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Expos fire Rodgers, elevate Runnells

Buck Rodgers' phone rang at 6:30 a.m. and Dave Dombrowski made it short and sweet. "He said, "We've decided to make a change and we have to let you go,'

" Rodgers said Monday after he was fired as manager of the Montreal Expos.

"I said, "Okay, that's fine,' and I hung up and went back to sleep."

The seven-year reign of Rodgers, the most successful manager in Expos history, ended when Dombrowski, the team's general manager, replaced him with Tom Runnells. Rodgers, 52, was in the final year of a contract that will pay him about $500,000. His record with the Expos was 520-499.

But victories were hard to come by this season. When Rodgers was fired, the Expos had lost 10 of their last 11 games and dropped to 20-29, last in the NL East and 13 games behind first-place Pittsburgh.

Rodgers was the fifth manager fired this season and the third in the NL East. In April, Philadelphia fired Nick Leyva, and on consecutive days late last month, the Cubs fired Don Zimmer, the Royals canned John Wathan and the Orioles dropped Frank Robinson. All five teams were in last place at the time of the firings.

Dombrowski decided Saturday night to replace Rodgers and offered the job to third-base coach Runnells on Sunday. Dombrowski said the main reason for the move was because "I want to get the focus back where it should be, which is winning ballgames. I didn't see us going into Houston and Atlanta this week playing with a spark."

Runnells, 36, now the youngest manager in the majors, joined the Expos last season after guiding Class AAA Indianapolis to a title. Runnells signed a contract through the 1992 season.

"I think he'll have a total commitment to build a championship team," Dombrowski said. "I think you'll see that he has a burning desire to succeed."

Runnells said communication will be the key to his success.

"I've learned a lot from Buck, but the one thing I learned the most from him was honesty," Runnells said. "He was never one to keep anything from the players and the press, and that's something I hope to continue."

Rodgers, who replaced Bill Virdon in 1985, excelled as a communicator and as an ambassador for the game in Montreal, which in recent years has been lukewarm toward baseball.

Rodgers had only one sub-.500 team in Montreal and the 1987 team was 91-71, his best record. The club never finished higher than third in the East.

"I don't have any sour grapes," Rodgers said. "We did a lot of good things. Six and a half years is a good ride, and I'm proud of what we did while I was here.

"I think the firing was inevitable. I'm not happy about it, but I'm not sad."

Rodgers said his immediate plans are "to tee it up and play golf until my back gives out and then lay around for a while."

Rodgers admitted to friction between himself and Dombrowski, especially in 1989 when he wanted to fire a coach during the season, but wasn't able to do so until the end of the year.

"We had a lot of differences a couple of years ago, but in the last two or three months we probably got closer in our relationship than at any other time," Rodgers said.