Oct. 3, 2006
MIAMI (AP) - Thanks to a managerial shuffle Tuesday, Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria can now yell at umpires with the skipper's approval.
The Marlins fired Joe Girardi, and five hours later introduced as his replacement Fredi Gonzalez, third-base coach for the Atlanta Braves the past four years. Girardi's departure after only one season had been expected after his rift with Loria boiled over two months ago in an on-field confrontation over the owner's heckling of an umpire.
Gonzalez, 42, interviewed with the Marlins a year ago after Jack McKeon resigned but finished runner-up to Girardi. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Gonzalez became the first manager in the Marlins' organization when they hired him to run their first minor league team in Erie, Pa., in 1992.
"It's a long way from Erie, man," a smiling Gonzalez said at a news conference. "I hope I'm here for a lot of years."
Gonzalez said he has no problem with the owner razzing umps.
"If he wants to yell, he can yell," he said. "He paid for the team. He has the most expensive seat in the stadium."
The Marlins decided to fire Girardi not because of the umpire incident, but because he failed to mesh with others in the organization, general manager Larry Beinfest said.
"Joe is not returning because it was not a good fit," Beinfest said. "I will take some of that blame. I'm in charge, and it's my job to make sure everything runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible."
The cost-conscious Marlins wanted Girardi out so badly they were willing to let him go with two years left on a guaranteed three-year contract, which may cost them as much as $1.5 million. Florida made the move even though Girardi's considered a strong candidate for NL manager of the year.
The Marlins had baseball's youngest team and lowest payroll at $15 million, but Girardi led them to a 78-84 record, and they were in contention for a playoff berth until a late-September fade.
Girardi said he was fired during a short, unemotional meeting in his office with general manager Larry Beinfest, assistant general manager Mike Hill and team president David Samson.
"They came in and said, `We're going to make a change,"' Girardi said. He said no reason was given, and he didn't ask for one.
Loria did not attend the meeting but later spoke to Girardi by phone, a spokesman for the owner said. Several of Girardi's coaches will be considered for Gonzalez's staff, Beinfest said.
Girardi, an Illinois native, Northwestern graduate and former Chicago Cubs catcher, becomes a potential candidate to replace Dusty Baker, whose four-year tenure with the Cubs ended Monday. Two other teams are also looking for managers - Washington parted with Frank Robinson, and San Francisco cut ties with Felipe Alou.
Girardi said he has no idea what he'll do next season, and plans to discuss options with his wife. His voice broke when he began discussing his dismissal with reporters in his office, but he was soon smiling and cracking jokes.
"I'll land on my feet," he said. "I talked to one of my mentors last night and I said, `I've never been fired before.' And he said, `Welcome to the club."'
Girardi declined to identify the mentor.
Beinfest said the decision to fire Girardi was cemented two weeks ago. Aware that other managing jobs would likely come open, the Marlins first contacted Gonzalez on Sept. 25 and had an agreement with him by midweek last week, Beinfest said.
"We knew Fredi was our guy, and we wanted to beat our competition to him," Beinfest said. "Interviewing while you have a sitting manager probably isn't the greatest thing, but we went through proper channels with the commissioner's office and the Atlanta Braves."
Gonzalez becomes the fourth manager hired by the Marlins since Loria bought the team in 2002. The latest change seemed inevitable after the rift between Girardi and Loria erupted at a game Aug. 6.
The owner berated an umpire while sitting behind the plate. From the dugout, Girardi asked Loria to stop.
"The gist of the conversation to Jeffrey was, `I preach to my players about not arguing with umpires, and this is not going to help us,"' Girardi said.
Loria angrily left his seat and confronted Girardi after the game during a 90-minute clubhouse meeting. The owner has refused to comment on the episode or respond to published reports that he fired Girardi that day, then changed his mind.
Girardi declined to elaborate on what happened, or discuss his differences with Loria and Beinfest.
"Obviously, the things I did, whether they were perfect or not, the players responded. We won," Girardi said.
Beginning in spring training, Beinfest clashed with Girardi over personnel decisions, and during the second half of the season the general manager was rarely seen in the clubhouse or manager's office.
New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, who served as a mentor to Girardi, said he talked to his former catcher Sunday.
"There was no anger," Torre said. "He understood that managing is not always based on how well you do. There are certain things you need to do, and people you need to please."
The Marlins' power struggle had no apparent effect on the team. Widely projected to lose more than 100 games, Florida instead rallied from an 11-31 start and trailed in the NL wild-card race by only two games on Sept. 12 before fading.
The Marlins became the first team to climb above .500 from 20 games under. They also became the first team to have four rookie pitchers win 10 games, and they set a record for most home runs by rookies with 112.
"People thought we were going to lose more games than any team in baseball, and we didn't," Girardi said. "And that's because of the players."
AP Baseball Writer Ron Blum in New York contributed to this report.