Mired in tailspin, Astros fire Williams

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.

"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

"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

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

"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, 10½ 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."