How many managers can adeptly discuss both Hippolytus (who was killed by Poseidon) and Hipolito (Pena, who often got killed while pitching relief for the Pirates)? How many skippers, in describing someone with "good stuff," are referring to a research assistant at the Library of Congress?
Dierker regularly dials the library in Washington, where a guy named Dave Kelly fields his esoteric baseball queries. Dierker recently sought an account of Fred Toney's 18-inning no-hitter for Lexington against Winchester in the Bluegrass League in 1909. "Dave Kelly sent me copies of articles from both the Lexington paper and the Winchester paper," says Dierker. "Both papers! In 1909! That's how much good stuff they have in the Library of Congress."
Casey Stengel was the Ol' Perfesser. Dierker is the Absentminded Perfesser. Twice this season he planned a double switch and then forgot to make it in the heat of the game. "Now when I think of making a move," he says, "I tell a coach so he can remind me to do it."
Take a stroll through the hedge maze of his mind and you never know what's around the corner. His starting pitchers were second in the National League in innings pitched this season, and if you ask Dierker why, he traces his disdain for middle relief to baseball's Middle Ages. "Conventional managing theory in my playing days was to let the pitcher pitch until the other team tied the game or went ahead," he says. "Then along came some pretty good closers, and the thinking was to replace the starter before he lost the lead. Now the theory is, you replace the starter while he has the lead and before you get to the closer. That has been the trend, but there have been a lot of trends in baseball.
"In the dead-ball days, for example, teams stole an awful lot of bases," continues Dierker, at his desk, reading glasses resting atop a copy of baseball's rule book. "When guys started hitting a lot of home runs in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s, basestealing went down. Then [Maury] Wills and [Lou] Brock and a few fast guys started stealing bases again in the '60s. The pitching got so good in the late '60s and early '70s that a lot more guys started stealing, and by the '80s everybody was running. You could trace that all the way back to the dead-ball era, offensive strategy going through cycles. Well, I feel the same can be said for pitching. I think we're going back to the future."
These retro 'Stros—the starting pitchers, anyway—are happy to go there with Dierker. "Ask any starter," says Kile, who finished the regular season with a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA and was second in the league in innings pitched. "He doesn't ever want to come out of the game."
As for the offense, Dierker hoped to run a speedy, run-manufacturing sweatshop in Houston. But he hasn't been quite able to sell the Astros on his brand of small ball. "It has been difficult to impose my will on the offense," says Dierker. "For me to talk to Biggio and Bagwell and [Luis] Gonzalez about hitting, baserunning, bunting and hit-and-run philosophy, I have to gain their respect for my knowledge of those things. And that takes time. It has taken more time than I hoped it would."
Perhaps that's because for the last five years Bagwell and Biggio have been two of the best hitters in the National League. Bagwell was the league's MVP in 1994 and finished this season ranked among the top five in the league in home runs (43), RBIs (135), walks (127), total bases (335), slugging percentage (.592) and on-base percentage (.425). In addition to batting .309 with 22 homers and 81 RBIs, leadoff hitter Biggio led the league in runs (146), was fifth in hits (191) and was fourth in stolen bases (47).
"He has the respect of the guys," Biggio demurs. "When he was a broadcaster, we'd sit around and have a few sodas and talk about pitching and hitting, and he knows the game."
Even so, "I have been caught by surprise at times," Dierker concedes. He still cannot believe, for instance, that Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox had the stainless-steel cojones to squeeze bunt twice—on consecutive pitches—with the bases loaded in a game the Braves won 3-1. "I have seen very few squeeze plays with the bases loaded in my career," says Dierker, who has witnessed nearly every game the Astros have played in their 36 seasons in the major leagues. "But we've caught some people by surprise, too."