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SI FOR KIDS
What you have in Houston is the near-perfect execution of your basic one-big-happy-family concept, and it seems to be working pretty darn well. Last year Houston won the National League Central before losing three straight to the Braves in the Division Series. This year the Astros are aiming even higher, looking to win their division, and more. They'd love to face the Braves again (though perhaps not until the League Championship Series), maybe win a game or two this time before settling in for the winter. Maybe even win more than that.
Of course, even in the happiest of families, not everybody feels chipper all the time. Jeff Bagwellthe All-Star first baseman who hit .286 with 43 home runs and 135 RBIs last year as the only pure power hitter in the lineupwas kind of grumpy in the off-season. The story is that he got upset at McLane and Hunsicker for not re-signing his bud, righthander Darryl Kile, Houston's ace last year. Bagwell claims Hunsicker didn't make the pitcher feel wanted enough, first by offering $4 million less than the Rockies (who signed Kile to a three-year, $24 million contract) and then by lying about how much he had offered. The Astros deny this.
As for Dierker, his response to the Kile situation is revealing as to the depth of his mellowness.
SI: Were you mad at your bosses for not re-signing Kile?
SI: How come?
Dierker (drawling) : 'Cause I look at it as an either-or. Either we're going to sign Kile, or we're going to get some players to replace him. We didn't sign him, but we got Moises Alou, Dave Clark, Jack Howell and Carl Everett instead. I don't trust pitchers to stay the same anyhow. Position players, yes. Pitchers, no.
A note on the drawl: Dierker, who grew up in Los Angeles, has lived in Houston for 34 years, and his voice reflects a blend of the two cultures. He sounds unworried, laconic, contentand he is. What's the worst thing that's going to happen? His club is going to lose a game? He's going to lose his job? No big whoop. He can always go back to the broadcast booth, where he spent 18 years calling Astros games before being asked to manage the team in October 1996. Dierker is the opposite of his best all-around player, second baseman Craig Biggio, who is intense, always studying, always planning. The two get along famously.
Back to Kile. Houston will miss him. Not just because he went 19-7, with a 2.57 ERA, but also because he pitched 255 2/3 innings. That's a whole lot of frames to replace, and the Astros don't have the arms to do it. Their rotation is a mess. It's Shane Reynolds, a control pitcher coming back from knee surgery, followed by Mike Hampton, a 25-year-old southpaw, followed by ... as they say, lots of question marks. The Astrodome is a hurler's haven, and when the Astros have won, they've won with pitching. If they win this year, it will be with their bats: Biggio, Bagwell, Derek Bell, along with Alou.
This year we'll find out if the manager can get his team to play Dierkball full time. Last year we got a glimpse. Here's his spiel on how the game is played.
First rule: There are no rules. Anybody who wants to try to steal a base, go ahead, knock yourself out. Any pitcher who wants to bat for himself and stay in the game, grab yourself a piece of wood and show us what all you can do. I'd love to get another inning out of you. You know what you guys consider a big lead? Take two more giant steps. That is a lead. Now, son, why would you want to bunt the runner over when you could swing away, maybe hit yourself one of those doubles you hit so often in Double A, and then we'd have second and third, no outs? Remember, fellas, we're playing a game here.
Dierkball. It could catch on.
by Mark Bechtel
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