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Houston's perfect storm

The Houston Astros didn't fire Jimy Williams on Wednesday. Everybody did.

The fans.

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The players.

The fates.

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Williams is a pretty good manager. He has had success wherever he has been and is highly respected throughout baseball. He doesn't have an electric personality, but there aren't a lot of guys who can say they have had only one losing season in 10 full years as a major league manager.

He won't be out of work for long.

So, why did the Astros close out Houston's All-Star extravaganza by replacing Williams with former Milwaukee Brewers and Detroit Tigers manager Phil Garner, who - by the way - has just one winning season in the 10 years leading up to his firing by the Tigers six games into 2002? It isn't all that complicated. The Astros created tremendous expectations when they signed premier starting pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, and the natives were getting restless.

The team entered the All-Star break right at .500 (44-44), putting a damper on Houston's All-Star festivities and putting Williams in the uncomfortable position of being booed lustily in front of a worldwide television audience.

What did Williams do to deserve such a show of mass disrespect? He played it safe with a twice-injured Pettitte in the first half and has been unable to convince Jeff Bagwell that he's 26 instead of 36.

General manager Gerry Hunsicker insisted that the decision was made based on way the team limped into the break, losing three of four to the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

"The clincher was watching us in Los Angeles last weekend, where the team just seemed to take on that defeated, desperate kind of attitude," Hunsicker said. "To me, that's the biggest thing we're looking to change, the attitude of this club."

Of course, the real reason the Astros are in crisis is that the surprising St. Louis Cardinals have gone on a major midseason tear and a couple of less-heralded National League Central teams - the Cincinnati Reds and Brewers - have overachieved.

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Everybody thought that the Chicago Cubs and Astros, with their offseason upgrades, would battle it out at the top of the standings, but everybody is looking way up at the Cardinals.

No one can deny that the Astros are in an uncomfortable position, but they entered the second half just 4 1/2 games off the pace in the wild-card race, which is hardly reason to throw the baby - and a decent manager - out with the bathwater.

Big Unit intrigue

The July 31 deadline for making trades without waivers is less than two weeks away, and most of the buzz is centering on Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson.

The Diamondbacks have made it clear that they are not eager to deal Johnson, even though they have given up on the 2004 season, but owner Jerry Colangelo essentially left it up to Johnson to decide whether he would like to be dealt to a contending club.

Johnson said recently that he would waive his no-trade clause for the right deal, but he made it pretty clear that he would go only to a team with a good chance to win.

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Everyone is assuming that would be the New York Yankees, but there is some question whether they have enough surplus talent remaining to make a blockbuster deal. Johnson also would fit in nicely with several other contenders, including the Cardinals, Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers.

The Anaheim Angels were considered a major player until owner Arte Moreno indicated that they would not tear up their farm system for a short-term fix.

Mariners unload

The Seattle Mariners released shortstop Rich Aurilia last weekend and designated local hero John Olerud for assignment Thursday, getting a head start on rebuilding.

It isn't hard to see why they have given up on 2004, but that didn't lessen the sting for some of the remaining veteran players. Designated hitter Edgar Martinez was stunned and infielder Bret Boone expressed sadness at the end of a pretty good run for the Mariners' organization (four playoff appearances between 1995 and 2001, when the team went 116-46).

"It's sad," Boone said. "I feel like they're knocking my friends down one by one. It's a sign of the times. We've been pretty fortunate around here not to have anything like this happen."

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Martinez has been left to wonder whether he should ask the team to deal him to a contender and give him one last chance to play in a World Series.

"I feel I've always been a Mariner, and I'll always be a Mariner," he said. "I have to ask myself if I want to experiment by going to another team. At this point, I don't have an answer."

All-Star lament

Tigers veteran Bobby Higginson wasn't happy with All-Star manager Joe Torre after shortstop Carlos Guillen got stiffed in the All-Star Game. Guillen was the only American League position player who did not make an appearance.

"He could have gotten Guillen into the game," Higginson said. "I know [Derek] Jeter was voted in, but Guillen is having 10 times the season Jeter is having. He could have gotten a couple of at-bats, especially in a game that's really a blowout."

Looking ahead

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The Home Run Derby will go from one of baseball's smallest parks (Minute Maid Park) this year to the largest (Detroit's Comerica Park) next year, which should make it more interesting.

"It'll be unique," Phillies slugger Jim Thome said, "but when you get into the middle of a summer, the ball begins to carry almost anywhere."

The Yankees' Alex Rodriguez agrees.

"If you go up the middle, you're dead there," he said. "But if you look at the home run contest over the years, no one really goes up the middle. They pull the ball."

No surrender

You can't blame Ken Griffey for being disappointed that his impressive first half - and a much-anticipated All-Star appearance - was undermined by another hamstring injury, but you can't fault his attitude.

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"I was really looking forward to being out there with those guys," Griffey said. "But I've got to get healthy so I can go back and do everything I need to for the Reds."

Griffey, who re-established himself as a premier run producer with 20 homers and 60 RBIs in the first half after missing 207 games the past three years, insists that he is not going to tiptoe around when he returns from the disabled list in a couple of weeks.

"I'm going to give you everything I've got," Griffey said. "It's the way I was taught to play, and it's the only way I know how to play."

More All-Star laments

The first-place Chicago White Sox and second-place Minnesota Twins were understandably irked by the presence of five Cleveland Indians on the AL All-Star team.

"It's a big thing in our clubhouse," said pitcher Esteban Loaiza, the White Sox's only All-Star. "They're in third place, and we're in first. They have great hitters, but we're in first place."

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The White Sox entered the break eight games over .500. The Twins were seven over. The Indians were three below.

"We definitely feel we should have had more than one," said Joe Nathan, the only Twins representative. "It's not taking anything away from Cleveland. They hit the ball great. But we know we have All-Stars on our team."

The unofficial response from Cleveland: "We should have had seven instead of five," said second baseman Ronnie Belliard, referring to All-Star snubs of Travis Hafner (.313, 61 RBIs) and Cliff Lee (9-1).

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

And now an unvarnished word from our logos (trademark)

THEATER OF THE ABSURD

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The Smudge Report: Boston Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon was a little miffed when major league baseball officials indicated during the All-Star break that they would instruct players not to intentionally obstruct team logos on their uniforms and equipment. Nixon, who takes his reputation as a "dirt dog" pretty seriously, has a large pine tar smudge that partially obscures the "B" on his batting helmet, and he said last week that it's going to stay there.

"It's a joke, that's what it is," Nixon told The Boston Globe, "an absolute joke, and you can quote me."

Indeed. Maybe MLB could compromise by instructing players to place Spider-Man logos over the offending areas.

TEAM RANKINGS

1. Yankees (1)

Entire starting lineup, exhausted from All-Star Game, could hit wall in second half.

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2. Cardinals (2)

Hope to win Randy Johnson derby, which would pretty much lock up NL Central.

3. Dodgers (6)

Probably wouldn't have trouble finding a locker for the Big Unit, either.

4. Rangers (3)

No major changes likely at July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Young team wants to stay that way.

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5. Red Sox (8)

Funny, Manny Ramirez's hamstring looked just fine during the All-Star Game.

6. Giants (11)

They even pitched around Barry Bonds in the All-Star Home Run Derby.

7. White Sox (12)

Might be time for Cubs fans to change souvenir jerseys.

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8. Phillies (10)

Should cruise home in the NL East. Who's going to stop them?

9. Twins (5)

Extremely light schedule the next couple of weeks. Should get foothold at top of AL Central.

10. Cubs (7)

Mark Prior's elbow flare-up comes at worst possible time.

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11. Padres (9)

Ryan Klesko's turnaround could be key to continuing contention in NL West.

12. Braves (15)

Trying to get back to postseason on muscle memory. Doing a pretty good job under the circumstances.

13. Athletics (4)

Imagine how good this team would be if the bullpen hadn't blown 17 saves in the first half.

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14. Angels (14)

No real interest in Big Unit. Need bigger effort from Bartolo Colon in second half.

15. Reds (16)

Ken Griffey's hamstring injury likely to knock surprising contender off stride.

16. Marlins (18)

Fickle finger of fate has put Josh Beckett on sidelines at pivotal juncture in NL East race.

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17. Brewers (13)

Ned Yost for National League Manager of the Year.

18. Astros (19)

Very eventful All-Star break ... and not in a good way.

19. Mets (17)

Healthy Scott Erickson could be wild card in second half.

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20. Tigers (22)

Burning question: Twice as good as last year ... or half as bad?

21. Devil Rays (20)

Merle Haggard said it best: Are the good times really over for good?

22. Indians (21)

Encouraging first half should keep franchise on track to contend next year.

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23. Blue Jays (23)

Still have all 19 games left against Yankees. Is that good or bad?

24. Pirates (24)

Entered second half as only sub-.500 team in NL Central.

25. Rockies (26)

Rejuvenated Jason Jennings has helped Rocks finally get rolling.

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26. Orioles (25)

Managerial speculation won't cool until O's get hot.

27. Mariners (27)

Sinking M's are 3-13 since trading Freddy Garcia.

28. Royals (29)

Just hoping that contraction talk doesn't resurface in August.

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29. Diamondbacks (28)

Big Unit willing to accept trade if D'backs are willing to stink even more than they do now.

30. Expos (30)

Selig "confident" relocation decision will be made in August. This is getting tiresome.

(Last week's ranking in parentheses)


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