The telephone on his desk issues one shrill ring, and Larry Dierker puts a hand atop the receiver, poised to pick up. But the infernal instrument doesn't ring again, as if it had been healed by the laying on of hands. "There are tremendous perks in this job that make you feel important," says Dierker, the Houston Astros' rookie manager, whose calls are intercepted by a secretarial cutoff man. "Everybody treats you differently, from complete strangers to friends and neighbors."
Take the cigars arrayed on his desk. "Quite frequently, when I'm at a social function, a stranger will walk up and just hand me a cigar," says Dierker, who torches them (cigars, not strangers) in his office after games. As a stogie smolders, a sophisticated machine called a Duracraft Ionizer—it resembles a humidifier—sucks away the secondhand smoke. "I don't know where that thing came from," says Dierker, marveling. "Someone just brought it in here one day. But it works."
Yes, the very air he breathes has been sweeter since Dierker took over the Astros, who moved into first place in the National League Central on July 18 and never left, clinching the division title over the Pittsburgh Pirates last Thursday. Though he spent 13 years with Houston (and one with the St. Louis Cardinals) as a starting pitcher and the last 18 as an Astros broadcaster, the 51-year-old Dierker can scarcely believe the benefits that accrue to a big league skipper. "My wife has enjoyed being the manager's wife," he says. "Our 12-year-old, Ryan, he's become a big shot."
"Larry is totally unpretentious," says Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker, who hired Dierker as the Astros' skipper last October, at which time he had a total of zero years' managerial experience at any level. "Big-money, fast-lane lifestyles permeate our sport, but Larry is the guy next door."
He really is the guy next door, across the backyard fence, with the barbecue tongs and the beer glass and the Hawaiian shirt, icons of his '50s upbringing in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. "The Valley was just being built up after the war," Dierker says, "and the war babies were growing up there, and it was such a wonderful place, not the smoggy, super-urban area it is today. Where we lived there were some farms, and the weather was nice, and we'd go to the beach and play Little League. I came from a very solid family: good mother and father, no marital troubles, a brother and sister. It was a Leave It to Beaver-like life."
Beaver Cleaver became Oscar Madison. As an Astros broadcaster Dierker wore loud shirts and smoked cigars and wrote a weekly baseball column for the Houston Chronicle, stewing whenever his prose was hog-butchered by editors. He reads himself to sleep every night—"I read for content and for good writing," he says—having buzzed most recently through Pat Conroy's Beach Music and John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
"He was always reading," Houston second baseman Craig Biggio says of the Dierker he would see in hotel lobbies on road trips. "He was always trying to educate himself."
Reading, to most people in baseball, is the Double A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. So the bookish Dierker was always thought of as "off-the-wall," in the words of first baseman Jeff Bagwell, who says he was "floored" by Dierker's hiring last October. "I thought it had to be a misprint," concurs Houston righthander Darryl Kile, who learned of Dierker's hiring from a TV sports ticker. "The only Larry I could think of who was interested in managing was Larry Bowa. I thought they'd hired Larry Bowa."
But Dierker—who majored in English at the University of Houston, which he attended in his off-seasons as a player—is as much baseball lifer as he is bookworm. Listen to him speak about literature, and he periodically leans to his right and spits a stream of tobacco juice. The effect is unsettling, as if an unseen dental hygienist keeps telling him, "You may rinse now."
So Dierker will say, "I'm reading a historical novel called Mask of Apollo, about an actor in Greece at the time of the great playwrights [spit!]. He acts in various plays [splat!], there's a change of leadership in Syracuse [spit!], Hippolytus is in there [hock!], and so is Plato [gob!]."