A Problem In Houston??

By Richard Justice
Updated: May 28, 2009

Astros manager Cecil Cooper (left) talks to general manager Ed Wade (right) during spring training.

Astros manager Cecil Cooper (left) talks to general manager Ed Wade (right) during spring training.

HOUSTON — So now Cecil Cooper wants accountability. Funny that he chose to start with someone other than himself.

This is the kind of thing a manager does when he’s trying to get fired. Could that be what’s going on here?

Coop never seemed to be having much fun anyway, so maybe he has seen the handwriting on the wall and is trying to speed the process along.

I’ve never understood why he seems so angry, so defensive. He was given the kind of opportunity thousands of baseball men would die for. Yet he never really seemed to embrace the role, never seemed comfortable.

Yes, Cooper is correct that Roy Oswalt hasn’t pitched nearly as well as the Astros hoped he’d pitch. Even the great ones sometimes have a bad week or a bad month. Sometimes even a bad season.

Then again, no pitcher in the history of this franchise has pitched better, worked harder or cared more. If there was an issue with Oswalt’s effort or his competitive fire or any of the fundamental ways we measure professional athletes, Cooper still wouldn’t have been justified in his comments.

Oswalt has earned a certain stature in this game, and if the manager has an issue with him, that issue should always be handled behind closed doors.

“You have to ask Roy,” Cooper said when quizzed on a night when Oswalt pitched poorly, in part, because he was injured.

Ask Roy? How about the manager showing the clubhouse he has the back of every player in there?

“We just need him to step up to be who he’s supposed to be,” he added in a parting shot that probably will kill whatever relationship he had with Oswalt.

At times like this, a manager should say this: “Roy was fighting through an injury, and he did what Roy always does. He fought his tail off. He was due to lose a game to this team some time. I have absolutely no worries about Roy Oswalt. There’s no one I’d rather have.”

Can you imagine Terry Francona or Bobby Cox or Joe Torre saying the things Cooper said? Of course not.

Cooper didn’t lose his clubhouse with those comments. He’d lost it long before Tuesday, over weeks and weeks, as players lost confidence in him on a variety of levels.

This simply was one more brick in the wall. When a manager calls out a star the way Cooper did Tuesday, players notice.

They begin to think the manager supports them only as long as they’re doing great, as long as they’re making him look good. When things go south, they see this manager won’t be there for them.

Since Cooper saw fit to call out one guy, he should have listed all the others. How about Lance Berkman, Kaz Matsui, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Geoff Geary, Jose Valverde and Doug Brocail?

Not one of them has had a good season, and collectively, they’re a huge reason the local hardball team is in last place. Then again, Cooper could have done what a really good manager would have done. He could have started with himself.

It starts right here

Cooper could have pointed out that he’s not the best communicator, that he needs to do a better job building relationships and that his decisions often leave one wondering what he’s thinking.

He might have mentioned that game at Wrigley Field recently when he refused to bunt the potential winning run to third base in the ninth, or he could have brought up his decision to pitch to Alfonso Soriano with first base open in the bottom of that same inning. He might have mentioned that he’d bunted in the first inning of a game in Denver earlier this season as well. Or he could have taken the fall for that lineup snafu last week.

He did, sort of, but also made it clear his coaches were as responsible as he was. He got testy when reporters brought it up.

He wasn’t even quizzed about his most embarrassing mistake that night. That was how he remained in the dugout while an umpire and one of his players, Geoff Blum, explained to Michael Bourn was what was going on.

Instead, he pointed out how Oswalt needed to step up. As if that would fix all that’s wrong with this team.

The wheels have come off the Astros the last three days. There were fielding errors on Monday and base-running mistakes on Tuesday and a completely lifeless performance on Wednesday.

Cooper’s team meeting on Tuesday did nothing. His players seem to have little respect for him, and whatever he says is irrelevant. I don’t know if it’s his oddball strategic decisions or how he uses the bullpen or his personality.

There was a team meeting last year in which some veteran players believe Cooper wasn’t honest. He laid down a new policy about players staying out of the clubhouse during batting practice, and when challenged, he said it was general manager Ed Wade’s idea. It wasn’t.

Older players are great for a club because of their leadership and work ethic and poise. But when a manager does something like that with a group of veterans, they never forget. There was a degree of respect lost that Cooper may never get back.

Overall, something hasn’t meshed between Cooper and his players. The Astros seem headed down a road where they’ll be forced to fire the players or the manager, and you know what that decision is going to be.

The Astros are an old, boring, terrible baseball team. They’re 14th in the National League in runs and 12th in ERA. Only the Phillies have gotten fewer innings from their rotation. Only the Nationals have blown more save chances.

He’s not alone, but …

To hold Cooper accountable for this mess is ridiculous. This team is a product of years of poor decisions. Drayton McLane is to blame and so is Tal Smith, Tim Purpura, Wade and plenty of scouts.

On the other hand, the reconstruction must begin someplace. The Astros need a manager that’s passionate and curious and willing to admit what he doesn’t know.

Something has to be done about the sloppy play, and to me, that’s a manager’s job.

It’s more a change of style than substance. Would it really make a difference? Who knows? What do the Astros have to lose?

If McLane doesn’t understand his mistakes, if he doesn’t understand the folly of trading young players for old ones, if he doesn’t grasp the importance of player development, very little is going to change.

But it seems now that changing managers would be a step in the right direction. A sad and tough but necessary step.