Williams fired after three seasons with Astros

Wednesday, July 14th 2004, 11:03 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ The Houston Astros made it clear they're making one final push for the postseason, firing manager Jimy Williams Wednesday and bringing in Phil Garner.

A season that began with World Series aspirations for the Astros has been slipping away, so general manager Gerry Hunsicker wanted an immediate and ``dramatic'' change.

``There's a cloud that hung over our team for so long,'' he said. ``Time is of the essence. We can't waste too much time 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 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.''

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.

But 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.

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 finished the first half of the season in fifth place in the NL Central, 10 1/2 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.''

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, but they 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.

Hunsicker has repeatedly emphasized that the club was put together to win this year _ 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.

The general manager got upset as he discussed the team's discouraging start.

``With the hype in the offseason and the changes that were made and the expectations,'' said Hunsicker, his face turning red, ``it's about as frustrating as it gets.''

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.

Garner, 55, and his family have kept a home in the Houston area since his playing days with the Astros. He joins Bob Lillis, Art Howe and Larry Dierker as former players who have gone on to manage the team.

``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.''