When Garner used to manage here, there wasn't quite as much at stake, but the hostility level was a lot higher. Garner managed the Milwaukee Brewers when they were still in the American League. He was doing whatever he could with ballclubs that were perpetually undermanned. The rivalry with the White Sox was heated, to say the least.
Fights in the stands between the fans was a common occurrence at Brewers/White Sox games. But those weren't the disputes that got the most coverage. Garner really didn't like Terry Bevington, who managed the Sox in the mid-'90s. That wasn't particularly unusual, since it eventually turned out that most of the White Sox players weren't particularly fond of Bevington, either.
Garner once tussled with Doug Mansolino, when Mansolino was a first base coach for the White Sox. All was later forgiven as Garner brought in Mansolino to coach for him in Milwaukee, and now again with the Astros.
Perhaps the most publicized dispute came when the Sox broadcasters at the time, Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek, suggested that Garner was ordering the Brewers pitchers to throw at the White Sox hitters. Garner, deeply offended by these comments, responded by publicly challenging the pair to a fight -- at home plate, on the mound, in the parking lot, wherever they wanted.
The intriguing part of this proposal was that Garner offered to fight both of the broadcasters simultaneously. The early betting line on this bout was that Garner would be outnumbered, but not outfought. He didn't get the nickname "Scrap Iron" for being a passive type. But the Sox announcers never accepted Garner's offer. Baseball's gain was brawling's loss. Garner was also the Detroit manager in 2000 when a brawl broke out between the Tigers and the White Sox.
There were other similar episodes, but the point is made. Friday, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who played for the White Sox during that era, was asked what he thought of Garner as a competitor.
"When Phil was a player, I was like 2 years old," said Guillen to considerable laughter. "When he managed the Brewers, he's aggressive, he wants to protect his players real well. And there was a lot of battles between him and Hawk [Harrelson] and Terry Bevington. Now Mansolino was in the middle of the thing, too.
"I think this man -- I tip my hat to him. He went through a lot of things last year and this year and made his players play good for him, push the right button at the right time."
Garner smiled Friday when he was asked about his recollections of managing against the White Sox. He promised that no fisticuffs would be involved during this managerial visit to the South Side.
"I don't know that I've mellowed, but I'm a little older and a lot smarter, and I hurt more when I try to engage in those kinds of activities," Garner said. "And I'm sure that we won't be doing any of that.
"We have had some good battles here. These were the big bullies on the block when we were up in Milwaukee and we were the guys that never got any attention. We were doing everything we could to spur our ballclub.
"And it was a lot of fun. We had some really good battles. I enjoy those kind of rivalries. It was a little lopsided, but nonetheless, it still got the blood flowing a little bit. But I don't think you're going to see me running onto the field with the idea of getting into a fight."
Garner no longer needs to start an argument to get his team going. For two straight seasons, his Astros have resurrected themselves from dismal starts. Last season, they came within one game of the World Series. This year, they could not be stopped short. For the first time in his managing career, Garner had substantial talent to work with -- and look what happened. No wonder Scrap Iron is in a better mood than he was during the last decade.
If this World Series opener goes according to form, it will be a pitchers' battle. It will not be two managers wrestling. Guillen and Garner are both still feisty characters, but now, in this Game 1 and in this Series, you expect to see that feistiness reflected only in the resilience of their teams.