- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

HOUSTON.

Houston Astros manager Phil Garner still has a chance of becoming the next Joe Torre.

Torre may be a dugout deity now as manager of the New York Yankees, but when he was hired in 1996, he was considered a good baseball man who had been a three-time loser with the Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

By the time he arrived in New York, the notion that Torre was a good manager who had been handed bad teams was losing steam, and his reputation was nearly shot.

His hire was met with derision by the New York media, and with George Steinbrenner riding Buck Showalter out of town after the Yankees reached the 1995 postseason, the Yankees owner could get no one to work for him but a loser.

Now, after four World Series titles, six American League pennants and eight straight AL East titles, Torre has paved a road to the Hall of Fame.

Garner found himself nearly in the same predicament as Torre — a manager with a good reputation who was fired after losing in Milwaukee and Detroit. In eight seasons with the Brewers, Garner had only one winning year, his first in 1992, when his team went 92-70. But he was so highly regarded that he finished third in the balloting for AL manager of the year in 1997 despite his Brewers club going 78-83 (he finished second in the voting in 1992).

After seven straight losing seasons, Garner was out of work just a few months before he was hired to manage the Detroit Tigers. He had two losing teams there before being canned in the first week of the 2002 season, when the team got off to an 0-6 start.

Then, when the Astros were floundering in the middle of last season under Jimy Williams, Garner was brought in and led the team to a 48-26 record and a wild-card spot before it lost to the Cardinals in Game7 of the National League Championship Series.

This year, after losing substantial offense with the departure of free agents Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran, Garner still managed to shake his team out of a 15-30 start and win 88 games for another wild-card position. He has the Astros in the World Series for the first time in the franchise’s 44-year history, though they trailed the Chicago White Sox 3-0 entering last night’s game.

With good players, Garner has had the opportunity to redeem himself. Managing the Astros is a chance for “Scrap Iron” to prove he’s no “Tin Man.”

“It’s the players,” Garner said. “A few years ago when I first started managing, we were going against Cito Gaston in Toronto, and they were on their way to winning two World Series. I didn’t feel like people gave Cito his just due because Cito was smart enough to know not to do anything. He had great players on the field. He didn’t get in their way, and they won. I feel like that. It’s the players. No matter what I do, if the player performs, it’s good.”

For the transformation to be complete, though, Garner must take the next step — lead his team to a World Series championship. Otherwise, he will be known as a good manager who couldn’t close the deal.

Now there are worse things than being a modern day Gene Mauch, but Mauch’s good baseball reputation won’t get him in Cooperstown. Torre’s one successful stop after three losing stints will.

Garner may not have the patience to last as long as Mauch or even Torre, for that matter. A fiery player, Garner had maintained his composure as a manager, but the temper and frustration was front and center after the 14-inning, 7-5 loss to Chicago in Game3.

“It’s embarrassing to play like this in front of our hometown,” Garner said. “I have a lot of emotions. I’m really ticked off.”

Garner knows how hard it is to get back in this position. Remember, this is a manager who has only had three winning seasons in 13 years. He knows how hard it is to win — and how frustrating it is when you know how to win.

Joe Torre knew how to win but didn’t have the players. Phil Garner knows how to win. But coming close and falling short raises a new set of questions — ones Torre has emphatically answered but remained unresolved on Garner’s resume.


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