04/08/2002 3:19 pm ET
Tigers fire Garner and Smith
Pujols named interim manager; Dombrowksi new GM
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
DETROIT -- The Detroit Tigers fired manager Phil Garner and general manager Randy Smith on Monday following an 0-6 start, the club's worst season-opening stretch in a decade.
Dave Dombrowski, Tigers president and CEO, took over as GM and replaced Garner with bench coach Luis Pujols on an interim basis.
The Tigers also let go coach Ed Ott and Major League scout Randy Johnson.
"I think whenever you start 0-6, it's not pleasant," said Dombrowski, who joined the Tigers on November 5 after spending 10 years as GM of the expansion Florida Marlins. "But I also don't want to make it seem that 0-6 is the sole reason. You've got to sit back and evaluate.
"We haven't played as well as we've liked, not just this year but the past few years," said the architect of the Marlins' World Series championship in 1997. "They have to perform. If we keep performing like this the rest of the year, we will not win a lot of games. I talked to (Tigers owner) Mr. (Michael) Ilitch today. He left the decision up to me."
Garner had just started the third season of a four-year deal he signed when he joined the Tigers on Oct. 14, 1999. The Tigers rebounded from a 9-23 start in 2000, his first season, to finish 79-83 and mount a brief battle for the AL Wild Card. Last season, however, the Tigers lost seven of their first 10 games and never recovered, finishing 66-96.
That season also featured several arguments between Garner and his players. Rob Fick engaged in a shouting match with Garner last summer. In September, Garner benched free agent to be Roger Cedeno for the final stretch of the season. Ace starter Jeff Weaver criticized Garner on occasion for taking him out of games too early.
"I feel very good about last year," Garner said. "I think it would've been a lot easier to shove things under the rug, to not address, to not have [the media] ask about them. But we got it out in the open."
The turmoil played a major role in the roster moves of the past offseason, most notably the acquisition of veteran leader Dmitri Young. It also set up the expectation that this year's Tigers would be better. Garner picked the club for 83 wins when the coaching staff made their predictions privately before Opening Day.
"When you become a manager, you realize you're going to be judged by the team's performance on the field," said Garner. "I didn't come here to rebuild, but obviously I had to change that a little bit. These things happen."
Garner finished his Detroit tenure with a 145-185 record. He holds a 730-829 record in 11 seasons as a Major League manager, eight with the Milwaukee Brewers. His first year marked his only winning record, a 92-70 campaign in 1992 that placed the Brewers in contention for the AL East crown.
Garner was unsure of his immediate future plans, though he made it clear what he wants to do.
"I think right now we'll take a long ride back to Texas and go from there," said Garner. "I enjoy managing. I enjoyed it all the way up through last night."
Enjoyment is a relative term, of course, with an 0-6 start. Garner sported almost a relieved look Monday in stark contrast to his weathered face Sunday after C.C. Sabathia and the Indians nearly no-hit the Tigers to complete their first sweep in Detroit since 1996.
"We don't do anything different," Garner said of his club's hitting strategy Sunday night. "There's nothing much else we can do. They're trying out there."
Dombrowski recalled what Garner told him at the winter meetings: If you decide to fire me, don't wait around. Garner also told that to Randy Smith two years ago and then-Brewers GM Sal Bando in 1992.
In this case, Garner tied the record for the earliest in-season firing of a manager since 1900. The Orioles replaced Cal Ripken Sr. with Frank Robinson six games into their 0-21 start in 1988.
1992 Mil 92-70 2nd
1993 Mil 69-93 7th
1994 Mil 52-63 5th
1995 Mil 65-79 4th
1996 Mil 80-82 3rd
1997 Mil 78-83 3rd
1998 Mil 74-88 5th
1999 Mil 74-87 5th
2000 Det 79-83 3rd
2001 Det 66-96 4th
2002 Det 0-6 5th
Totals 730-829 .468
"I think the worst case for a manager, if you're firing him, is to leave him hanging out to dry," Garner said. "You become a lame duck in the clubhouse."
Judging from the players' reactions, that hadn't yet happened. Not many of them were exactly shocked with the move, rather the timing. Many said they suspected from the beginning that Garner and Smith were on the hot seat. That didn't hide their disappointment.
"I could've told you before Spring Training started that Randy and Phil were going to be the first ones out the door," Bobby Higginson said.
Fick added that because of that sentiment, the team felt added pressure to get off to a good start.
"There's been a lot of pressure this year to come out and have a good start. The pressure's off wanting to play for Randy. The pressure's off wanting to play for Garner. Phil believed in me. Phil believed in Shane [Halter]."
Pujols spent last season managing the Tigers' Double-A affiliate in Erie, Pa. to the Eastern League's Southern Division title. He also served as a coach for the World Team at last summer's Futures Game in Seattle. He spent the previous eight seasons as a coach under Felipe Alou with the Montreal Expos. Dombrowski was the assistant GM for Expos who hired Pujols as a minor league instructor back in 1987.
Among Pujols' accomplishments in Erie last year was the development of Mike Rivera, now catching in Detroit and regarded as the best of the young players already in the Majors.
"He gave us plenty of confidence as players," Rivera said. "He didn't put pressure on the players. He just let us play. I think that's the same way that he'll manage here.
"Luis has been great for me since last year. He knows how to manage the game and play the game."
Veterans, some of whom have only known Pujols since Spring Training, concurred. Matt Anderson said Pujols had developed a rapport with the clubhouse. Fick called Pujols "a good dude."
The search for a new manager, Dombrowski said, would start immediately. That search includes Pujols, who will interview for the full-time position while making his case on the field in the interim.
"If we find the right person, we can have him for the long term," Dombrowski said. "If that doesn't happen, [Pujols] will be manager for the rest of the year."
Pujols is sticking to the task at hand.
"For now, I'm going to take it day to day. I'm just going to try to get everybody healthy."
The 38-year-old Smith was hired as Detroit GM in November of 1995, and in his seven seasons at the helm, the Tigers have not had a winning season. In June of 1993, the Padres made Smith the youngest GM in the Majors at age 29.
"This organization was regarded as having the worst minor league talent and worst Major League talent when I got here," said Smith. "We were judged as having the best minor league organization of the year (in 1997 by Baseball America). Unfortunately, it takes amateur talent a long time to become Major League talent."
Jason Beck covers the Tigers for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.