HOUSTON -- A lifetime of memories and hard work were slipped onto the finger of 70-year-old Willie Berry on Thursday afternoon.Berry, who's worked with the Astros since the early 1970s -- first as a janitor at the Astrodome but mostly as a dependable groundskeeper at the Astrodome and Minute Maid
HOUSTON -- A lifetime of memories and hard work were slipped onto the finger of 70-year-old Willie Berry on Thursday afternoon.
Berry, who's worked with the Astros since the early 1970s -- first as a janitor at the Astrodome but mostly as a dependable groundskeeper at the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park -- was among hundreds of Astros employees who received their World Series championship rings at a ceremony at Minute Maid Park.
The club awarded 1,332 rings -- the players and field staff got theirs on Tuesday -- and even paid the taxes for employees so there would be no out-of-pocket cost. But no one who received a ring Thursday has worked for the club longer than Berry, who's been with the franchise for 47 of its 57 seasons.
"It means a lot," Berry said. "When we went in '05 and won the National League championship, yeah, I thought about hanging them up. I said, 'Nah, I'm going to hang around for while longer.' I'm glad I did."
Astros president Reid Ryan helped pass out rings to the team's full-time staff on the field Thursday, with 700 family members watching from the stands. No handshake on the stage meant more on this day than Berry's.
"I know how many years he's worked for the Astros, how many mounds that he has manicured and pounded and cleaned and prepped, and just seeing him saunter up onto the stage and the smile on my face -- it was ear to ear," said Ryan, who's known Berry since Ryan's father, Nolan, joined the Astros in 1980. "He earned that ring as much as anybody in that organization for putting his life into the Houston Astros."
Most of those getting championship rings weren't even born yet when Berry got a part-time job at the Astrodome in 1970 scrubbing floors. When someone told him a couple of years later the team needed help keeping the playing field in shape, Berry volunteered. He's been an Astros staple since.
Berry's first official year with the Astros was 1971. The Astrodome was only six years old, and the team went 79-83 that year under manager Harry Walker. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan was the starting second baseman, and the star-studded trio of Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno and Jimmy Wynn roamed the outfield.
If you've followed the Astros for any length of time, you've seen Berry. Or at least his work. In the early days, he would vacuum the Astrodome turf while wearing a spacesuit, but now carries rakes and hoes and other tools designed to keep the mound and batter's circle in pristine shape.
Berry said he seriously thought about retiring last year, but he knew the Astros could win the World Series.
"I said 'Well, we're kind of on a run right now,' so I look at it from starting today, I'm on from a three- to a five-year window," he said. "I might still be around then."
In the offseason, Berry had a month vacation and took some time to visit Miami with his wife, Bernadine. When he got home, he still had two weeks of vacation remaining and couldn't imagine not going to the ballpark.
"I was kind of hanging around and said, 'I can't stay around here, not watching baseball,'" he said. "I said, 'Hey, I'm going to give it one more shot.'"
The Astros won the World Series, and Berry on Thursday slipped on his ring. Those hard-working hands have never looked so good.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.