Mired in tailspin, Astros fire Williams

Updated: July 15, 2004, 8:36 PM ET
Associated Press

HOUSTON -- The excitement that the Houston Astros created with the offseason additions of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte quickly withered away as they slipped in the standings.

Phil Garner, so fiesty as a player that he was dubbed "Scrap Iron," is the man charged with getting the enthusiasm going again.

Garner replaced Jimy Williams as the Astros' manager on Wednesday, a last-ditch effort to rescue a season that started with World Series expectations.

Tony Gwynn's Take
Tony Gwynn
I don't know if firing Jimy Williams is the right move for the Houston Astros, but the move doesn't surprise me. Heading into the All-Star break, Houston clearly didn't play well, losing six of eight games to drop to .500.

The Astros went into the season thinking World Series, but they find themselves in fifth place in the six-team NL Central, 10½ games behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals. Houston is 4½ back in the NL wild-card race.

New manager Phil Garner might be just what the doctor ordered. His lunch-pail work ethic should blend well with the veteran-dominated Astros. I played against teams that Garner played for (Astros) and managed (Brewers), so I know about his no-nonsense approach and commitment to winning.

There's no question that Garner will bring an attitude to Houston. He'll keep the fire burning. He expects his players to bust their butts everyday. No ballplayer wants to see his manager get fired, but I think the Astros will respond to Garner.

And I honestly believe they can get it going in the second half. Offensively, they've struggled with runners in scoring position, so that would be a good place to start in the improvement department.
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"The message we wanted to send is that we needed a dramatic change," general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "The more new faces, the more new energy that we can bring in here, the greater impact we might make."

Garner, a former Astros player, is taking over on an interim basis. The team will conduct another search at the end of the season.

"I'm excited. I'm a Houston boy and I'm looking forward to it," Garner, a former manager with Detroit and Milwaukee, told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "We got some boys on the team that I think can do something really special. This is an opportunity that I've been waiting for."

Pitching coach Burt Hooton and hitting coach Harry Spilman also fired. They were replaced by Jim Hickey and Gary Gaetti from Triple-A New Orleans.

The moves are another sign that the Astros, who have never even won a playoff series, are going all out this year to try to win their first World Series.

"We were looking for a personality that could energize this club," Hunsicker said. "All of the ingredients seemed to be in place for Phil to take over the helm here and jumpstart this club."

The 55-year-old has kept a home in the Houston area since his playing days. He joins Bob Lillis, Art Howe and Larry Dierker as former players who have gone on to manage the team.

"I had never seen excitment in the Houston sports community like we saw this offseason," Garner said. "Our fans very excited. They thought we could do something."

Williams' job security had been the subject of speculation for about a month, right about the time Houston's surprising slide down the NL Central standings began. He was fired during a clubhouse meeting with Hunsicker, owner Drayton McLane and other team officials.

"He indicated that he was not surprised," McLane said. "He knew something wasn't clicking."

Houston was 44-44 at the All-Star break, a remarkable disappointment for a team that was tops in the NL Central for the first month and a half of the season.

The Astros finished the first half of the season in fifth place in the NL Central, 10 games behind division leader St. Louis. It's the first time they've faced a double-digit deficit in the standings at the break in 11 seasons.

During pregame introductions at the All-Star game Tuesday night, a sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park booed Williams. He doffed his cap but was clearly embarrassed.

"My biggest regret was the fact that this week couldn't have been any more awkward for all of us," Hunsicker said. "The unfortunate reaction he got from the fans, and the speculation that became rampant in the last day or so was very unfortunate. He deserved better."

Hunsicker has repeatedly emphasized that the club was put together to win this year -- Carlos Beltran is a free agent, Clemens was coaxed out of retirement, Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio are in the final years of their contracts and Jeff Bagwell is nearing the end of his career.

More moves could be imminent, Hunsicker added, if the team hasn't shown improvement by the July 31 trading deadline.

"It is time for the players to be held accountable," Hunsicker said. "This is a chance for them to clear their heads and come back rejuvenated."

Garner, an infielder with Houston from 1981-87, was hired as Milwaukee's manager in 1992, leading the Brewers to a 92-70 record and a second-place finish in the AL East. That proved to be his best season as a manager, and Garner was ultimately fired by Milwaukee after 112 games in 1999.

The Tigers hired Garner in 2000, going 145-179 over the next two seasons before firing him after they lost the first six games of the 2002 season. His dismissal tied the quickest firing of a manager who started the season since 1900, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Baltimore fired Cal Ripken Sr. in 1988 after the Orioles lost six games en route to an 0-21 start.

"I never had the caliber of pitchers like Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte or Roy Oswalt," Garner said. "To be back with players like this, this is a wonderful challenge."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press