Garner leads with 'Scrap Iron' mentality
Houston skipper has led team through ups and downs before
HOUSTON -- If you had a ballclub that went through some tough times and needed to get better in a hurry, the record clearly states that the right manager for you would be Phil Garner.
He was called "Scrap Iron" as a player, and is equal parts scrap and iron, as it turns out. He is still irrepressible. Defeat troubles him deeply, but he invariably uses it as a spur to get where he wanted to be in the first place. He warms to the underdog role. He probably even seeks out the underdog role when there is some question as to whether it is actually available.
All of these traits will be helpful right now for the manager of the Houston Astros. The Astros are trailing, 2-0, in the World Series to the Chicago White Sox. But they are home now. And with Garner, down is typically a long way from out.
The last 1 1/2 seasons with the Astros have been consummate Garner campaigns. He took over for Jimy Williams last season, with the Astros stuck in neutral and generally written off by anybody who was paying attention. But with a managerial infusion of energy, the Astros finished on fire, winning 36 of their last 46, eventually gaining the NL Wild Card berth, winning a Division Series and then coming within one game of reaching the World Series.
This year, the Astros -- without Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent, and with Lance Berkman starting the season on the disabled list -- began the season at 15-30. They could not score. They could not win on the road. They kept getting shut out when Roger Clemens pitched. Things were so bad that the Houston Chronicle printed an obituary for the team.
"I'm comfortable with the underdog role," Garner said later, "but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the dead role."
But with Garner, disappointment is not allowed to turn to despair. He didn't let up and neither did his team. Another big second half led the Astros to another Wild Card berth, and this time, all the way to the first World Series appearance in franchise history.
When things looked the worst for the Astros, Garner would admit privately that he was torn up by the defeats. But publicly, and with his club, he was relentless in his determination that better days were ahead. And as bad as things were, his fundamental optimism was not dislodged. Managers don't play the game, but they do set the tone, and this man has the ability to find a positive tone, even when negativity seems to be the order of the day.
Perseverance has been the hallmark of Garner's entire career. He had the misfortune to manage a series of bad teams in Milwaukee and later, Detroit. But those teams shared two characteristics: They never quit, and, after Garner was dismissed, each team immediately slumped to much worse records than it ever had during Garner's tenure.
All along the way, from his playing days on, Garner was known as a fiery character. His battles have been the stuff of legend. If there was going to be a fight, Garner's opponent of choice was someone as large as possible. But he's 55 now, and you wonder if he's changed in some fundamental way, so you ask.
"I'm calm, wouldn't you say so?" Garner said with a large smile, then added: "I wouldn't say there's a lot of difference. I hope I've changed -- I would hope I've gotten better and learned some things. I think every year there's something you look at a little differently and you try to improve on where you think you could improve on. So I think there's probably some changes between now and 10 years ago."
You could see where "Scrap Iron" might have matured, or aged gracefully, or improved in some ways. But the danger is, has he actually mellowed?
"Probably not," Garner said to the largest laugh of Monday's workout day at Minute Maid Park.
With that troubling possibility out of the way, the resilient skipper and his resilient team can get on with the business of trying to get back into this World Series. The fact that they have repeatedly demonstrated that they can go all the way from dire straits to success should help now.
"Yes, it'd better," Garner said. "We're not in the best of situations, obviously, but we feel pretty good. We've got a history of being able to do it. We're coming back to our ballpark, where we've played pretty well. But the bottom line is, we need to step up and do it. Talking doesn't do a whole lot for it. We need to step up and play better."
It will not happen easily. The White Sox have been playing like an irresistible force, out to end 88 years of frustration. But if you wanted to pick a manager who would be the best possible manager for the Astros' current situation, well, the Astros are fortunate. They already have the right man for the job -- Phil Garner.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.