Dennis Liborio: loyal employee, clubhouse staple, one of a kind.
In the spring of 1988, a cocky, sunburnt kid from New York sauntered into the Astros’ clubhouse at their Spring Training facility and said to the man standing at the door, “I’m looking for Yogi Berra.”
“And who the heck are you?” the man snapped.
“I’m Craig Biggio,” the kid snapped back. “Where’s Yogi?”
“Oh boy,” the man said to himself. “This guy’s going to be a beauty.”
And from there, a friendship was born. Biggio, fried to a crisp after driving from New York to Florida with the top down on his convertible, and Dennis Liborio, a rough-around-the-edges but soft-hearted Bostonian, eventually became friends, and the two evolved into family over the next 20-plus years.
Liborio is retiring after 32 seasons as the Astros’ clubhouse manager due to health issues. While he’s not a household name to Astros fans, his departure comes as a sad blow to generations of players and staff who grew close to Liborio during their time in Houston.
You may recall reading about Dennis in this blog. Two years ago, we ran a semi-regular feature called “Who’s in Dennis’ chair?” Dennis’ office in the Astros’ clubhouse often doubled as a who’s-who of baseball notoriety, for one simple reason: everyone loves Dennis, and everyone loves to visit Dennis. As a result, the big, comfy black chair in his office was rarely vacant.
Larry Andersen. Phil Garner. Luis Gonzalez. Biggio. Jeff Bagwell. Past players from every decade. Former Astros who were now opponents. Everyone managed to stop by Dennis’s office, because, simply, Dennis’ office was the place to be.
It wasn’t just players who liked to visit. In 2000, the year the Astros’ new ballpark opened, George W. Bush, who at that time was preparing for his presidential campaign, walked into the clubhouse, threw his arm around Dennis’ shoulder, and proclaimed, “This is my running mate!” within earshot of the large contingent of reporters.
Right on cue, Dennis responded, “We’ll show them how to get this country straightened out.” One particular reporter who apparently lacked a sense of humor rushed up to the pair and said, “I just want you to know you can’t have two people on the ticket from the same state.” Without hesitation, Liborio chortled, “That’s all right. I’m from Massachusetts!”
Clubhouse and equipment managers are more than just support staff workers. They’re the eyes and ears of the inner-workings of the team. Everyone and everything that enters and leaves the clubhouse goes through the clubhouse managers, and discretion is one of the biggest components of their game. A ballplayer relies heavily on his equipment/clubhouse manager, which is why the ties that bind them together during a player’s career usually carry on for decades, long after the uniform comes off for good.
Take Dennis and Nolan Ryan, for instance. For decades, they traveled together to Las Vegas every offseason for the rodeo. The first night of their very first trip, Dennis walked into the lobby of the hotel wearing a 10-gallon hat, cowboy boots and a pair of jeans with a huge western belt buckle. “Here comes the Boston Cowboy,” Nolan said in his thick southern drawl. “Nolan, I’ve heard of the Boston Strangler,” Dennis responded, “But never the Boston Cowboy.”
It was during one of those Vegas trips many years later when Dennis’ longtime sweetie, Geraldine, blurted out, “Darn it, Dennis, when are you ever going to marry me?” In typical “Diamond Denny” fashion, he answered, “How about now?” And the two went through a drive-thru and tied the knot, Vegas-style.
A few weeks later, a box weighing no less than 70 pounds arrived to the clubhouse. “What the…?” Dennis said. Inside was a jumbo-sized steel ball and chain, courtesy of Gonzo, with a note that said, “It’s about time.”
Liborio started his baseball career in Wally Pipp fashion in 1969, when he was 14 years old. He’d hang out near the Red Sox’ clubhouse at Fenway for no particular reason, except to watch the players come in and out. He became such a fixture there that finally, the Red Sox clubhouse manager decided to put him to work. One of the clubhouse kids was out sick with mono, and Dennis filled in by taking the uniforms to the dry cleaners. He ended up staying on four years.
In 1977, the manager of the Dodgers’ clubhouse called Dennis and asked him to work for him. Dennis was the Dodgers’ assistant equipment manager until November of 1979, when the Astros came calling. Traveling secretary Donald Davidson and Assistant GM Gerry Hunsicker called Dennis’ boss and said, “We have an opening. Do you know anybody?” And just like that, Dennis was in his way to Houston to run the Astros’ clubhouse.
Dennis has been with the Astros for all nine playoff appearances and was with them when they clinched the first, and only, pennant in 2005. He’s watched more than 5,000 Astros games. During his tenure, Houston’s record was 2,596-2,471.
“Dennis is truly one of my best friends,” Biggio said. “Behind every great, successful team, there is a great clubhouse man. That’s what Dennis was for us. For me, he’s been an awesome human being and did an unbelievable job. He will be missed.”
More quotes from notable Astros:
“Dennis is one of a kind. Of the countless people I’ve met in the game, he is among my favorites. It just won’t be the same without him in that clubhouse. As players, he was our team ‘Mom’ … not afraid to give you grief, but always had your back.” — Jim Deshaies, current Astros TV analyst and Astros pitcher from 1985-91
“Dennis Liborio is an Astros institution. His many years of faithful service to the organization are greatly appreciated by the players he has helped during his tenure. Thank you, Dennis, for all you have done for me and so many others. The clubhouse won’t be the same without you.” — Lance Berkman, Astros 1B-OF from 1999-2010
“I felt like Dennis was one of the top equipment and clubhouse managers that I ever worked with. He always had a real passion for the game and was truly committed to the organization. I hope he enjoys his retirement.” — Nolan Ryan, Astros pitcher from 1980-87 and current Texas Rangers president
“Dennis was wonderful to us. There was never a dull moment in that clubhouse, no matter how bad you were going. He was so much fun to be with, but was always so on top of everything. We appreciated him because he honestly cared about us. I miss him more than anyone I was with in Houston.” — Bill Doran, Astros infielder from 1982-90
“When I got to Houston in 1990, we had a young team those first few years and Dennis was a father figure to a lot of us. He really took care of us. We had so much fun sitting in his office, listening to him holding court and telling great stories. He was incredible to us. Over the years, our families built a strong bond and even shared season tickets for the Aeros games since Dennis loved hockey so much.” — Luis Gonzalez, Astros outfielder from 1990-95
“Dennis will be greatly missed. He brought me to Houston with him and is the reason I am here today. I love the guy and appreciate everything he has done for me and for the Astros.” — Barry Waters, Astros longtime Traveling Secretary who also worked with Liborio in the Dodgers clubhouse prior to coming to Houston in November of 1979