Publish date:


The telephone on his desk issues one shrill ring, and Larry
Dierker puts a hand atop the receiver, poised to pick up. But
the infernal instrument doesn't ring again, as if it had been
healed by the laying on of hands. "There are tremendous perks in
this job that make you feel important," says Dierker, the
Houston Astros' rookie manager, whose calls are intercepted by a
secretarial cutoff man. "Everybody treats you differently, from
complete strangers to friends and neighbors."

Take the cigars arrayed on his desk. "Quite frequently, when I'm
at a social function, a stranger will walk up and just hand me a
cigar," says Dierker, who torches them (cigars, not strangers)
in his office after games. As a stogie smolders, a sophisticated
machine called a Duracraft Ionizer--it resembles a
humidifier--sucks away the secondhand smoke. "I don't know where
that thing came from," says Dierker, marveling. "Someone just
brought it in here one day. But it works."

Yes, the very air he breathes has been sweeter since Dierker
took over the Astros, who moved into first place in the National
League Central on July 18 and never left, clinching the division
title over the Pittsburgh Pirates last Thursday. Though he spent
13 years with Houston (and one with the St. Louis Cardinals) as
a starting pitcher and the last 18 as an Astros broadcaster, the
51-year-old Dierker can scarcely believe the benefits that
accrue to a big league skipper. "My wife has enjoyed being the
manager's wife," he says. "Our 12-year-old, Ryan, he's become a
big shot."

"Larry is totally unpretentious," says Houston general manager
Gerry Hunsicker, who hired Dierker as the Astros' skipper last
October, at which time he had a total of zero years' managerial
experience at any level. "Big-money, fast-lane lifestyles
permeate our sport, but Larry is the guy next door."

He really is the guy next door, across the backyard fence, with
the barbecue tongs and the beer glass and the Hawaiian shirt,
icons of his '50s upbringing in the San Fernando Valley of
Southern California. "The Valley was just being built up after
the war," Dierker says, "and the war babies were growing up
there, and it was such a wonderful place, not the smoggy,
super-urban area it is today. Where we lived there were some
farms, and the weather was nice, and we'd go to the beach and
play Little League. I came from a very solid family: good mother
and father, no marital troubles, a brother and sister. It was a
Leave It to Beaver-like life."

Beaver Cleaver became Oscar Madison. As an Astros broadcaster
Dierker wore loud shirts and smoked cigars and wrote a weekly
baseball column for the Houston Chronicle, stewing whenever his
prose was hog-butchered by editors. He reads himself to sleep
every night--"I read for content and for good writing," he
says--having buzzed most recently through Pat Conroy's Beach
Music and John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

"He was always reading," Houston second baseman Craig Biggio
says of the Dierker he would see in hotel lobbies on road trips.
"He was always trying to educate himself."

Reading, to most people in baseball, is the Double A affiliate
of the Philadelphia Phillies. So the bookish Dierker was always
thought of as "off-the-wall," in the words of first baseman Jeff
Bagwell, who says he was "floored" by Dierker's hiring last
October. "I thought it had to be a misprint," concurs Houston
righthander Darryl Kile, who learned of Dierker's hiring from a
TV sports ticker. "The only Larry I could think of who was
interested in managing was Larry Bowa. I thought they'd hired
Larry Bowa."

But Dierker--who majored in English at the University of
Houston, which he attended in his off-seasons as a player--is as
much baseball lifer as he is bookworm. Listen to him speak about
literature, and he periodically leans to his right and spits a
stream of tobacco juice. The effect is unsettling, as if an
unseen dental hygienist keeps telling him, "You may rinse now."

So Dierker will say, "I'm reading a historical novel called Mask
of Apollo, about an actor in Greece at the time of the great
playwrights [spit!]. He acts in various plays [splat!], there's
a change of leadership in Syracuse [spit!], Hippolytus is in
there [hock!], and so is Plato [gob!]."

How many managers can adeptly discuss both Hippolytus (who was
killed by Poseidon) and Hipolito (Pena, who often got killed
while pitching relief for the Pirates)? How many skippers, in
describing someone with "good stuff," are referring to a
research assistant at the Library of Congress?

Dierker regularly dials the library in Washington, where a guy
named Dave Kelly fields his esoteric baseball queries. Dierker
recently sought an account of Fred Toney's 18-inning no-hitter
for Lexington against Winchester in the Bluegrass League in
1909. "Dave Kelly sent me copies of articles from both the
Lexington paper and the Winchester paper," says Dierker. "Both
papers! In 1909! That's how much good stuff they have in the
Library of Congress."

Casey Stengel was the Ol' Perfesser. Dierker is the Absentminded
Perfesser. Twice this season he planned a double switch and then
forgot to make it in the heat of the game. "Now when I think of
making a move," he says, "I tell a coach so he can remind me to
do it."

Take a stroll through the hedge maze of his mind and you never
know what's around the corner. His starting pitchers were second
in the National League in innings pitched this season, and if
you ask Dierker why, he traces his disdain for middle relief to
baseball's Middle Ages. "Conventional managing theory in my
playing days was to let the pitcher pitch until the other team
tied the game or went ahead," he says. "Then along came some
pretty good closers, and the thinking was to replace the starter
before he lost the lead. Now the theory is, you replace the
starter while he has the lead and before you get to the closer.
That has been the trend, but there have been a lot of trends in

"In the dead-ball days, for example, teams stole an awful lot of
bases," continues Dierker, at his desk, reading glasses resting
atop a copy of baseball's rule book. "When guys started hitting
a lot of home runs in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s,
basestealing went down. Then [Maury] Wills and [Lou] Brock and a
few fast guys started stealing bases again in the '60s. The
pitching got so good in the late '60s and early '70s that a lot
more guys started stealing, and by the '80s everybody was
running. You could trace that all the way back to the dead-ball
era, offensive strategy going through cycles. Well, I feel the
same can be said for pitching. I think we're going back to the

These retro 'Stros--the starting pitchers, anyway--are happy to
go there with Dierker. "Ask any starter," says Kile, who
finished the regular season with a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA
and was second in the league in innings pitched. "He doesn't
ever want to come out of the game."

As for the offense, Dierker hoped to run a speedy,
run-manufacturing sweatshop in Houston. But he hasn't been quite
able to sell the Astros on his brand of small ball. "It has been
difficult to impose my will on the offense," says Dierker. "For
me to talk to Biggio and Bagwell and [Luis] Gonzalez about
hitting, baserunning, bunting and hit-and-run philosophy, I have
to gain their respect for my knowledge of those things. And that
takes time. It has taken more time than I hoped it would."

Perhaps that's because for the last five years Bagwell and
Biggio have been two of the best hitters in the National League.
Bagwell was the league's MVP in 1994 and finished this season
ranked among the top five in the league in home runs (43), RBIs
(135), walks (127), total bases (335), slugging percentage
(.592) and on-base percentage (.425). In addition to batting
.309 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs, leadoff hitter Biggio led the
league in runs (146), was fifth in hits (191) and was fourth in
stolen bases (47).

"He has the respect of the guys," Biggio demurs. "When he was a
broadcaster, we'd sit around and have a few sodas and talk about
pitching and hitting, and he knows the game."

Even so, "I have been caught by surprise at times," Dierker
concedes. He still cannot believe, for instance, that Atlanta
Braves manager Bobby Cox had the stainless-steel cojones to
squeeze bunt twice--on consecutive pitches--with the bases
loaded in a game the Braves won 3-1. "I have seen very few
squeeze plays with the bases loaded in my career," says Dierker,
who has witnessed nearly every game the Astros have played in
their 36 seasons in the major leagues. "But we've caught some
people by surprise, too."

Bagwell, for instance. Dierker stunned him by leaving him out of
the starting lineup on the sixth day of the season, even though
Bagwell is in third place, behind Cal Ripken Jr. and Biggio, on
the active consecutive-games-played list. "I thought that was
unusual," euphemizes Bagwell, "resting a guy on the sixth day."
(He did appear in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter to keep
his streak intact; at season's end it had reached 352.)

Dierker literally stands apart from his fellow managers. He is
even reluctant to shoot the breeze with them around the batting
cage. "I'm a rookie," he says. "I don't feel it's my place to
hobnob with guys who have done this for a while. I just don't
think it's appropriate, anymore than it was appropriate for me
to rub elbows with Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax
as a young pitcher."

Such ruminations are no doubt in Dierker's journal--an epic,
Conroyesque account of this season that now numbers some 400
double-spaced pages. Dierker writes for one hour each night (or
the following morning) on his laptop computer. "I'm keeping a
journal because ..." he pauses, lost somewhere in the corridors
of his brain. "Well, because I'm 50 years old, and managing this
team may be the last important thing that I do in my life.

"When you're young and playing, you never think of keeping a
record of things. But I've done a lot of reading since then. Now
I understand that when Captain Cook made a voyage, he kept track
of where he had been and what was going on because he thought he
was doing something important."

And the Astros are, in their own small way, doing something
important in south Texas. "It seems to me that what we're doing
is critical to the city," says Dierker. "When I took this job, I
knew it was an honor and a privilege. But it's also a
responsibility. So many people in Houston love baseball, and we
can get them something that they've never had before, and that
I've never had, and that Bagwell has never had, and [former
Astros star turned first base coach] Jose Cruz has never had...."

That is a World Series victory. God knows, Houstonians will be
satisfied with nothing less. "Houston is a
what-have-you-done-for-me-lately city," says Bagwell. "We
understand that. A lady said to me at a forum last year, 'Give
us a winner, and we'll come out and watch you.' We were 2 1/2
games up, on the first of September, when she said that. The
Rockets had to win two world championships before they sold the
place out, and that's only 16,000 people. So we know our work is
cut out."

Of course, the Astros' middling attendance figures--Houston
ranked 15th among baseball's 28 teams with an average crowd of
25,096 this year--do not account for every fan. Take the retiree
who drove 45 minutes into Houston one evening not too long ago
and clutched a carton of giveaway cookies in his right hand. It
was his first trip to the Astrodome all season, but he said he
had watched another 80 Houston games on TV. "I like this club,"
drawled the balding gentleman, who gave his name as Nolan Ryan.
"I think Larry's relaxed attitude has had a settling effect on
the team."

Relaxed? The Astrodome grounds crew drags the infield in
Hawaiian shirts. Settled? The Astros appear so settled it's
downright unsettling. You may recall that Captain Cook was
eventually murdered in the Sandwich Islands. Whereas when we
last saw the Houston skipper, he was murdering a postgame
sandwich. After which he sparked another victory cigar and
stubbed it out in a white-enamel ashtray shaped like the state
of Texas.

For three consecutive seasons the Astros were close but no
cigar. Say what you will about Dierker, he has no shortage of

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Dierker, who got a degree in English literature during his playing days, spends an hour a day keeping a journal of his first year as a skipper. [Larry Dierker]

B/W PHOTO: DON UHRBROCK Dierker knows the impact of quality starts; he had 106 complete games in his 14 seasons. [Larry Dierker in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The usually laid-back Dierker can jaw when provoked. [Larry Dierker arguing with other]