It's one of those unplanned Friday nights, when a place to drink a beer and watch the 'Stros sounds like a plan to my girlfriend and me. Not exactly "date night," more like "what-the-hell-are-we-gonna-do-now-that-we're-off-work night." We start off at the West Alabama Icehouse (1919 West Alabama) but find it inhumanely hot and crowded. So we drive a couple of blocks west and hit Roeder's Pub (3116 South Shepherd), where we know cool air, cold beer and plasma screens await.
Things remain uneventful through six or seven innings (save for the Astros pulling ahead 7-2 in the main event), but little do we realize this is merely the calm before the Celebrity Encounter. A group of four enters, one of them noticeably a six-foot-four ex-Colt .45, ex-Astro, ex-Astros broadcaster, ex-Astros four-time-first-place-divisional-winning Hawaiian-fleece-donning manager.
"That's Larry-Fucking-Dierker!" I shout discreetly to my girlfriend.
"Whooooooooooooooooo?!" I whisper.
I then watch as whispers and shouts and pointed fingers and faces of incredulity and recognition cascade across the bar of about 20 patrons, mostly regulars, mostly huge Astros fans. Yes, Larry-Fucking-Dierker has entered the building where we are all watching the Astros game.
I, for one, am greatly unnerved. I mean, come on! Time out! This is one of those reality-wrecking moments when what you thought you were doing with your casual evening (watching a one-game-below-parity Astros team try to grind out a mid-season win in a neighborhood sports bar) suddenly is trumped by someone else's casual evening out -- merely because that "someone else" happens to be one of your childhood baseball heroes. Somehow trying to focus on the game at hand while wearing an Astros T-shirt and ignoring the presence of the man ten feet to my left -- who personifies for me the entire Astros franchise more than anyone else in the team's history (including Biggio) -- seems like a mad undertaking.
Because, among other things, now I've got a story I'm going to have to tell all my co-workers and friends for years to come, and in order to tell and retell this story properly, equipped with a battery of anecdotes, hyperbolic assertions, lies, etc., some action on my part is going to be required so that I can at least honestly say I did meet the guy.
"Who?" I revisit. "Larry Dierker. The best Astros manager, ever, by any objective measure, there ever was (e.g., winning the pennant!). An original member of the Astros, er, Colt .45's, and longtime Astros TV broadcaster whose baseball erudition borders on madness. He personifies the Astros baseball franchise more than any other individual, Biggio included," I patiently explain to my not-to-be-patronized girlfriend.
"Are you going to ask for his autograph?" she naively queries.
"Autograph? Autographs are for kids. It's unseemly for grown men to ask other grown men for autographs."
"Let's go over there and play darts where they're playing," she suggests. True: Some members of his party are playing darts, but not the man himself.
"Out of the question. I'm not going to play darts in front of Larry Dierker. I'll throw a wild one and miss the board and he'll lose all respect for me."
"Are you going to go over and say hello?"
"Yes. After I have another beer. And maybe another one."
I watch as each member of the crowd of mostly regulars, mostly huge Astros fans, drops by Larry's table one at a time and ask eagerly and politely for an autograph. They make it seem so natural and normal. Not me. I can't do it.
But I still know I have to say something before I leave, just to do it, and because I want to let him know some of the thoughts I've had about baseball and the Astros during the past 30 years. I want to hear firsthand what he really thinks about the utility value of the bunt and the hit and run, and what it's like managing a professional team. You see, to me, the idea of getting to talk one-on-one with Larry Dierker about baseball is the equivalent of getting to talk one-on-one with Einstein about physics, the difference being that I might understand what Dierker is saying.
But it isn't just this notion that causes me to need another beer before walking over. It has much more to do with the fact that the first Major League Baseball game I went to was in the Astrodome in 1976 when I was six, a game against the Padres. The Astros were tied with the Padres for third place, and the Astros prevailed 3-1. The first 20,000 fans in the stadium got souvenir signed pictures of Larry Dierker commemorating his recent no-hitter, which I later kept in a safe place, like a good Astros fan would, until I learned, at the age of seven, that Larry Dierker had been traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for the '77 season -- at which point I grabbed the souvenir picture, ripped it to shreds and ceremoniously tossed it into the trash can in the corner of my room. With tears in my eyes, the cruel reality and indifference of the world of baseball heroes suddenly became clear to me -- or something. Anyway, I remember that it was a matter of utmost seriousness.
I told my girlfriend this story quickly, in hushed tones, and said that I had, from time to time, fantasized about running into Larry Dierker somewhere and telling him how much his being traded to the Cardinals had devastated me at the age of seven. And although telling the story out loud in a crowded bar suddenly sounded to my ears both ridiculous and maudlin, I still felt I should tell him the story. You know, what the fuck.
So I finally walked over to Larry Dierker's table and said, "Larry, the first Major League Baseball game I went to was in 1977 after you threw your no-hitter and they were handing out commemorative autographed pictures of youÉ"
"That was 1976," he corrected.
Perhaps a bit uncomfortable with my sentimental journey, he countered with how torn he was at the UT-USC championship game, because he had been such a USC fan as a child but was now a big Texas football fan. Then he expressed his distress over the Texans' not drafting either Reggie Bush or Vince Young, while acknowledging he didn't understand football defense as well as he understood baseball defense.
And then he demonstrated just how well: Need to lower staff ERA? Get a steadier catcher and a slick-fielding shortstop, and last year's rag-arms will suddenly become this year's All-Star candidates. And as for the bunt, Dierker says it's pretty much useless in this juiced-up era. "Before Babe Ruth, your top home-run hitter in the league had something like ten home runs, so they had to develop methods for producing runs when runs were scarce," he explains. "Now, bunting doesn't make any sense."
"You were ahead of the curve in that sort of management," I add, not exactly kissing ass. "Maybe everyone thinks that way now, but you were one of the first to manage like that." See, I just want to hear him acknowledge the truth of it.
"Yes, I was ahead of the curve on that," he obliges me.
"You were a big proponent of the hit and run," I continue, leading the witness.
"No, I'm not," he says, and lumps it in with the bunt as an antiquated play. "Everyone thought I was, but I wasn't. You shouldn't take the bat out of the hitter's hands if he has a good pitch to hit. So when I stole bases, I always told hitters to swing if they got a good pitch. It wasn't the hit and run. People thought it was."
This entire experience is too good to be true, of course. I'm living out Fantasy Manager Baseball Camp in my neighborhood sports bar -- so I know deep down I'm sure to lose my footing at some point and make a fool of myself. I tend to do that, anyway. While Larry's talking, I keep ordering another Guinness and another Guinness, and he slowly sips at his beer. Perhaps I'm becoming a bit too comfortable with my new buddy Larry, even after he's stopped talking and sits back down with his foursome at the table. About ten minutes after Larry seems to have exhausted himself of conversation with me, I go back in for more (my girlfriend tells me my speech was slurred at this point).
"Hey, Larry," I shout from the next table. "Do you think Clemens coming back is going to cause the rest of the team to play better?"
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"Yeah, I think it will have an effect," he says and turns back to his cohorts. Shortly after that, he and his mates stand up and walk out. He doesn't say good-bye to me or anything. I don't think he's trying to be rude. I' m guessing he's just ready to leave.
The next Monday at work I give a co-worker a synopsis of my encounter with the Dierk.
"Did you ask for an autograph?" he asks.