Cecil Cooper, who was on the job for barely two years, was relieved of his duties as manager Monday afternoon in a move that wasn't surprising, except for the timing. With 13 games remaining, third-base coach Dave Clark was named interim manager for the rest of the season.
"I thought it was going to be awkward to go all the way to the end of the season, come back from New York [following the final game] and make a move," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "I think the practicality of it didn't make sense to me, and the fact we can put Dave in place, we can have a different set of circumstances working for two weeks. Albeit a short period of time, but we may find some things out and hopefully this creates a spark and gets us on a run so we can finish on a high note."
Astros owner Drayton McLane, president of baseball operations Tal Smith and Wade informed Cooper he was being let go when Cooper arrived at the ballpark on Monday afternoon. Wade then met with Clark and later the coaching staff to inform them of the changes. The front office then had a team meeting with the players about 3 1/2 hours before Monday's game against St. Louis.
Cooper, who was given a one-year contract extension in April that will pay him through 2010, didn't return phone calls from MLB.com.
Houston entered play Monday at 70-79 and in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. They were 16 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central entering the series against the Cardinals, who led the Astros by just one game July 22 after being swept at Minute Maid Park.
Houston, which began the season with a team-record payroll of around $107 million and one of the oldest rosters in the Major Leagues, has been ravaged by injuries this year. But McLane ultimately believed his club was underachieving.
"This is the most expensive baseball team the Houston Astros have ever had," he said. "We've made a huge investment of over $100 million. We invested in players we thought could be championship players. You could go back and look at players that were here or somewhere else.
"Some of our key players, because of injuries and difficulties, have not had great seasons. You can't predict all of that. It was just the judgment we had the when the team was put together in December and January that we were willing to invest financially to have the most expensive team [we've had]."
Wade said the Astros will conduct a search for a full-time manager when the regular season ends, but he cautioned a candidate isn't likely to be in place until after the World Series. Clark will be given consideration for the job full-time.
Al Pedrique, the Astros' Minor League field coordinator, has joined the team to serve as third-base coach the rest of the season. Wade met with the coaching staff Monday and told the coaches their status for 2010 would not be established until after a full-time manager is named.
"We told them if they felt after the season was over they wanted seek other jobs that they were free to do that," Wade said. "I have great respect for what the coaches have done for us here, but realistically we feel that it's appropriate to give the new manager the ability to evaluate his staff and have some input into its composition."
This is the first stint as a Major League manager for the 47-year-old Clark, who joined the Astros' coaching staff this season after managing for four years in the Minor Leagues. He managed Houston's Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock in 2008 and the Double-A affiliate in Corpus Christi from '05-07.
"This is really bittersweet for me," Clark said. "I enjoyed my time with Coop, and you hate to see anybody lose their job. He brought me along to be his third-base coach, and here I am replacing him. It's not a real good day for me in that perspective. But the opportunity and chance I'm getting to manage the next two weeks is outstanding."
Cooper, 59, was hired on Aug. 27, 2007, when Phil Garner was dismissed. Garner hired Cooper to be his bench coach at the start of the '05 season, and Cooper was with the club when it reached the World Series that year. Cooper went 171-170 as Houston's manager.
"The bottom line is we didn't get it done on the field," said first baseman Lance Berkman, a 10-year veteran with the team. "The players have to take the full responsibility. Coop never threw a pitch or batted with runners in scoring position. Of course, the kind of hitter he was, we might have needed him to go out there. I think it's sad. No matter what, it's always a down day. I feel personally responsible for it. It's not a fun day."
While no players would speak publicly on the matter Monday, Cooper's managerial abilities and communication skills frustrated the majority of the team. The players were often befuddled by his in-game tactics, and some of his clubhouse decisions were even more puzzling to the players.
When third baseman Aaron Boone announced in Spring Training he was leaving the team to have open-heart surgery, Cooper addressed the team and told them they needed to step up their play, which upset some players.
Cooper had the wrong lineup posted in the dugout on May 20 against Milwaukee, resulting in Michael Bourn being called back to the plate after leading off the game with a single. What's more, Cooper upset the players in June when he forgot to acknowledge Ivan Rodriguez for breaking the all-time record for games caught during a postgame meeting following a loss to the Rangers.
Wade refused to give specific reasons why Cooper was let go, but said Cooper handled the news with professionalism.
"Coop's an outstanding baseball guy," Wade said. "As I told the players, they shared a room with him for two years, and the level of professionalism has to be saluted. I don't think it serves any purpose to go into the reasons why. Obviously, we felt there were reasons, or we wouldn't have made a change."
Those who have played for Clark, such as outfielder Hunter Pence, said he will bring more fire to the dugout. And the Astros will use the final two weeks of the season to determine if they want him in the dugout to start the 2010 season.
"The fact that he's going to have the reins for 13 games is for his advantage from the standpoint of establishing his style," Wade said. "I had a chance to see Dave at the Minor League level before he joined the big league staff, but not nearly enough to make any evaluation.
"I think it's important for him to put his first foot forward and for us to recognize what he brings to the table in that short period of time, but not to use that as the sole criteria for making a decision. I think we have to be opened-minded. We'll have a list of people we want to talk to and hopefully make the right decision. If it turns out to be Dave, then that's great. But we'll try to make the right decision."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.