Houston's perfect storm

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

A Look Inside

July 18, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

The Houston Astros didn't fire Jimy Williams on Wednesday. Everybody did.

The fans.

The players.

The fates.

Williams is a pretty good manager. He has had success wherever he has been and is highly respected throughout baseball. He doesn't have an electric personality, but there aren't a lot of guys who can say they have had only one losing season in 10 full years as a major league manager.

He won't be out of work for long.

So, why did the Astros close out Houston's All-Star extravaganza by replacing Williams with former Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner, who - by the way - has just one winning season in the 10 years leading up to his firing by the Tigers six games into 2002? It isn't all that complicated. The Astros created tremendous expectations when they signed premier starting pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, and the natives were getting restless.

The team entered the All-Star break right at .500 (44-44), putting a damper on Houston's All-Star festivities and putting Williams in the uncomfortable position of being booed lustily in front of a worldwide television audience.

What did Williams do to deserve such a show of mass disrespect? He played it safe with a twice-injured Pettitte in the first half and has been unable to convince Jeff Bagwell that he's 26 instead of 36.

General manager Gerry Hunsicker insisted that the decision was made based on way the team limped into the break, losing three of four to the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

"The clincher was watching us in Los Angeles last weekend, where the team just seemed to take on that defeated, desperate kind of attitude," Hunsicker said. "To me, that's the biggest thing we're looking to change, the attitude of this club."

Of course, the real reason the Astros are in crisis is that the surprising St. Louis Cardinals have gone on a major midseason tear and a couple of less-heralded National League Central teams - the Cincinnati Reds and Brewers - have overachieved.

Everybody thought that the Chicago Cubs and Astros, with their offseason upgrades, would battle it out at the top of the standings, but everybody is looking way up at the Cardinals.

No one can deny that the Astros are in an uncomfortable position, but they entered the second half just 4 1/2 games off the pace in the wild-card race, which is hardly reason to throw the baby - and a decent manager - out with the bathwater.

Big Unit intrigue

The July 31 deadline for making trades without waivers is less than two weeks away, and most of the buzz is centering on Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson.

The Diamondbacks have made it clear that they are not eager to deal Johnson, even though they have given up on the 2004 season, but owner Jerry Colangelo essentially left it up to Johnson to decide whether he would like to be dealt to a contending club.

Johnson said recently that he would waive his no-trade clause for the right deal, but he made it pretty clear that he would go only to a team with a good chance to win.

Everyone is assuming that would be the New York Yankees, but there is some question whether they have enough surplus talent remaining to make a blockbuster deal. Johnson also would fit in nicely with several other contenders, including the Cardinals, Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers.

The Anaheim Angels were considered a major player until owner Arte Moreno indicated that they would not tear up their farm system for a short-term fix.

Mariners unload

The Seattle Mariners released shortstop Rich Aurilia last weekend and designated local hero John Olerud for assignment Thursday, getting a head start on rebuilding.

It isn't hard to see why they have given up on 2004, but that didn't lessen the sting for some of the remaining veteran players. Designated hitter Edgar Martinez was stunned and infielder Bret Boone expressed sadness at the end of a pretty good run for the Mariners' organization (four playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, when the team went 116-46).

"It's sad," Boone said. "I feel like they're knocking my friends down one by one. It's a sign of the times. We've been pretty fortunate around here not to have anything like this happen."

Martinez has been left to wonder whether he should ask the team to deal him to a contender and give him one last chance to play in a World Series.

"I feel I've always been a Mariner, and I'll always be a Mariner," he said. "I have to ask myself if I want to experiment by going to another team. At this point, I don't have an answer."

All-Star lament

Tigers veteran Bobby Higginson wasn't happy with All-Star manager Joe Torre after shortstop Carlos Guillen got stiffed in the All-Star Game. Guillen was the only American League position player who did not make an appearance.

"He could have gotten Guillen into the game," Higginson said. "I know [Derek] Jeter was voted in, but Guillen is having 10 times the season Jeter is having. He could have gotten a couple of at-bats, especially in a game that's really a blowout."

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