Fading Astros fire Williams, hire Garner as manager

Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2004

HOUSTON The Houston Astros fired manager Jimy Williams and replaced him with Phil Garner on Wednesday, a last-ditch effort to rescue a season that started with World Series expectations.

''We needed to make a move quickly,'' general manager Gerry Hunsicker said at a news conference. ''We needed to jump-start this club right now. We didn't have time to fool around here.''

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.''

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 early Wednesday morning during a clubhouse meeting with Hunsicker, owner Drayton McLane and other team officials.

Houston was 44-44 heading into 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 season began with expectations of the club's first World Series appearance in its 42-year history after the offseason acquisition of former New York Yankees teammates Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.

Along with Williams, pitching coach Burt Hooton and hitting coach Harry Spilman were also fired. They were replaced with Jim Hickey and Gary Gaetti, respectively, from Triple-A New Orleans.

The Astros went into the All-Star break losers of six of their final eight games, finishing the first half of the season in fifth place in the NL Central. Houston is 10 1/2 games behind division leader St. Louis 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 voiced its frustration by booing Williams. Williams doffed his cap, but was clearly embarrassed.

Williams, 60, has guided the Astros to two second-place finishes, losing the division race last season in the final week. The Astros made the postseason four of five seasons before his arrival from Boston in November 2001, but have failed to clinch a playoff berth since.

The Astros have been surprisingly punchless on offense, ranking only 19th in the majors in scoring. Their highly touted pitching staff has struggled as both Pettitte and Wade Miller have spent time on the disabled list. And Carlos Beltran hasn't been the quick fix they expected the All-Star center fielder is hitting .263.

The fans' booing of Williams likely didn't escape the attention of McLane or Hunsicker either.

Hunsicker has repeatedly emphasized that the club has loaded up solely for an autumn finish 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.

''Time is of the essence here,'' Hunsicker said. ''We can't waste too much time here.''

Garner, a former Astros infielder 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.

Garner, 55, and his family have kept a home in the Houston area since his playing days with the Astros.

In recent days, many of the Astros were bracing for the managerial shake-up. No one was taken aback when the sellout crowd at the All-Star game booed Williams on Tuesday night.

''That doesn't surprise me. The manager always gets the blame,'' Beltran said after the game. ''I think Jimy is doing the best he can. There's nothing else he can do.''



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