HOUSTON (AP) — Less than two years ago, the Houston Astros were celebrating their first National League pennant. On Monday, they were starting over.
Manager Phil Garner and general manager Tim Purpura were fired by owner Drayton McLane, who said the franchise “needed a fresh start” after a plunge to the bottom of the NL Central.
Bench coach Cecil Cooper was appointed interim manager, and team president Tal Smith will serve as interim general manager.
“I felt for a number of reasons, we needed new direction, invigoration, to play with more enthusiasm and play more like a champion,” McLane said.
The Astros slumped to 58-73 this year, nine games behind the division-leading Chicago Cubs. They’ve lost five of their last seven home games, to lowly Washington and Pittsburgh.
“We had really fallen into a pattern of so-so ball,” Garner said during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “We were never able to put together the run, like we made in the previous two seasons. I think there were a number of reasons for that.”
Houston became the fourth team to switch managers this season. Baltimore fired Sam Perlozzo on June 18 and Cincinnati fired Jerry Narron on July 1, the same day Mike Hargrove resigned as Seattle’s manager.
The 57-year-old Cooper becomes a major league manager for the first time. The five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner was the bench coach in Milwaukee in 2002 and managed Triple-A Indianapolis in 2003-04.
Cooper was taking his mother-in-law to a doctor’s appointment on Monday when Smith and McLane called to offer him the job.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind tour this morning,” he said. “Drayton asked me if I was OK and all of a sudden, in the pit of my stomach, I felt sick. It really was a shock to me. I kind of got a little emotional, but I’m also excited about the opportunity. I’ve been the World Series as a player and a coach. Now, I want to try it as a manager.”
Cooper says he has a plan for turning around the Astros. He promoted first-base coach Jose Cruz to bench coach and moved bullpen coach Mark Bailey to the first-base position and planned to unveil some lineup changes on Tuesday.
“I know how to win,” Cooper said. “I really do believe I know what it takes to get the Houston Astros over the hump and back to the World Series.”
McLane said it wasn’t one game or one personnel move by Purpura, but several factors that drove him to make changes.
“There are some issues,” McLane said. “It has been a series of things and observations.”
The Astros have 31 games left and open a three-game series with St. Louis on Tuesday. McLane suggested that the rest of the season essentially was an audition for Cooper.
“This is an opportunity for Cecil to show us his leadership,” McLane said. “It wouldn’t be bad if we won all 31.”
Garner took over the Astros in the middle of the 2004 season after Jimy Williams was fired and went 277-252. The Astros went 48-26 in the second half and won 36 of their last 46 games to become the NL wild card, then defeated Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs before losing to St. Louis in Game 7 of the NL championship series.
Houston won its second straight wild-card berth in 2005 and defeated the Braves and Cardinals in the playoffs before the World Series sweep.
The Astros were 82-80 last year, finishing 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, but slumped this season following the departures of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.
“I had a wonderful time with the Astros,” Garner said. “They gave me a great opportunity. They reinvigorated my interest in baseball and really gave me a great opportunity to reinvigorate my career. I’m more grateful for the job they gave me than I am saddened and upset by the firing.”
Craig Biggio’s 3,000th hit has been the highlight of an otherwise dismal 2007 season.
Houston signed free agent Carlos Lee to a $100 million, six-year contract last offseason but also acquired disappointing starter Woody Williams (7-12). Purpura also took some of the blame for hanging on to Morgan Ensberg, whose stats dropped precipitously after an All-Star season in 2005. The Astros designated Ensberg for assignment in late July.
Purpura, who did not immediately return a telephone message, also made an ill-fated trade with Colorado, dealing speedster Willy Taveras and promising pitching prospects Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz for Jason Jennings, who was 2-9 before he was placed on the disabled list with a bad elbow on Aug. 21.
“We want to bring some new, fresh ideas,” McLane said. “Companies become stagnant sometimes. In the corporate world, when they bring in new CEOs or new top executives, they come in with new ideas, new ways to get things done. That’s what I’m excited about.”
McLane wants to find a new GM by the end of this season. Smith, 73, was the Astros' president from 1976-80, then opened a consulting firm. McLane bought the Astros in 1993 and hired Smith as team president the following year.
“Nobody relishes these occasions,” Smith said. “Tim and Gar are good people. They cared very much about the Houston Astros. But as we all recognize, this is a performance-driven industry.”