Bagwell, for instance. Dierker stunned him by leaving him out of the starting lineup on the sixth day of the season, even though Bagwell is in third place, behind Cal Ripken Jr. and Biggio, on the active consecutive-games-played list. "I thought that was unusual," euphemizes Bagwell, "resting a guy on the sixth day." (He did appear in the eighth inning as a pinch hitter to keep his streak intact; at season's end it had reached 352.)
Dierker literally stands apart from his fellow managers. He is even reluctant to shoot the breeze with them around the batting cage. "I'm a rookie," he says. "I don't feel it's my place to hobnob with guys who have done this for a while. I just don't think it's appropriate, anymore than it was appropriate for me to rub elbows with Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax as a young pitcher."
Such ruminations are no doubt in Dierker's journal—an epic, Conroyesque account of this season that now numbers some 400 double-spaced pages. Dierker writes for one hour each night (or the following morning) on his laptop computer. "I'm keeping a journal because..." he pauses, lost somewhere in the corridors of his brain. "Well, because I'm 50 years old, and managing this team may be the last important thing that I do in my life.
"When you're young and playing, you never think of keeping a record of things. But I've done a lot of reading since then. Now I understand that when Captain Cook made a voyage, he kept track of where he had been and what was going on because he thought he was doing something important."
And the Astros are, in their own small way, doing something important in south Texas. "It seems to me that what we're doing is critical to the city," says Dierker. "When I took this job, I knew it was an honor and a privilege. But it's also a responsibility. So many people in Houston love baseball, and we can get them something that they've never had before, and that I've never had, and that Bagwell has never had, and [former Astros star turned first base coach] Jose Cruz has never had...."
That is a World Series victory. God knows, Houstonians will be satisfied with nothing less. "Houston is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately city," says Bagwell. "We understand that. A lady said to me at a forum last year, 'Give us a winner, and we'll come out and watch you.' We were 2½ games up, on the first of September, when she said that. The Rockets had to win two world championships before they sold the place out, and that's only 16,000 people. So we know our work is cut out."
Of course, the Astros' middling attendance figures—Houston ranked 15th among baseball's 28 teams with an average crowd of 25,096 this year—do not account for every fan. Take the retiree who drove 45 minutes into Houston one evening not too long ago and clutched a carton of giveaway cookies in his right hand. It was his first trip to the Astrodome all season, but he said he had watched another 80 Houston games on TV. "I like this club," drawled the balding gentleman, who gave his name as Nolan Ryan. "I think Larry's relaxed attitude has had a settling effect on the team."
Relaxed? The Astrodome grounds crew drags the infield in Hawaiian shirts. Settled? The Astros appear so settled it's downright unsettling. You may recall that Captain Cook was eventually murdered in the Sandwich Islands. Whereas when we last saw the Houston skipper, he was murdering a postgame sandwich. After which he sparked another victory cigar and stubbed it out in a white-enamel ashtray shaped like the state of Texas.
For three consecutive seasons the Astros were close but no cigar. Say what you will about Dierker, he has no shortage of stogies.