By Stephen Cannella
As soon as the Braves swept the Astros out of the National League Division Series, talk began in the Houston clubhouse about manager Larry Dierker. This season Dierker became the first skipper to win four division titles in his first five years, and the Astros' 93 wins tied them with the Cardinals for the most in the league. Dierker's .553 career winning percentage is the best in franchise history. So the postgame speculation centered on how long a contract extension he'd get, right? Not exactly. "Whatever happens," second baseman Craig Biggio said that day, "it's not going to be fair."
Fair? No. But it was hardly surprising when Dierker lost his job last week. (Though technically he resigned, he clearly got a firm shove from the front office.) With wild cards and new divisional alignments allowing twice as many teams to make the postseason as a decade ago, getting there is no longer enough. Winning a round is a must, especially when, like Dierker, you managed what many observers considered the most talented team in the National League this season. Dierker didn't come close to doing that. The Astros were 2-12 in the playoffs under him.
Dierker's case illustrates another plight of the modern manager: Success on the field means nothing without support in the clubhouse. Casey Stengel said the key to managing was keeping the 10 players who hated you away from the rest of the club, but that rule no longer applies. These days the ones who hate you win out every time. Quirky and iconoclastic, Dierker infuriated many Astros with his media candor (including criticizing players) and his unconventional strategic moves (as when he broke his seasonlong pattern and brought in Mike Jackson instead of Octavio Dotel against Atlanta late in Game 1). It was no secret around league batting cages that the Astros were less than fond of their manager -- most people assumed he'd be axed after last season, when Houston finished fourth in its division -- and last week Dierker acknowledged he had lost his team. "I wasn't able to get the players to do some of the things I wanted them to do," he said. "Mostly because they said, 'I don't think that's the right thing to do, and I'm not going to do it.' They didn't say it to my face, but that's the way they acted."
Of course, it's the players' actions on the field that have led to the Astros' futility, and that's the trap for a skipper these days: You're at the mercy of your players. As Dierker said at his farewell press conference, "I think fans believe the manager has more power than he really does."
Issue date: October 29, 2001
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