Dierker performs surgery while making history

Larry Dierker is part of Houston Astros history. During his 12-year career (1964 to 1976), he became the team’s winningest living pitcher (139-123, 3.31) now that Joe Niekro has passed. But the two-time All-Star never thought that much about history until he started witnessing some of the oddball events of baseball. He detailed some of these and his acquired taste for the pastime’s history during the Winter Meeting of the Rogers Hornsby Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research on Jan. 17, 2009, at Texas State University.


In 1992, during a trip to Philadelphia, Mickey Morandini was involved in an unassisted triple play in the sixth inning. Dierker was amazed . . . and curious. A quick check into history revealed that Neal Ball first turned the feat for the Cleveland Indians in 1909; Bill Wambsganss, also of the Indians, did it in 1920.  Ron Hansen did it for the Senators.


“I looked up all of them,” Dierker said. “I was on the air and was able to name all of them. It’s the most rare thing in baseball. I credit SABR for producing publications that had such stories.”


Fifteen such plays have dotted the Major League Baseball landscape, the most recent being eight months after Dierker made his appearance before the Hornsby SABR chapter, when former Astro and current Phillies utility player Eric Bruntlett caught a line drive in the ninth inning, touched second and tagged the runner coming from first.


Dierker’s subsequent searches took him to the personal recollections recorded in “Glory of Their Times.” The taped personal recollections gave him “a sense of perspective and heightened my sense of aesthetic value” of baseball, he said. “I’ve thought how baseball differs from other sports we follow in the United States. All of the great sports books have been about baseball and golf. Why is that? A large part of it is because of the playing field. Avid golfers go around and study courses. Baseball people want to see the ballparks, with different outfield configurations. Soldier Field may be great panorama, but the field is the field.”


Beyond the field, there are the statistics, the numbers and the ability to compare players against another and the probability in different situations. In a nutshell, such logic-inducing minutia is meaningless. “One thing left out of managerial thinking is whether a batter has a tendency to draw walks or if he won’t take a walk,” Dierker said. “(Steve) Garvey hit me very well, but never would walk. I would have never thrown him a strike. Knowing that helped the pitchers when I managed. It would have helped me.


“Another thing I got from SABR people concerns the probability of scoring runs, although I prefer to consider the chances of something happening. People say you play the percentages, and I said, ‘Well, tell me the percentages of something happening’ and they couldn’t answer that. I think you have to play the chances. Statistics show that the team that scores first would win 70 percent of the time or something like that. (Jim) Leyland had Jay Bell hitting second, Bonds hitting first, Van Slyke third, Bonilla fourth. Bell was going to get Bonds over to second 95 percent of the time. A lot of stuff I got from SABR was helpful to me in a general sense, but in the heat of managing, with emotions running there’s an intangible way of looking at the game.”


Dierker remembered Derek Bell wanting to hit second, after Biggio and in front of Bagwell, rather than fifth. "Well, who doesn’t" want to bat there? Dierker asked, getting some laughs from the audience. Batting second, Bell told him, would allow him to see more fastballs. Bell’s manager penciled him second on the lineup card and, sure enough, he homered. Dierker left him in the second spot the rest of the year. “You don’t do everything based on everything you know, particularly when you win,” he said. He also learned that more than 50 percent of the time teams that win games score more runs in one inning than the other team. “I decided that I’m playing for the big inning,” he said. “So from an emotional team concept, the statistical move isn’t as important as the psychological move.”


Dierker was asked about the concept of a clutch hitter, whether there was such a thing. He said that although Bill James had studied the concept, the idea is overrated from the fans’ and announcers’ points of view. “The guys I thought were clutch hitters weren’t just the big hitters,” he said. “Jose Cruz hit better from the seventh inning on with a player in scoring position. The reason is because he had a knack for putting the ball in play. Same for Ichiro (Suzuki) and (Pete) Rose. They put the ball in play and seldom strike out. If you put the ball in play, then everything else is luck.


“I’d rather face (Johnny) Bench or (Tony) Perez than, say, Dan Driessen because I could strike the other guys out or get him to pop out. The guy I feared the most was the guy who was hard to strike out.”


Dierker discussed striking out Willie Mays and giving up a 450-foot blast to him. He was asked his thoughts about streaks and slumps and he said “everyone has them” and that “the guys who go to Cooperstown are the ones who have the longest streaks and the shortest slumps.”


Now living in Houston, Dierker left the field as a manager following a seizure in 1999 during the eighth inning of a game in the Astrodome against the San Diego Padres. Subsequently, he wrote “This Ain’t Brain Surgery: How to win the Pennant Without Losing Your Mind.” All that he learned on the field, off the field and in the history books is now going into a musical. At the time he was just waiting for the music. Through it all, two main pieces of knowledge surfaced. “From an emotional team concept, the statistical move isn’t as important as the psychological move,” he said. “And it’s easier to manage a game from the broadcast booth.”


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