered those Dom Pérignon bottles. Even more impressively, he paid for them out of his own pocket.
Soon after Octavio Dotel tied a Major League Baseball record by striking out four Yankees in the eighth inning, Waters approached the Yankees’ visiting clubhouse attendants on June 11, 2003.
“I told the clubhouse guys, ‘Hey can you go get some Dom,’” Waters said Sunday from his apartment in the Houston area. “And then I said, ‘Get six of them.’ I got one for all six pitchers, and I put them right in their locker.”
Spreading of a myth
Unlike the Astros’ recent combined no-hitter in the Bronx, the six-pitcher no-hitter 19 years earlier was a night game. The talented Alyson Footer and I were the only Houston area reporters there that night, but there was plenty of New York media.
It is difficult to determine which outlets wrote that Steinbrenner sent the champagne bottles to the six Astros pitchers. At a time before Twitter, however, the Associated Press spread the myth to the world.
“By the time the Astros returned to their clubhouse, the Yankees had left a bottle of champagne in front of the locker of all six pitchers,” the AP wrote that night.
That story even quoted closer Billy Wagner, who pitched the ninth to complete the first six-pitcher no-hitter in MLB history and the first no-hitter against the Yankees since 1958.
“That’s how the Yankees are, they’re pretty classy,” Wagner said.
Nineteen years later, Wagner texted, “Barry Waters bought the champagne.”
Breakdown on deadline
Back in Houston that night, veteran Houston Chronicle news editor Ernie Williamson broke industry protocols. He added the erroneous information to the front page story without bothering to check with the writer on the scene.
I wrote two stories that night on deadline. One was for the sports page cover. The other was for the front page. Williams added the tidbit about the champagne bottles. At the end of the A1 story for the June 12, 2003, edition, he also added a note, “The Associated Press contributed to this report.”
The Chronicle ran a correction the next day. Sadly, though, Waters never got credit for his gesture. He actually got in trouble initially when then-general manager Gerry Hunsicker read about the champagne bottles in a New York tabloid.
Hunsicker asked him why the Astros would need Steinbrenner to get the bottles for them. Waters assured him that he ordered the champagne and paid for it himself.
“Just put it on your expense report,” Hunsicker responded.
There actually was a seventh Dom Perignon bottle that day. Waters and former clubhouse manager Dennis Liborio, a fellow Ashland, Mass., native, drank it late that night to celebrate the no-hitter.
‘Barry Waters was the best’
Waters, 63, joined the Astros as a clubhouse attendant for the late Liborio as a teenager. Then-general manager Dick Wagner asked Waters to take over the traveling secretary’s duties in 1986.
“Barry Waters was the best,” Wagner said. “He took care of us.”
Unfortunately for Waters, he was one of the many loyal, longtime Astros employees general manager Jeff Luhnow fired after Jim Crane bought the team.
A longtime St. Louis Cardinals executive who had worked with Luhnow actually warned Waters to watch his back a few months before he was fired. Luhnow fired Waters after the 2012 season.
In a story repeated by many Astros employees fired by Luhnow, no reason was given. “We’re going in a different direction,” Waters remembers Luhnow telling him.
Many of the Astros’ greatest stars from multiple eras still resent Luhnow for firing Waters. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell stayed away from the organization for several years because of the way Luhnow treated his good friend, among other things.
“Best in the business,” Bagwell says of Waters. “Anything you needed, he could get done.”
Waters struggled after Luhnow fired him.
“I’ll tell you something, that threw me for a loop for a year,” Waters said. “I went through a divorce. I had to sell my house. It wasn’t a good feeling.”
More to give the Astros
Waters was hoping to work at least 10 more years. He was even willing to work in another position. He asked if money was an issue, but his fate had been sealed before he entered Luhnow’s office on the first Tuesday after the 2012 season.
So, yes, it’s important to know who actually ordered that expensive champagne for Oswalt, Pete Munro, Kirk Saarloos, Brad Lidge, Dotel and Wagner.
Oswalt mentioned the Steinbrenner myth Saturday after Javier, Neris and Pressly threw their combined no-hitter against the Yankees.
“Tell those guys not to settle for the cheap stuff,” Oswalt told me by phone Saturday. “We got champagne from Steinbrenner.”
When told how that error spread and ultimately became a myth in Houston because of a news editor at the Chronicle, Oswalt sighed.
“That’s terrible,” Oswalt said. “I hate that.”
All six of the pitchers signed each of those champagne bottles. Wagner, who will likely join club icons Bagwell and Craig Biggio in the National Baseball Hall of Fame eventually, still has his signed bottle at his house.
Oswalt has his at his parents’ home in Weir, Miss. Now, at least Oswalt knows that Waters got him the bottle.
Astros broadcaster Geoff Blum, who made one of the pivotal defensive plays during that six-pitcher no-hitter, repeated the myth on the Astros’ broadcast on Sunday.
Steinbrenner was actually seething at his team’s performance and the way the Astros celebrated the first no-hitter thrown against the Yankees since 1958. At that time, the Yankees had the record for the longest streak in baseball without suffering a no-hitter.
The fiery former Yankees owner was stalking around the Yankees clubhouse the next day, making his anger clear for anybody who bothered to notice.
Correcting the record on the Steinbrenner myth is important because Astros fans should know about one of the most beloved Astros employees of the previous generation.
Waters never bothered to correct the record until he was confronted by Hunsicker. Even then, he stayed in the background and just helped the players with whatever they needed.
When asked about those Dom Perignon bottles 19 years later, Waters answered in the most Ashland, Mass., way.
“It was my ass,” he said, “that sent them.”
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