HOUSTON (AP) -Cecil Cooper has never had a problem communicating with players individually. It's the group settings Cooper is going to have to get used to as the new manager of the Houston Astros.
Cooper took over as manager after Phil Garner was fired Monday, getting a little more than a month to show that he should have the job next year. The Astros began Tuesday 58-73, nine games behind first-place Chicago in the NL Central.
Cooper, Houston's bench coach the last three seasons, met with his team for about 30 minutes before batting practice.
``I'm pretty comfortable with the players when it's just moving around with them and talking one-on-one,'' Cooper said. ``What I have difficulty with is when it's a big group. I struggle with that a little bit, but those are things I have to get through and work through. The more I do it, the better I'll get.''
Team owner Drayton McLane also fired general manager Tim Purpura on Monday and appointed team president Tal Smith the interim replacement. McLane said he'd like to have a permanent GM in place by the end of this season.
McLane suggested at Monday's announcement that the Astros' final 31 games this season amounted to an audition for Cooper, the first black manager in franchise history.
``I don't feel any pressure, really. This is something I've done my whole life,'' Cooper said.
The Astros were surprised by the moves, which came less than two years after the franchise made its first trip to the World Series. Until Monday, first baseman Lance Berkman had no inkling that Garner was in danger of losing his job.
``Not that the manager has zero impact,'' Berkman said, ``but I think many times, the manager gets too much credit for success and too much blame for as poor a season as we're having.''
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said Cooper has built a reputation around baseball as a skilled, competent coach. But La Russa wasn't happy to see Garner go.
``Phil was outstanding,'' La Russa said. ``They know their organization and they made their move. What I know is Phil Garner did a hell of a job against us every game.''
Cooper didn't make any major lineup changes, vowing as he did on Monday that he could win with the current roster. He said the team's main problem has been complacency.
``We have to play with more excitement, more fire,'' Cooper said. ``This is not a criticism of anyone, but we have been really flat, particularly in the last week or so, and we need to pick it up. Sometimes, you just look at the team in general and things are just not clicking.''
A five-time All-Star during his 17-year playing career, Cooper is a major league manager for the first time. He was the bench coach in Milwaukee in 2002 and managed Triple-A Indianapolis for two seasons before joining the Astros when Garner replaced the fired Jimy Williams in 2004.
``I don't think you ever know what a guy is going to be like as a manager until he is the manager,'' Astros reserve infielder Chris Burke said. ``At the same time, I see a lot of leadership, I see a lot of poise and ability to relate to the players. Those are a lot of good qualities right there.''
St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols shook Cooper's hand on the field before Tuesday's game. Berkman said Cooper's success as a player gives him instant credibility in the Astros' clubhouse.
``He's been around a long time and, in my opinion, he's a borderline Hall of Fame player,'' Berkman said. ``He understands how a team works and what makes a team successful. I think he's deserving of a shot to be a manager.
``The fact that he was an outstanding player certainly helps when it comes to dealing with us in here.''
Berkman said he was ``sad to see Phil go,'' but he thinks the Astros were smart to promote from within the organization.
``Cooper's been here as long as Phil has. We know him really well,'' Berkman said. ``I don't see it as going to be a really huge change in philosophy or way we're going to operate in the clubhouse. From that standpoint, the transition is not going to be a difficult one.''

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