Dierker much more than your average manager

With a book out to tell his story, former Astros manager Larry Dierker has a unique perspective on the game.

Originally Published: July 8, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

I like books written by baseball managers, and for a few years it's been a goal of mine to collaborate with a baseball manager on a book. For a number of reasons, Larry Dierker was pretty high on my wish list.

As it turns out, though, Larry Dierker didn't need me or anybody else (save a good editor, I suppose). Simon & Schuster has just published Dierker's book, This Ain't Brain Surgery: How to Win the Pennant Without Losing Your Mind, and Dierker actually wrote the book himself. I mean, he really wrote it.

When I reached Dierker last week at his home in Houston, I asked him if actually writing a book -- as opposed to answering questions from an interviewer, who then shapes the answers into a book -- was intimidating.

Larry Dierker
Larry Dierker, left, and Brad Ausmus didn't always agree on things while both were together with the Astros.

"Not that much," Dierker responded. "I'd written a journal the first year that I managed, and my agent showed it to somebody who wanted to publish it then. But I thought it might not be the best thing at that time, just in terms of my relationship with the guys on the team, so we didn't do anything with it.

"In college I majored in English, and I wrote a column for 10 years while I was broadcasting. Plus, I figured if Simon & Schuster wanted to pay me an advance for this book, they must think that I could write well enough."

And so he can. There's a richness to the language in This Ain't Brain Surgery that isn't typically found in a book with an ex-player's (or ex-manager's) name on the cover. On page 76, Dierker writes, "If the pitcher were a wood sculptor, his velocity would be the saw: This is where he would start to make an impression, and as he whittled down the work with chisels and knives, the form would take on a life of its own ..." On page 108, Dierker writes, "My predecessor, Terry Collins, was a stormy petrel." And on page 184 (this one's my favorite), Dierker writes about reading the Official Baseball Rules: "I tried three times and got nine short naps for my effort ... The minutiae are connected page after page through the enormousness of the document like a giant spiderweb, making passage a sticky proposition."

So the writing wasn't what I expected, nor was the rest of the book. From the title, you might reasonably guess that Dierker's book is about his experiences managing the Astros from 1997 through 2001. Or perhaps you'd expect an autobiography, detailing Dierker's rise from youngster in southern California to 18-year-old major leaguer to 20-game winner (and All-Star) to broadcaster to manager. But this book is neither of those things.

Rather, it's a series of somewhat randomly connected chapters with titles like "Spring Training," "Pitching," "Umpires," and "Farm System." It's all interesting and Dierker has some genuine insights, but the most compelling material is the personal stuff. Early in the book, for example, Dierker writes at length about interviewing for the job as Astros manager in 1996, after working for 17 seasons as one of the club's broadcasters. There had been talk that manager Terry Collins -- very soon to be ex-manager Terry Collins -- couldn't get along with Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, and Dierker was asked how he'd handle the franchise's two superstars.

"Look, I'm tired of this Bagwell and Biggio s---," 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.

Dierker never does elaborate on that in the book, though, so I asked him about it.

"Yeah, I sort of left that hanging," he says. "In 2000, when things got kind of poisonous in our clubhouse, I think those guys -- not Bagwell so much, but maybe Biggio more so -- started wondering if we were playing the right people, if the manager was making the right moves, that sort of stuff. I don't think Biggio was more of a problem than anybody else, in terms of what he said. But because it was Biggio, maybe people paid a little more attention. But he wasn't that big a problem. When you're not winning, anybody can be a problem. The players can be a problem, and the manager can be a problem."

Because of the way Dierker preferred to manage, he might have been subject to more criticism from his players than if he'd been more conventional. In his book, Dierker writes about the usefulness of OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), and he even includes a matrix listing the various run-scoring probabilities, depending on the number of baserunners and outs.

Where did Dierker come by this information?

"When I was broadcasting," Dierker remembers, "there was a guy named Steve Mann who came down here to work in our baseball operations department, and he was deeply involved in what the club was doing. I made friends with Steve, and we spent many a night having a beer and talking about the game -- about which strategies were antiquated, and which ones were still applicable. I also read a lot of the Bill James stuff, and so I learned what people who didn't have a personal investment in the game had to say about it."

This is, for most baseball players, revolutionary stuff. And Dierker knew it.

"When I became the manager, I kind of knew what were the smart things to do. But I also knew that if I did all of them, it would be at the expense of my credibility with the players. With that in mind, I just had to use my instincts to both win the game and keep the whole team in the spirit of pulling together. I didn't want to come off as an egghead guy who was just looking at numbers and ignoring people, and sometimes those considerations ran into each other.

"For example, Brad Ausmus felt like we should walk the eighth hitter most of the time, with the pitcher coming up next. As an ex-pitcher, I'd rather have the pitcher leading off the next inning. So Brad and I had different opinions a lot of the time. The eighth hitter would come up, he'd look into the dugout for the sign, I wouldn't do anything, and I could see that he wasn't real happy about it. I remember once, we retired the eighth hitter 10 or 15 times in a row. And then Kelly Stinnett reached out and slapped an outside pitch for an RBI single, and Ausmus was really mad."

That sort of thing has to wear on a manager -- especially on a team that's run by veterans like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio -- and so it did. Fans often think that a manager shouldn't care what the players think, but managing's just not that simple.

When I became the manager, I kind of knew what were the smart things to do. But I also knew that if I did all of them, it would be at the expense of my credibility with the players. With that in mind, I just had to use my instincts to both win the game and keep the whole team in the spirit of pulling together. I didn't want to come off as an egghead guy who was just looking at numbers and ignoring people, and sometimes those considerations ran into each other.
Larry Dierker, former
Astros manager

"Whenever I was in a flip-a-coin sort of situation," Dierker says, "I'd usually make the move that I thought the players wanted me to make, because it really doesn't make that much difference, one way or the other. And you have to consider what the players are going to think."

Whatever Dierker did, it worked: in five seasons, the Astros won four division titles. It worked, that is, until the postseason, when the Astros couldn't escape, even once, the first round. And that, far more than anything else, is what led to Dierker's dismissal/resignation as manager. What happened to the Astros in the postseason?

"It's not like we just quit, or we choked, or anything like that. I regret that it happened, but I don't beat myself up over it. Your hitters get 30 or 40 at-bats, and they're facing the best pitchers. Four postseason series is like two weeks in the regular season, and anybody can go through a rough couple of weeks."

In other words, Dierker thinks the Astros were unlucky. And I happen to agree with him.

But the Astros did lose. And that might be why Larry Dierker is now a household handyman, golfer, and (fortunately for us) a published author. Because a year-and-a-half after Dierker managed his last game for the Astros, he's still waiting for the phone to ring. Somehow, this longtime pitcher, longtime broadcaster, and longtime manager can't find a job broadcasting or managing (or pitching, but at least that makes sense).

And don't think that Dierker is enjoying his "retirement." Still only 56 years old, he says, "I was surprised that nobody called me about managing. Now I play golf and I work out, and I read, but there's still time left over. I'm not finished working. Either as a freelance writer or a reporter, or whatever, I want to keep working at least until I'm 62, because that's when my pension maxes out. It's more fulfilling, anyway, to be doing something."

If I were running a baseball team, I'd talk to Larry Dierker about managing it, and if I were running a TV network, I'd talk to Larry Dierker about broadcasting for it. But I don't do either of those things, so instead I'll have to wait for Larry Dierker to write another book.

Fortunately, he's doing just that.

"I've got another book under way," Dierker says, "with all the quotes I've been collecting over the years. I'll run a quote about a player, and then I'll write two or three pages about him, or two or three pages where I start off writing about Willie Mays, and then it turns into something about Barry Bonds. I've found it to be pretty enjoyable, because it's not intensely personal like Brain Surgery was, where I had to agonize over all those decisions I had to make when I was managing. But I think the next book will be just as informative, and have just as many insights into the game as the new book does.

"I think there's something there."

Considering what Dierker's accomplished already, I think he's probably right.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book and Rob's upcoming book signing in Denver (July 9), visit Rob's Web site.

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