Astros part ways with '05 architects

Astros part ways with '05 architects

HOUSTON -- Not quite two years have passed since Phil Garner and Tim Purpura were the toast of the town as manager and general manager, respectively, of the then-National League champion Houston Astros.

In most organizations, that achievement alone would engender a little more job security. With the Astros, it could not sway the final analysis by Astros chairman and chief executive officer Drayton McLane. McLane decided to dismiss both Purpura and Garner and replace them on an interim basis with Tal Smith and Cecil Cooper, respectively.

At Monday's press conference at Minute Maid Park to announce the changes, McLane said that change can sometimes invigorate an organization.

This is true. The Astros were stagnant in 2004 when Garner replaced Jimy Williams at the All-Star break. McLane is hoping lightning can strike in the same place twice. Perhaps. But too much change can have a negative impact on an organization, as well as make it difficult to get the best people to come and work for you.

Cooper is now the third manager the Astros have had in four years. During that time, the Astros have had three pitching coaches (Burt Hooton, Jim Hickey and Dave Wallace), two hitting coaches (Gary Gaetti and Sean Berry) and now have had three general managers (Gerry Hunsicker, Purpura and Smith), with a fourth most likely coming after the season.

Change isn't necessarily a bad thing, but stability should be the goal.

Look at the Braves, Yankees and Cardinals, specifically their manager-general manager tenures and their on-the-field success. That kind of stability has been as elusive as a World Series title for the Astros.

When asked if there was a danger in continually making changes, McLane said it was preferable to losing.

"I'd rather have the alternative that we were winning every year and going to the playoffs, but I think as we have made some of the changes, it has invigorated the team," McLane said. "Hopefully, this is a long-term solution."

Smith, the Astros' president of baseball operations who will oversee the search for Purpura's successor while taking care of the position's duties in the interim, admits the pressure to produce is greater than ever.

"Unfortunately, the reins today are not as long as they used to be in either the manager or the general manager's role," Smith said. "We're much more results-oriented today than we used to be. But I don't think that [all of the changes have] had an unsettling effect. We've only had two general managers in the last 12 years."

There can be no doubt McLane wants to win, but Garner didn't deserve this fate. And Purpura was in an extremely difficult position from Day 1.

When the Astros won, critics said it was Hunsicker's team. When they lost, Purpura was often blamed. Some blamed Purpura for the Jason Jennings trade, a fair criticism, but seemed to forget he also signed Carlos Lee and Mark Loretta.

Purpura was taken to task for the Astros not re-signing Carlos Beltran, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, but at last check, contracts of that magnitude are approved higher up the chain of command.

Purpura was criticized for not making a deal last month to improve the team, but the fact is you can ask any other GM and they'll tell you there just wasn't much out there, and what was there was often ridiculously priced. Purpura could have dealt Mike Lamb or Mark Loretta for Class A prospects, but that would have been foolish. No one was offering Major League talent. Low-level prospects don't help you win now. Obviously, both Purpura and Garner didn't have the luxury of time.

Purpura didn't bat 1.000 as GM -- no one does -- but he did a lot of good things in the organization that most people don't realize.

It was Purpura who came up with the idea that Brad Lidge should be moved to a reliever role a few years ago when Lidge was still in the Minor Leagues. When he was an assistant GM in 2003, Purpura was Scott Linebrink's biggest fan and insisted that the right-hander not be released. His advice wasn't heeded, and Linebrink went on to great success in San Diego the last three years before he was dealt to Milwaukee this season.

Purpura did a number of similar things over the years to help the organization. Some were big; most went unnoticed. When you're GM, it's like the old saying about umpires: You have to be perfect on Day 1 and improve from then on. Purpura wasn't perfect, but he gets more blame for this season's shortcomings than he deserves.

In the end, McLane was convinced changes needed to be made.

"No one has worked harder for the Houston franchise than Tim Purpura," McLane said. "Tim has served this organization for 14 years, did an excellent job in player development. But the last two years have not been what I think the Houston Astros can achieve or [what] we're about. What we want to do is move forward and continue to be successful.

"I love to talk about leadership and how leadership gets you where you need to be. In the last 15 years, the Houston Astros have had the fourth-best record in baseball. Winning is so important; we emphasize that. We're not satisfied having the fourth-best record. We're not satisfied not going back to the World Series. We've still got to win the World Series."

Perhaps one day, McLane will realize his dream of a World Series title for the Astros.

Until then, the high point of this franchise will remain the 2005 NL pennant, even as two of the men who helped make that happen have now moved on.

Jim Molony is a writer for reporters contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.