On Sept. 22, 1946 Larry Dierker was born. He would go on to be the Houston franchise leader in innings pitched, starts and complete games. After his playing career, he became the Astros leader in managerial winning percentage.
There are a handful of players linked inexorably with one franchise or one city. Tony Gwynn, for example, spent all 20 years of his career with the Padres, and now coaches the baseball team at San Diego State University. Jeff Conine won two World Series with the Marlins, ranks in the top 10 in franchise history in virtually all categories and is known as “Mr. Marlin.”
The players most linked with the Houston Astros are “The Killer Bs”—Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Both recently retired, Biggio and Bagwell were the team’s marquee stars—and often best players—for most of the past two decades.
To take nothing away from the Biggio/Bagwell duo, the man who really would seem to carry the Astros mantle is Larry Dierker. In the time since the franchise signed him as a 17-year-old in 1964 (he would make his debut that same year), Dierker has served the Astros as the youngest player in the league, staff ace, solid contributor to the rotation, broadcaster and finally manager.
After debuting briefly for the Astros at 17, Dierker appeared as a regular member of the team in 1965 and pitched nearly 150 innings with an ERA slightly below league average. Although he lost in his first career appearance, it wasn’t all for naught: He did manage to end his first major league inning by striking out Willie Mays.
In 1966, Dierker, still the third youngest player in the National League, pitched nearly 200 innings, won 10 games and had an ERA above league average.
Dierker struggled in 1967 and ’68, but in 1969 he flourished as a pitcher. Dierker finished sixth in the league in innings, strikeouts and ERA, while finishing fifth in wins and throwing four shutouts. Dierker also earned the first of his two All-Star appearances, and the only MVP support of his career.
Luckily for those who write these sorts of things, Dierker’s best year happened to coincide—at least for a couple of months—with Jim Bouton’s time spent writing Ball Four. Bouton’s first impression of Dierker is not only that he has “tremendous stuff” but also that Bouton “can’t believe how young (Dierker) looks, like a high-school kid.”
Despite Dierker’s youth, Bouton is effusive in his praise, perhaps because Dierker—who later would write two books himself—helped Bouton by providing stories. After describing Dierker’s entire repertoire of pitches as “great,” Bouton admits that Dierker “makes (him) sound like Leo Durocher.”
In addition to using “great” and “tremendous” (twice!), Bouton quotes the Astros pitching coach who credits Dierker with “the balls of a burglar.” He even manages to work in that Dierker has a “helluva vocabulary.”
(Bouton also notes that between innings of starts, Dierker would sit on the bench and sing Beatles songs; that’s enough for me to like just about anyone.)
Dierker was never as good again as he had been in 1969—perhaps from throwing more than 300 innings at age 22—but kept himself better than league average the next two seasons. Dierker was especially strong the first half of 1971, going 12-4 with a 2.41 ERA to earn his second All-Star appearance.
The last really good season of Dierker’s career came in 1974 when he finished ninth in the league in ERA pitching a shade under 225 innings. After three relatively mediocre seasons, Dierker was finished with major league baseball at age 30.
Although his seasons after 1974 were generally fair to middling, in 1976 he had the last great moment of his career, throwing a no-hitter against Montreal at the Astrodome. This success in Houston was nothing new for Dierker, who had a career 2.71 ERA in the cavernous “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
No doubt feeling very at home in Houston, Dierker returned to the team in a marketing role behind the scenes in 1978. Wasting one of the great talents in franchise history behind the scenes was foolish; in 1979 he began serving the Astros as the team’s color commentator.
Dierker would fill that role—to generally strong reviews—through the 1996 season. After that season, he left the Astros broadcasting booth for the dugout. The decision was initially unpopular in the press as Dierker had no managerial experience.
As it turned out, Dierker quickly proved critics wrong. In his first season, the Astros, coming off three straight second place seasons, finally broke through and won the NL Central. They were swept by the Braves in the division series, but rebounded in 1998 to win 102 games, second most in the league. The Astros’ performance won Dierker the National League Manager of the Year award.
Unfortunately for Houston and Dierker, ace Randy Johnson was twice outpitched in the division series, once by Kevin Brown and once by Sterling Hitchcock and the Astros were again eliminated in the first round.
In 1999 the Astros won their third consecutive division title. That victory was secondary for Dierker, who had a seizure during a game and required brain surgery that required a month of convalescence, during which Matt Galante ran the team.
In 2000, despite being barely outscored, the Astros lost 90 games. Dierker and Houston bounced back in 2001, winning 93 games.
In what was becoming something of a theme for the Astros, they were again eliminated in the first round, this time swept by the Braves. Despite a career .556 (90-72 over a full season) winning percentage and four playoff appearances, the Astros fired Dierker after that season. The blame, most likely, was Dierker’s 1-12 postseason record.
Since then, Dierker has contributed occasionally to the Houston press (he wrote a blog for the Houston Chronicle in 2006) and maintained his own website. Today he is on hiatus from his blog, apparently enjoying life as the man most deserving of the Astros legacy.