Plenty of people were surprised when Larry Dierker was named the manager of the Houston Astros at the end of the 1996 season, but perhaps no one was more surprised than Larry Dierker. Despite his status as a fourteen-year ace starter in the big leagues (thirteen of them with Houston), two-time All-Star, and well-regarded longtime TV colorman for the Astros, Dierker's hiring refuted conventional wisdom and deeply confounded most major league observers. For one thing, Larry had no managerial experience at any level of the game before taking over the 'Stros; for another, former pitchers rarely become managers (especially former pitchers with a taste for Hawaiian shirts and a talent for amateur songwriting); and, well, managers are supposed to become broadcasters, not the other way around!
But, in his five years at the controls, Dierker guided the Astros to four National League Central division crowns and four playoff appearances, and was named the National League Manager of the Year in 1998. Employing on-the-field strategies at once cerebral and daring, adroitly handling every sort of distraction and disaster that can befall a team -- including suffering a nearly catastrophic seizure during a game -- he excelled like no other manager in Astros history, until resigning at the end of the 2001 season.
Let's face it, after nearly four decades in baseball, Larry Dierker has been there and done that like no one else before him. In This Ain't Brain Surgery he reflects on his memories of growing up in the majors -- from learning the fine art of locker-room pranks at his first spring training to deciding what to say to the crowd when the Astros retired his number ("Aloha," naturally). With the unique perspective that comes from having studied the sport's angles from the mound, the broadcasting booth, and the dugout, Dierker draws from his vast experience to take on everything in the game with sharp wit, keen insight, and startling candor, inviting us farther onto the field, deeper into the clubhouse, and more fully into the baseball mind than we've ever been before.
Brimming with indispensable analysis, thoughtful reflection, and raucous humor, This Ain't Brain Surgery is the finest baseball book since Ball Four, and marks Larry Dierker as a writer at the top of his game.
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Larry Dierker has spent nearly his entire adult life with the Houston Astros in one capacity or another. He made his major league debut on his eighteenth birthday in 1964, striking out Willie Mays in his first inning of work, and is still the franchise leader in starts, complete games, innings pitched, and shutouts. From 1979 until his appointment as manager, Dierker was the club's primary color analyst on radio and television, and for several years wrote a column that appeared in the Houston Chronicle. As manager of the Astros he led Houston to four division titles in five seasons. An avid connoisseur of cigars and Hawaiian shirtwear, he lives in Houston with his wife, Judy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Well, I'll tell you, young fella, to be truthful and honest and frank about it, I'm eighty-three years old, which ain't bad. To be truthful and honest about it, the thing I'd like to be right now is an astronaut.
-- Casey Stengel
In September of 1996 I was suffering. I had spent a good part of the baseball season in the hospital. First it was surgery on a torn ligament in my right thumb; then it was pericarditis, an inflammation in the lining of the sac that contains the heart; then it was surgery again for a bone infection where the first surgery had been performed on my thumb. All told, I was in one ward or another for three weeks and under anesthesia four times. The last time, I left the hospital with a bottle of prednisone, a medicine so powerful that it changes your personality and makes you into a trencherman of mythic proportions. I came out of the hospital weighing 215 pounds and a month later tipped the scales at 240. What's worse, I was doing a lot of the eating in the middle of the night, interrupting my sleep. I was so hungry I couldn't make it through the night without a meal. By September, most of my health problems were under control. The only lingering reminder of my personal travails was the cast on my right hand that had forced me to keep my scorebook left-handed while broadcasting all year long. I couldn't wait for season's end, but I sure didn't want it to end in free fall.
Everyone with the Astros was suffering to some extent. The team had fallen out of the race and was in the midst of a nine-game losing streak that would give the Cardinals the Central Division title on a platter. It is so discouraging to tough it out for five months and over 125 ball games only to plummet like a stone thrown into a lake; but that's exactly what we did. I was determined to float down the Guadalupe River on an inner tube when the season ended, soaking my right hand in the cool water and enjoying a beer or two along the way, but first we had to finish the schedule and it was on the next to last road trip of the season that I uttered a line that has had a major impact on my life. It happened near the end of the losing streak, during a game with the Marlins. Florida didn't have a very good team that year but they were making us look like Little Leaguers.
We were way behind, maybe 9-2, in this particular game. Our cameras panned the dugout and it looked like a morgue. "You know what's wrong with this team, Brownie?" I asked my partner Bill Brown.
"Well, we're not hitting," he offered.
"No, it's not that," I said.
"Well then, what is it?"
"Not enough Hawaiian shirts," I said.
"Yeah, Hawaiian shirts," I repeated. "Everyone in that dugout looks like someone in their family has died. You have to have some spirit to win games. This team looks dead. Did you ever see someone wearing a Hawaiian shirt that wasn't having a good time?"
"Well, no," he answered. "But where's yours?"
"I'll wear it tomorrow night," I said, not knowing how difficult it would be to find one, even in Miami.
The next day I canvassed the mall and came away with a shirt that had flowers on it -- not really a Hawaiian shirt, but close. I didn't tell our producer or director that I was going to wear it for fear they would insist on our normal coat and tie policy. We lost again, but the words had been spoken. We talked about Hawaiian shirts during that broadcast and the next two in Atlanta, and by the time we got back to Houston, it was general knowledge among our faithful fans.
I called my boogie-boarding brother, Rick, and asked him to send me a couple of shirts. One of them was decorated with vintage woodie station wagons from the 1940s, a popular surfer car when I was in high school. The woodies on this particular shirt had surfboards hanging out the back windows or mounted on top. I wore it to the ballpark, just for grins. About half an hour before the game, I had a devilish idea. I was working radio with play-by-play man Milo Hamilton that night and I was almost sure he didn't know that the term "woody" was current slang for an erection. When Milo was out of earshot, I told our engineer and several young interns to listen closely. "I'm going to get Milo," I said. "Just wait."
When Milo came back into the booth, I pointed to one of the woodies on the shirt and said, "Hey, Milo. You know what this is?"
"Uh, a station wagon," he ventured.
"No, this is a woodie, man. You should know that. It comes from your era. These things were the rage when I was in high school in California. They were surfer cars."
"I didn't know they called them that," he said.
We went on the air and after he got all the preliminary information out, and with plenty of time in the inning to talk, I asked, "Hey, Milo. How do you like my new Hawaiian shirt?"
"You mean the one with all the woodies on it?" He took the bait. I could imagine all the middle-aged and younger fans in our audience getting a mental image of a shirt full of hard-ons.
"Yeah," I said. "When you were a young man, did you ever have a woodie?" I hadn't planned that line. It just came out.
"Oh no," he said. "We were much too poor."
"Boy, that's really poor," I said, stifling laughter, and looking back behind me where the others in the booth were sitting. One intern bolted from the booth. I imagine he couldn't contain himself. The rest of them were giggling in silence.
The next day, word of the interchange swept through the Astrodome like a brushfire. It was especially funny because Milo is a proud man, to say the least. He is not the type of person who can admit a mistake, let alone laugh at himself. Thinking about him discussing erections on the air gave rise to convulsions of laughter as it spread from office to office throughout the building. It continued for several days and Milo never knew it. I wore the shirt and got him a few more times before the season was over.
Although we were mourning the loss of our playoff hopes, we were also obligated to finish the schedule, and in this type of situation humor helps. If the players could just share in our glee, they would be better off. But they showed no outward signs of shedding the burden of choking in the clutch.
Nobody was happier to see the season end than I was. I was in Austin the night we finished, staying with friends for a few days. The next evening, when I came in from floating on the river, there was a message to call my wife, Judy.
She told me that the president of the Astros, Tal Smith, had called and he wanted to see me in his office at ten o'clock the next morning and that it was urgent. I grudgingly drove back to Houston, wondering what could possibly be so important.
A computer-tone version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" announced my arrival as I walked through the glass doors of Tal Smith Enterprises. "Let's sit out here on the balcony where we can relax," Tal suggested. Seven stories below, shoppers perused the many offerings of the Galleria, as Tal came characteristically to the point. "If you had to trade Bell [Derek] or Kile [Darryl] to make budget, which one would it be?"
"Well, we all know you don't win without pitching," I replied. "But Bell is a star and he could get better. I guess I would have to let Kile go, even though I wouldn't want to." As it turned out, we did not part with either player, and Kile, not Bell, got better.
Our conversation continued along these lines. Before long, we had discussed just about every player on the team. "Sounds like you've got a pretty good grasp of where we are and where we need to go," Tal said. "Maybe you should manage the club."
"Well, I'll tell you," I said. "I've been trying to think of a way to get away from Milo, but that would be rather extreme."
Tal laughed so loud that shoppers way down below looked up to see what was happening. It was all in the spirit of kidding from my standpoint. He had another perspective.
"I've taken the liberty of ordering some sandwiches," he said. "We can have lunch here."
"Fine," I said. I looked back toward Tal's longtime secretary Judy Vieno's desk and spotted Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker.
"Let's go in here where we have more room," Tal said. "Gerry is going to join us if you don't mind." This is when I sniffed a hidden agenda. I couldn't imagine it to be anything that was personally threatening, and I always enjoyed talking baseball with Tal and Gerry, so I said an internal "what the heck" and chomped into a turkey sandwich. As we continued the evaluation, I was asked what I would do differently if I were running the team. "Well, I'd get some left-handed hitters and some pitching depth," I replied.
After we discussed relative strengths and weaknesses and commiserated over budget constraints, Tal and Gerry came to the heart of the issue.
"What did you think about Terry's performance last year?"
Terry Collins, the manager of the Astros, had grown unpopular with the players as most managers eventually do. I am not a big fan of his hyperkinetic style, but I regard him as a smart baseball man, an energetic worker, and a keen competitor. I knew he was on the hot seat, but I had heard that the club would not eat the last year of his contract.
"I think he does a good job," I said. "I don't always agree with him, but that's what the game is all about."
"What about the clubhouse?" I was asked. "Did you get any feedback from the players?"
"Well, I know they aren't wild about him. But they liked him just fine and he seemed like a better manager in '94," I said. "We had a better team and we were winning more then. It makes a big difference."
"They say he's lost the clubhouse."
"It's a long winter. He can get it back."
At this point I realized that I was being interviewed for the manager's job. They hadn't really said that Terry was going to be fired but that's what I heard. My head was spinning like the Wheel of Fortune, but I knew I had to stay calm. It was like being on the mound, with a thousand thoughts crossing your mind while you try to concentrate on just one or two.
"How do you feel about statistical information?" Tal asked. "Do you think you can get an edge by getting favorable match-ups?"
"Sometimes," I said. "When a guy has hit a certain pitcher, year after year or vice versa, it is worth noting. I do think, however, that managers use statistics too much. If a guy is 3-5 against a particular pitcher and another guy is 0-4 that means very little to me. The sample is too small. In that case I would favor my instincts. If the pitcher is a sinker, slider guy, I would play the guy who is the best low-ball hitter. That type of thing."
I knew Tal to be a number cruncher; he relies on statistics to present his arbitration cases. I was relieved when he said, "I agree. I think a lot of managers fail to play hunches and use their instincts."
Whew, I thought. I cleared that hurdle, still not knowing if I wanted to clear it. At this juncture, I was competing for the job and wasn't sure why except that it is my nature to try difficult things. I guess I sensed this chance might not come again.
"Any manager in today's game has all the numbers he needs," I said. "And he would be a fool not to use them. But the most important thing is the combination of players a manager has available, the way he deploys them, and the effort they give. If you don't have the horses you can forget it. If you have horses that can run together, you have to cue them up right. Get the right batting order, get them enough playing time. Then you have a chance, but only if they want to run. Let's face it, a team is only as good as it thinks it is. Confidence is critical."
At that point, I brought up the importance of pitching, citing our division championship years in the 1980s. "The most important aspect of confidence is pitching," I continued. "You simply can't win a championship without good pitching. You can make it if your fielding and hitting is only adequate, but you must have a good bench because you'll have to deal with injuries."
"What would you do about Bagwell [Jeff] and Biggio [Craig]?"
This question stunned me. "Bagwell and Biggio?" I said. "Nothing. I'd just write their names in the lineup and let them play. I can't imagine those two guys being a problem."
"You might be surprised," Tal said. "They carry a lot of weight in the clubhouse and they brought it to bear on Terry."
I thought for a moment. I had heard that Biggio and Bagwell were unhappy with Terry. "Remember the story about Joe McCarthy when he took over the Red Sox?" I said.
Tal remembered it, but I doubted that Gerry did, so I elaborated.
"When McCarthy was with the Yankees, he was a stickler for appearances. He felt that it was important for the Yankees to maintain their classy image by dressing in a suit and tie whenever they were together. When he went to Boston, the writers jumped him about his dress code. 'What are you going to do about Ted Williams?' they asked. Well, everyone knew that Williams refused to wear a tie. And McCarthy wasn't stupid. 'That's easy, boys,' he said. 'If Ted doesn't want to wear a tie, he doesn't have to. If I can't get along with a .400 hitter, I should be fired.' "
This is the way I felt about Bagwell and Biggio. I don't know how Terry got crosswise with them; they certainly didn't do anything on the field to cause him trouble -- quite the opposite. They played hard and smart; they played hurt; they played every day. I don't know what happened behind the clubhouse doors, but if I had players like that I would find a way to get along with them. Perhaps they wanted to run the team -- to dictate who played, or what the batting order should be. This type of criticism is common with star players and it could either be a problem or it could be a solution. Players like Bagwell and Biggio have a lot of good ideas. I would listen to them, and if I didn't want to use their suggestions I would tell them why. Throughout my thirty-seven years in baseball, I had heard manager after manager say that there was one set of rules, not two. But in actuality, the stars got more than their share of favors. I got the star treatment myself for a few years and I didn't believe in one set of rules. I believed in the elasticity of a few rules. Playing hard and winning is the only real answer. When you do that, nobody cares about how the rules are applied.
"Look, I'm tired of this Bagwell and Biggio shit," I said. "Bagwell and Biggio will not be a problem, believe me."
I now believe that this statement is the one that got me the job. It also proved to be false.
One more thought on Biggio and Bagwell. In the spring of 1996, it was suggested that these two fine ballplayers, who had played with uncommon valor in the Wild Card race the previous September, should be made sort-of unofficial team captains and accept a leadership role in the clubhouse. This seemed a good idea, but it didn't work out. Bagwell cares deeply about the team, but his leadership talents are mostly ...
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