An Interview with Larry Dierker

added 08/30/01 by Ray Kerby

Pitcher, broadcaster, and manager Larry Dierker is a true sports legend in Houston. Making his first start for the Colt .45s on his 18th birthday, Dierker pitched 13 seasons for Houston. He spent another 17 years in the broadcast booth, remaining a fan favorite with his candor and keen baseball insight. In 1997, he made the unusual move to manager and promptly led the team to three consecutive divisional titles. We are truly grateful that Mr. Dierker was willing to answer a laundry list of questions about his career.

(c) Houston Astros
Ray Kerby: At what point in your childhood did you decide that you wanted to be a ballplayer?

Larry Dierker: I think I decided that I wanted to be a ballplayer when I was seven years old. I went to the tryouts of the West Valley Little League. It was a league that was just being formed. I wasn't really going to try out because you had to be 8, but it turned out that they needed a couple of extra players and I was able to sneak in a year early.

RK: Who were some of your favorite players and what did you admire about them?

LD: Some of my favorite players at that time were players with the Dodgers -- maybe a little bit later than Little League time, but some time around there. Koufax and Drysdale, obviously, because I liked to pitch, and I liked Tommy Davis because he was a great clutch hitter.

RK: What kind of success did you have in your teen years?

LD: The success in my teen years was a little spotty. I always struck a lot of guys out but we didn't always score, and so I won some and lost some. I don't recall pitching any amateur no-hitters.

RK: Out of the many offers you received from major-league teams, why did you choose to pitch for Houston?

LD: I got serious offers from the Cubs and the Colt .45s. I decided to go with the Colt .45s because they offered more money and probably a better opportunity in terms of making it to the major leagues.

RK: How surprised were you to get called up from AA and make your first start on your 18th birthday?

LD: I actually didn't get called up from AA to make my first start on my 18th birthday. I got called up from what was like a Rookie league or Instructional league in Cocoa, Florida where there was a dormitory and 4-5 fields. All the new prospects for the 45s, the Mets, the Tigers and the Twins were there. Rod Carew was there, Don Wilson was there. So there was a pretty good crop that came out of there. Only a few guys made it in a big way.

RK: The early Astros had many young stars, including yourself. Which player, at the time, stood out above the others?

LD: I would say probably Jimmy Wynn and Joe Morgan, among the position players, because they could do a little bit of everything. They had some power; they had some speed -- great athletes.

RK: The team's first big "remake" came after the 1968 season with the loss of Rusty Staub, Mike Cuellar, Dave Giusti, John Bateman and the super prospect, Nate Colbert. In his book, "A Life in Baseball", Joe Morgan mentions some racial tensions involving Staub. Others have suggested that his trade was payback for not playing after Robert Kennedy was assassinated. What do you feel were some of the motivations behind the trade and how did the team react to it?

LD: I don't know anything about racial tensions involving Staub. I don't know why they decided to trade Rusty. I think there was some thought at the time that he had some congenital ankle problems and that he wouldn't have a very long career -- at least that's what I heard. That was really a messed-up trade because we were supposed to get Don Clendenon. He refused to go so we got Jesus Alou, I think, and that's all we got for Rusty. Of course, Rusty became a star in Montreal, New York, and Detroit after that. That made the trade look like a very bad one for the Astros.

RK: In 1969 you came within one out of no-hitting the Atlanta Braves. After the game, how did your teammates respond to this disappointing change in your fortunes?

LD: When I came within an out of no-hitting the Braves, it was actually the second time. I had a perfect game going into the ninth inning at Shea Stadium in 1965 when I just turned 19. Now this one with the Braves was, I think, a pivotal game in 1969 pennant race. At that time we were about 2-3 games out of first and we were bunched in there with five teams. Five out of the six teams were within two or three games of the lead at that time -- I think it was September 9th. That was the first pennant race we'd ever been in with Morgan, Wynn and the young guys and [we were] getting a little older and a little better. I think it was just a sense of being stunned when we lost that game because we had the Braves shut out for 12 and scored two runs in the top of the 13th. Then Fred Gladding came in and they got three runs off him and beat us. From that point on, the Braves won practically every game they played and we lost practically every game we played. I think we finished about 12 games out, so that was certainly a pivotal game -- having a no-hitter and a shutout and then losing the no-hitter and the shutout and the game. It was probably one of the toughest games that I can recall in my career.

RK: In Jim Bouton's book, "Ball Four", he raves about your talent and nerves of steel while immortalizing the team's run for the NL West pennant in 1969. How did you and the other players react when his book was published?

LD: I would say that most of the guys liked Bouton. Most of them didn't really feel threatened by his taking notes. I think privately most of them would say they enjoyed reading the book even though some of them would say that he shouldn't have said some of things he said because it was a private business behind clubhouse doors, or behind the scenes, and shouldn't have come out. I think that mostly they liked it and they liked him. He was a nice guy.

RK: How long has it been since you've caught yourself humming "It makes one proud to be an Astro"?

LD: Gosh, I can't remember. Maybe just recently sometime within the last month. It doesn't come up too often, maybe every several years, but I think I did think about it recently.

RK: Jim Bouton and Joe Morgan give conflicting opinions about the clubhouse environment under manager Harry Walker. How did you feel about how he treated the players?

LD: I don't know about Harry and how he treated the players other than he irritated a lot of people by talking so much. That was his personality and he helped a lot of players. He helped Matty Alou and [then] he won some batting titles. He helped Denis Menke become a better hitter. But his way of hitting wasn't the way for everyone and some of the guys were not (laughs) receptive to his suggestions about hitting. I think there was some tension and I think it was probably a little overblown. It wasn't the best situation in the world, but I've been on teams where the atmosphere was far worse.

RK: During your no-hitter against the Expos in 1976, at what point did you realize that you might have a special game going? How did the atmosphere in the dugout change as the game progressed?

LD: I told them after the game that I knew after the first inning because, during that time, it seemed like I was never getting through the first inning without giving up a hit. The atmosphere changed somewhere around the sixth or seventh inning. I had been throwing sinkers and sliders and changeups and curveballs. I'd mix it up, move it around, and not try to strike people out but just keep them off-balance. It was sort of a "Muhammed Ali" type of approach and then I kind of went to the "Joe Frazier" [in] 7, 8, 9. Especially in the 8th and 9th, I don't think I threw anything but fastballs. I was throwing a four-seam "riding" type of fastball that was sailing so the guys I faced were either striking out or popping up -- it seemed like. Since I'd lost the no-hitter in Atlanta on an infield hit, I decided that if I was going to lose this one, it was going to be in the air -- there aren't any bad bounces up there -- especially in the dome.

I think in the seventh inning the atmosphere started to change. I remember that I was sitting down close to the front of the bench and it seemed like everyone moved to the other end. After the eighth inning, when I came in, I walked across in front of the other players and said, "Hey, the third time's the charm. Don't worry about it. I'm gonna make it." Anyway, I did and it was the individual highlight of my career and I think really ironic in the sense that in the first 6-7 innings, I pitched, and the last couple, I just went into a closing kick with fastballs. It's a very memorable game.

RK: After the 1976 season, you were traded along with Jerry DaVanon to the St. Louis Cardinals for Joe Ferguson. How surprising was this trade and did you have difficulty adjusting to the idea that you were now a Cardinal?

LD: I wasn't surprised because the Astros wanted to go with their young pitchers. I had something in my contract about places I would or wouldn't go. St. Louis was one that I would go and I did go and they were just really great. I hurt my arm right away. It was already hurt from the year before and then I broke my leg. I never did much for them but they really were a classy organization back then -- and probably still now.

RK: Can you describe the arm injury that ended your career in 1977? Would it have been correctable with today's surgical techniques?

LD: The arm injury probably could have been correctable, but it probably would have been a long rehab. I think what I did was stretch the ligaments in my shoulder until the ball came out of the socket like a dislocation. I got to where, when it came loose like that, I could reach my arm up, twist it a little bit, and it would pop back in. I couldn't pitch with that and so that's why I didn't pitch the last month of '76. In '77 I was with the Cardinals, broke my leg in Spring Training, and never did much for them. My arm never really got better and that was it. Age 30. I sort of regret, at this point, that I didn't shut it down a few times earlier in my career instead of pitching with a sore arm. But back then, most everybody pitched with a sore arm. If it was your turn in the rotation, you just went out there.

RK: You played several years with J.R. Richard. What do you think of the campaign to have #50 retired in honor of J.R.? Do you think he deserves an honor like this?

LD: I think J.R. probably should have his number retired. Not because I think that he accomplished enough, but simply because we've already retired some numbers and -- I'm not sure any numbers should be retired from this organization yet. But if you were going to start from scratch, you'd probably start with Jose Cruz and J.R. They spent the largest part of their career in Houston and accomplished some really great things. I don't know about the rest of them. Nolan (laughs) - Cooperstown is probably enough for him. Since he was here only for part of his career, though it was a significant amount, I would say that he wasn' t necessarily just an Astro. J.R. Richard was and Jose Cruz was. If it were me, they'd probably be the only two guys. Of course, I think you should almost have to be Hall of Fame material to get your number retired. I guess with a team that just started up in the Sixties, you want to get a couple of people on that list. Those are the ones that I think deserve it.

RK: How difficult was it to make the transition into the broadcasting booth?

LD: The broadcast booth transition was not that difficult. I had taken a lot of English classes and several Speech classes in colleges. Plus, I'd been on the Caravans, talking to fans and making speeches. The only thing that's a little difficult when you first start out in broadcasting is that each piece of action, each pitch, needs to be described, especially on the radio, so that you have the time between pitches, if you are going to make some colorful or analytical comment. It takes a little while to anticipate how much time you're going to have to talk because of the erratic nature of the game with the foul balls, the ball off down the line where the right fielder has to go all the way out to the corner to get it. You begin to see where the opportunities to speak are. Sometimes that's a lot with a pitcher that works slow. Sometimes it's not much with a pitcher that works fast. The intervals of time and getting used to that in terms of timing the broadcast so that it has a pleasant sound to it -- I think that was probably the thing that took me a couple of years.

RK: What was it like working in the booth with "The Voice of the Astros", Gene Elston? How do you feel about the campaign to award him the Ford C. Frick award in 2002?

LD: Yeah, I really enjoyed working with Gene. Gene didn't really like to work with a color announcer on the radio. He felt, like Vin Scully feels, that radio should be a one-man show. But on television I enjoyed working with him a lot. I think he was really (laughs) -- he was fired by Dick Wagner and I don't think Gene should have ever been fired. I think he should have been with the Astros until he wanted to retire, so that wasn't a very good memory for me. I felt that it was mishandled and not a classy thing, or even a smart thing, for the team to do. I don't know what you have to do to get the Ford Frick, but Gene was good for a long time.

RK: When you were unexpectedly given a chance to come out of the broadcast booth and manage the team, what made you decide to make such a leap? What kind of learning pains did you go through in your first year as manager?

LD: The first year as a manager it was, more than anything, learning the culture in the clubhouse. Again, like the timing in the broadcast booth, to get some sense of your part and your role in the season. So I think, at first, I just sort of stood back and let things happen. I think when you have a bench coach to bounce your ideas off of and get their take on things, strategy-wise it wasn't as difficult. It was just getting to know the people and getting some credibility and making the kind of decisions on the field and off the field that would help you to get the confidence of the players.

RK: How familiar are you with sabermetric works like "The Inside Game of Baseball" and how have they affected your managing strategy?

LD: I am somewhat familiar with "The Inside Game of Baseball". I read that book and the statistics methods weren't clear enough for me to understand. I think about things like on-base and slugging when I manage, so I think the statistical analysis that I did from broadcasting probably helped me a little bit when I came downstairs.

RK: In June, 1999, you suffered a grand mal seizure that nearly took your life and resulted in an outpouring of support from fans. How has that event changed your outlook on life and your place in the Houston community?

LD: The seizure hasn't changed my outlook that much because I think I've felt like I had my priorities straight before that happened. I don't remember it happening because it just happened suddenly and then, almost miraculously, I awoke after the surgery and felt fine. But there were two or three days there that were kind of a blur. After it was over and I was just resting for a few days, all the flowers and the cards and just all the support -- looking at the newspapers on the front page. It was an odd way to be honored, so to speak, but it was an honor to have people support me that way.

RK: How heavily do the playoff disappointments in 97, 98, and 99 weigh on your mind and those of the players?

LD: The playoff losses don't weigh on my mind a bit right now because the season we had in 2000, as far as I'm concerned, just sort of slammed the door on that. But I feel like we have a fresh start and mentality this year and a chance to get in the playoffs and, if we do, a chance to move on -- which we haven't done. So I don't think of those playoff series very much.

RK: In 2000, the team experienced a "train wreck" season. With losing comes scapegoating as the armchair managers come out in droves. How hard was it to deal with this "fall from grace", from fan favorite to scapegoat?

LD: It was kind of hard to deal with the "fall from grace", as you call it. I think I internalized most of it, tried to keep a positive outward image, tried to take it one day at a time, and to ignore what was written and what was spoken. But it was hard because even if I didn't hear something, somebody would tell me. I don't how to explain it other than that it seemed like, after the season was over, for at least another month, if not more, I was feeling uneasy and just sort of an odd, tired and listless feeling for a pretty good while.

RK: How do you respond to criticisms that your managerial style is too "laid-back"?

LD: I'd say that, if you like somebody that runs around and yells at umpires all the time, you've got the wrong guy. People that like that aren't going to like me.

RK: How comfortable are you with the team's change in emphasis from pitching & defense to all-out offense?

LD: Well, I'm been trying to change the emphasis to pitching and defense throughout the time that I've been here because I've felt like our offense is sufficient. Where we were weak was in the pitching and fielding areas, and I think we have gotten better in those areas this year. We've got some nice, young players that probably will get even better still.

RK: As a manager, do you still have the "nerves of steel" from your playing days? When do you think it is appropriate to complain about a bad umpiring call?

LD: I don't know about "nerves of steel". I've tried to remain positive and I've tried to make timely decisions and most of the time I can do that without feeling too much tension. But sometimes I do and I can't really explain it. Sometimes it's a close game and I feel tension, and sometimes it's the same type of game and I don't. I probably don't have "nerves of steel" every time but I try not to look like I'm in a panic, in a mad rush to do things, or yelling for players to come up and down with bats for pinch-hitting, or pitchers up and down in the bullpen. I try to remain calm and make the moves in a timely manner but not in a desperate manner.

RK: Have you received any personal "thank you's" from other announcers that recently moved into managerial positions?

LD: (laughs) I have received no "thank you's" from the other announcer managers. They're probably pretty occupied as it is.

RK: Do you have any plans to write a book about your career in baseball?

LD: Yeah, I have some tentative plans to write a book about my career. I kept a journal each day of the 1997 season, so I have that as a foundation. I could use that, put some stuff ahead of it and behind it and maybe do a more autobiographical thing. Or, I could just possibly get someone to publish that journal.

RK: Mr. Dierker, I want to thank you for your candor and your generosity with your time.

LD: It took a little time, but it wasn't so bad. Good luck, Ray.