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Garner's success a familiar story10/12/2004 11:30 PM ET
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- At this time last year, Jack McKeon was a 73-year-old barrel of laughs who puffed cigars and regaled everyone at the National League Championship Series with stories about his grandkids and how he had gone from the quiet life to become manager of a Florida Marlins team on the brink of greatness.
Tuesday afternoon, Phil Garner stepped into an interview room inside Busch Stadium and there was definitely a hint of Jack McKeon about him. Same story: Man is at home with his grandkids, gets the call from a Major League club, takes over as manager of a moribund club during the season and shows up in the playoffs.
"Well, I certainly hope age wasn't one of those comparisons," Garner, 54, said to a chuckling audience. "But I don't think last year has anything to do with this year. I thought it was a fantastic story to watch what the Florida Marlins did last year. I know Jack was a big part of that.
"I personally like Jack, I've known him. Jack traded me. I always didn't like him for that, but he traded me from Oakland to Pittsburgh, which turned out to be a good deal. Jack's one of the greatest characters in the game. It was a great story for him the way he was able to come out of retirement. I think we are very similar.
"I was actually at my granddaughter's one-year birthday party down in south Texas when I got the call from [Astros general manager] Gerry Hunsicker. I saw the reports in the paper but didn't think I was on the radar screen for Houston, did not give it any thought. I had known Gerry, not very much. I hadn't talked to him in a couple years. Maybe just at a golf tournament to say hello. I really didn't consider that I was in any sort of their plans, so it wasn't anything I had given any thought to, actually. So when I got the call, I had to give it some thought."
It has been one of the best things to happen to Phil Garner since he played second for Pittsburgh's 1979 world champions.
Now that Garner's Astros have made a memorable run to win the Wild Card, beaten the Braves in five at Turner Field for their first postseason series title and showed up here for Wednesday's series opener against St. Louis, it seems like a rendition of "We Are Family" would be pretty appropriate right about now, too.
"Well, there's no question we got over one of our first humps we haven't been able to get over as an organization," Garner said. "We have a mountain we have to climb when you look at the St. Louis Cardinals. We're in territory we've never been. ... I do not have a clue what the outcome of this series is going to be, but we won't fail because there's a letdown.
"One of the other things, I was concerned going into [Monday] night's game. They have a fresh pitcher. We're playing in Atlanta. You know you're going to have a hostile environment. [Craig] Biggio's first at-bat set the tone last night. Even though we hit into a double play to wipe out Biggio on the bases in the first inning, I felt our guys were extremely focused, which has been the case in the last six weeks. In the toughest games we've had to play, we've absolutely been at our best."
The Astros dismissed manager Jimy Williams a day after their city was host to the July 15 All-Star Game. They were one of the season's biggest disappointments then. They brought in Garner, who had played on their 1981 and 1986 playoff clubs, not sure where else to turn in order to shake up a team that was loaded with talent.
Garner had not even been thinking about managing. Does he remember what he told the club the first day he arrived?
"Yes, I remember. It's not an easy thing to do," he said, declining to reveal the specific words. "Number one, it's not your ballclub when you take it over. There's been a lot of things that you do in Spring Training to try to mold the club, try to understand what the club's like, understand the makeup of the club, what kind of team you have and the character of it. Are you a power team? Are you a hit-and-run team? Are you a team that's going to manufacture runs?
"So when you take over a ballclub in the middle of the season, you don't have that knowledge and you haven't been working with the team to try to find out what works.
"And the second, perhaps most difficult part of it is, usually the first 10 days in Spring Training, I usually have a staff come to Spring Training early. That's when you're able to spend a lot of time with your staff members. You do a lot of communication, discussions, talking about your style, my style, how you can communicate, how things filter from me down to the players and how certain things need to come back up to me from below. We had to compress all that in a matter of half a day.
"I have to give credit to our staff members who we brought in -- Jim Hickey, Gary Gaetti -- they had to work hard, come up to snuff real quick. They didn't have a chance to kind of ease into the positions. They had to work extremely hard. But everybody pitched in, did their part. There was no resistance for anything that I tried to do or tried to implement, and that's a good thing."
Although a little trend is emerging in the NL, Garner's counterpart in this series, Tony La Russa, said he appreciates just how difficult it is to take over a struggling club in midseason and get to this point. Did he ever do it?
"Sometimes you need a change. Players got to hear somebody different. Jack did a great job. Phil came in. I watched him when he first came in with Milwaukee -- runs a great game, great competitor. Their club put it together, and they still didn't have Andy Pettitte or Wade Miller. They deserve a lot of credit."
Garner already has made his first key decision of the NLCS, opting for rookie Brandon Backe to start Game 1. Garner knows the challenge is formidable -- but that has been the case ever since he took over for Williams.
"They're a complete ballclub," Garner said. "They play good defense, they don't make mistakes. Their offense is pretty doggone good; they have speed, they have power, they put the ball in play. They can beat you in all those ways. Their pitching has been good. The thing that worries me is ... there's not a weakness."
Garner said he sees the potential for "a lot of runs being scored in this series." He also sees the possibility of some dominating pitching performances.
"Roy Oswalt and Rocket [Roger Clemens] aren't too bad to run out there and take your chances with," he said. "I think it looms as a potentially good fan series. You might see some close ballgames where there's going to be a lot of maneuvering. Then the next night you might see a game that could be see-sawing back and forth, one of those 9-8 kind of things. ... This could be a good series for everybody."
It was a good NLCS last year for McKeon, whose Marlins withstood the Cubs' home-field advantage and surprised Chicago in seven games -- after being down 3-1 in the series. Now it's Garner's turn to give it a shot. So far, Astros fans have to like the pattern with this manager, and grandkids and cigars are even part of the package.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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