Time For The Astros To Honor Bob Lillis
Jose Cruz, Mike Scott, Don Wilson, Jim Wynn, Larry Dierker, and Jim Umbricht, all have their numbers retired by the Houston Astros, so they’ll never be forgotten.
Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Bagwell also have their numbers retired, but they are either in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, or are on their way there in the near future, so their names won’t be forgotten by baseball fans, much less Astros’ fans.
Those guys have their names entrenched, and deservedly, in Astros’ history.
But I think one man’s name is largely forgotten. Bob Lillis.
I think it’s time to remind people of how important he was to the organization for over two decades.
The Astros are doing a great job of embracing the history of the organization by getting a little nostalgic this year. They’re wearing throwback uniforms on Friday nights, giving out bobbleheads of Chris Burke, in honor of his walk-off homer against the Atlanta Braves in the 2005 National League Playoffs, and they’ve instituted something I really like, the Walk of Fame.
The Walk of Fame is a way to honor players, managers, coaches, broadcasters, etc., that have meant a lot to the Astros’ family, without necessarily retiring their numbers.
Names like Bob Aspromonte, Milo Hamilton, Gene Elston, and Joe Morgan are already honored on the Walk of Fame, to go along with Wynn, Cruz, and Dierker, and all deservedly so.
I mentioned Hamilton and Elston, who are both in the broadcasters’ wing of the Hall of Fame, being honored with the Ford C. Frick Award.
Did you know that Harry Kalas, and Bob Prince, two other former Astros’ broadcasters, have been honored with the same award?
Not too many teams have four broadcasters that have been winners of the Ford Frick Award. Right off the top of my head, the St. Louis Cardinals do (Buck, Caray, Garagiola, & Hamilton). The Los Angeles Dodgers do (Scully, Barber, Harwell, Jarrin). And the New York Yankees probably have the most. So there are some, but there aren’t many.
Anyway, I think that a lot of other names, like Scott, Wilson, and Umbricht, to go along with Cesar Cedeno, J.R. Richard, and Phil Garner will be added shortly, but I hope somebody who has flown under the radar for a long time is not forgotten…and again, that guy is Lillis.
Lillis certainly wasn’t a great player during his day. He was a light hitting middle infielder for the Houston Colt 45’s/Astros from 1962-67, accumulating 444 hits. But he was a solid fielder, and a starter for four of his six seasons in Houston.
Actually, Lillis retired halfway through the 1967 season, to become a coach, until he moved from that position into a scouting role, from 1968-1972.
In 1973, Lillis returned to coaching, joining the staff of Leo Durocher. He remained an Astros’ coach until late in the 1982 season, also serving under Preston Gomez and Bill Virdon, before he became interim manager in 1982.
After his interim stint as manger in 1982, Lillis managed the team for three full seasons, compiling 276-261 overall record.
Lillis finished second in Manager of the Year voting in 1983, when the Astros finished 85-73, after starting the year 0-9.
Nicknamed the “Flea”, Lillis had two winning seasons, with his only losing season being an 80-82 record in 1984.
Think about all the retreaded managers baseball has had throughout the years. It seems like 80% of managers, no matter how badly they failed, got at least a second chance. And here we have Lillis, who was one win away in ’84 from having never had a losing season as a manager, and yet he never managed again.
Personally, I never thought that Lillis should have been let go as manager of the Astros. The team went 83-79 in ’85, and I thought they were ready to contend.
Turns out, they were, winning the NL West under new manager Hal Lanier.
Now, I can’t guarantee you that the Astros would have won the division with Lillis as manager, but I can tell you I think they would have.
Lillis was let go after 1985, and went on to finish his baseball career as a coach for Roger Craig and the San Francisco Giants.
Since then, probably because he hasn’t been involved with the organization in more than a quarter-century, and because he was such a quiet man when he was in Houston, Lillis has been largely forgotten by Astro fans, which is a shame.
Prior to 1986, the Houston Astros/Colt 45’s never went a year without having Lillis on its payroll.
Lillis spent six years as a player, five years as a scout, 11 years as a coach, and three full seasons as a manager for the Astros.
That’s 24 years, almost half the time the franchise has been in existence!
There haven’t been too many people that survived more time than Lillis.
He was an original member of the Houston Colt 45’s. He was a coach on the Astros’ first playoff team in 1980. He was a coach on the Astros’ second playoff team in 1981. He won over 50% of his games as a manager.
That’s quite a resume. Especially for a name that doesn’t jump to the front of people’s minds when talking about who should be in the Walk of Fame.
Ask Elston, who was with the Astros, as their broadcaster, from 1962-86, and was around Lillis for all but one of those years, how important Lillis was to the organization. I don’t know Elston. I never had the pleasure of meeting the man I grew up listening to, but I bet you he’ll tell you that Lillis was one of the top five most important figures in team history over the first 24 years.
Lillis is 82-years-old right now, and I hope he gets to throw out the first-pitch at an Astros’ game over the next couple of years, and his name will be put on the Walk of Fame, where nobody would ever forget his name, or have a hard time doing it, ever again.