Two of Kingwood’s most recognizable residents, Carol and Phil Garner were comfortable with their foreseeable path, forging a life ahead by taking a step back to enjoy the proverbial trees. Retirement seemed eminent, with their marriage moving into the fourth decade and their children now adults with families of their own. Phil Garner enjoyed a satisfying and successful professional baseball career, and the couple looked forward to exploring the luxury of both time and finances.
“I’ve always been a beach person,” Carol says, sitting at ease side-by-side with her husband in their spacious home. “And he’s always been the mountain person.”
“We were skiing these two weeks, I think, right?” chimes in Phil.
“Right, these were the two weeks we would have been skiing.” But the snowcapped slopes must wait for now, as well as the sun-setting nights beside the beach, because at their collective heart the Garners are baseball people. And those two weeks of February, and the many others that follow until the days of fall, are reserved for when the rhythm of the calendar calls “Play ball.” Phil Garner has been awarded the position of manager for the Astros in 2005.
Yet, on the eve of Phil launching his first full season of managing the Astros, the Garners gather their collective thoughts and confess they were comfortable if the game’s next opportunity had never surfaced. A recent year-and-a-half separation from the game – the Garner’s first interruption after 30-plus years of playing, coaching and managing – was the real eye-opener.
“I really came to understand that we could enjoy life outside of baseball, and it was a little hard to give up, I have to admit,” Carol says. “But I was willing to share him.”
Phil Garner experienced a “Michael Corleone” moment – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The game’s gravitational pull proved too irresistible after Phil’s critical role in the Astros heart-stopping, against-all-odds, one-win-from-the-World-Series 2004 season.
“For example, going into a grocery store at 11:30 at night, the ladies behind the bakery counter would say how awesome it was that their families would come together to watch this game or that game,” Carol says, referring to any of a half-dozen cardiac moments from the most memorable season in Astros history. “It was gratitude. It wasn’t a ‘Yea, way to go!’ It was ‘Thank you, so much.'”
“It was at least several hundred people,” Phil interrupts. “Ten to 15 a day would say that.”
Carol adds, “It was wonderful to hear that.”
Phil Garner took interim control of the lethargic and underachieving team at last summer’s All-Star break, and the Astros’ winning resurrection was definitely worth cheering. Left for dead in the standings with a 56-60 record in mid-August, Garner’s leadership ignited an inferno finish. In fact, it was the best in baseball in more than a half century – 36 wins in the team’s final 46 games. This secured a wild-card entry to the playoffs, punctuated with a first-ever playoff series win in franchise history.
Because of this, Phil Garner, the ex-Astro who had earned the moniker “Scrap Iron” from his hard-charging 16-year major-league playing tour, was given permanent control. On Nov. 3, he accepted a two-year contract with an option for a third season as the team’s manager.
The Garners’ sense of pride swells beyond the backslaps of a job well done. Houstonians since 1981, they now officially represent the hometown team. Carol, in fact, was much more than a mere unabashed fan last September. Regularly fixed in her seat in section 119 behind home plate, she diligently kept score in the manner taught at the knees of her grandmother.
“Serving on the (Harris County) Sports Authority, I was at that building from the time the first shovel went into the ground and then all the way up,” Carol says. “And it was a tremendous feeling for me to be able to come back and Phil be managing in the stadium that I feel I really gave a lot of community effort to help build.”
Phil is determined to now mold and motivate a consistent playoff winner for that downtown hardball palace and, at the same time, remove the only unsightly blemish from his big league resume -nine consecutive losing seasons managing under-manned and cash-strapped teams first in Milwaukee and then Detroit.
“I had success as a player,” says Phil, owner of a World Series ring from Pittsburgh’s 1979 championship season. “And I had one good year (92-70 with the Brewers in 1992) as a manager, and we played well. But I didn’t feel like I had really had the kind of success that I wanted as a manager. Inside you always felt kind of undone or that there was a better ending or some more chapters to that story.”
Phil would like to believe his recent hardball hiatus would serve up a softer approach to the day-to-day win/loss roller coaster. But he is honest enough with himself and his lifelong battery mate to recognize that’s likely not the case.
“Carol would probably say, ‘no,'” Phil says with a laugh. “And that’s probably true. I would just like to be a little more on the even keel and take the losses a little less hard and in the wins not be so jubilant. I haven’t been able to reel it in and keep a handle on it.”
Then with the slightest of pauses and with a smile that raises the hint of white whiskers of his signature mustache, “But, boy, it sure is fun to win.” H