New Astros manager Phil Garner is a stark contrast to his
predecessor, the curmudgeonly Jimy Williams, who was fired last
week. A popular infielder with Houston in the 1980s and a manager
with the Brewers and the Tigers from '92 through April 2002,
Garner is a fiery leader who is perpetually upbeat and charms the
press like a politician. For instance, in the hours before his
first game as Astros skipper last Friday, Garner took time to
regale members of the media with stories about his days in the
minors, playing with Willie Stargell in Pittsburgh, and the day
his first son, Eric, was born.
General manager Gerry Hunsicker is banking on Garner, 55, to
quickly reverse a fast-sinking team. On May 11 Houston was 21-11
and led the National League Central; since then the club had gone
24-35 through Sunday and fallen 12 games behind the Cardinals, as
well as five games out of the NL wild-card race. "The struggles
began to weigh on the players," says Hunsicker. "We hope the new
leadership can bring a breath of fresh air."
After signing free-agent lefthander Andy Pettitte and luring
future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens out of retirement, Houston had
enormous expectations entering the season--"the highest the team
has ever had," says Hunsicker--and season-ticket sales rose from
15,600 in 2003 to more than 20,000. Then on June 24 the Astros
made another significant move when they acquired coveted
centerfielder Carlos Beltran from the Royals in a three-team
trade (Houston sent closer Octavio Dotel to Oakland), but at
week's end the Astros were just 7-12 since Beltran's arrival. If
Houston doesn't move into contention, there is the possibility
that Beltran--a free agent after the season who doesn't figure to
re-sign with Houston--could be moved again before the July 31
trade deadline. Hunsicker, however, says that trading Beltran "is
not in my vocabulary."
As the losses mounted, Williams, 60 and a former manager of the
Blue Jays and the Red Sox, became a symbol of the team's failure.
When he served as one of the NL coaches at the All-Star Game last
week in Houston, Williams was mercilessly booed by the hometown
crowd in pregame introductions. "Guys here really liked Jimy as a
person," says one player. "But there definitely was a lot of
'What is he thinking?' going on, from his quick hook with
starters to constantly moving hitters around at the top and
bottom of the lineup."
But all the blame can't be assigned to Williams. A struggling
offense was 10th in the league in runs per game (4.46), 12th in
homers (89) and tied for eighth in slugging percentage (.416).
Houston was on pace to score fewer runs than it had since 1994
and hit fewer homers than it had since '97. "To say our offense
has been bad is being kind," says catcher Brad Ausmus, who was
hitting .233 with a .287 on-base percentage. Also, having gone on
the disabled list twice with arm trouble, Pettitte had made only
11 starts, winning five but only one since May 15.
While Williams was oft-criticized for being stubborn about not
benching regulars, Garner shook up the lineup immediately. He
dropped first baseman Jeff Bagwell, a career .298 hitter who was
batting .268 at the All-Star break, from third to sixth and
benched third baseman Morgan Ensberg (.258, three homers) for
Jose Vizcaino and then Mike Lamb.
Though Garner had only one winning season in his 10 full years as
manager in Milwaukee and Detroit, Hunsicker is a fan of Garner's
aggressive style and is confident that Houston can climb back
into the race. "We liked [Garner] because we thought he'd take
decisive action when called for," says Hunsicker, who feels a
sense of urgency with key players, including Clemens, second
baseman Jeff Kent and outfielder Craig Biggio, eligible for free
agency after the season. "We don't have time to fool around."
COLOR PHOTO: JOSH MERWIN (INSET) If Garner (inset) can't quickly spark the Astros, Beltran mightbe on the move again.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [See caption above]