Larry Dierker, an English major at —the University of Houston who says he favors Shakespeare, Homer, Aeschylus and "all that stuff," first heard of the accusation made by Dave Marshall, an outfielder for the New York Mets, while reading a contemporary author, Jim Bouton.
"That tees me off," said the young classicist, looking up from his book. "Why should I throw at him?"—the implication being that Marshall is not a victim worthy of the crime.
These, in reverse, were pretty much the sentiments expressed by Marshall himself earlier on the Kilter's Korner television program. Why should Dierker throw at him? In the game just completed he was forced to dodge a third-inning fastball, and he was about the only Met who had not yet creamed Dierker's pitching. Marshall recovered three innings later and whacked a grand-slam homer off Dierker's immediate successor, George Culver. He told Ralph Kiner he was glad three of those runs were charged to Dierker.
"I didn't throw at him," said Dierker. "It irritates me when they can't see that sometimes you miss on an inside pitch. If I had the kind of control he seems to think I've got, he'd never get a hit off me."
Normally Larry Dierker's control is impeccable and his temper controllable, but this was his first loss of the season after five consecutive wins for the Houston Astros, and he was in no mood to suffer petty accusations. Besides, his arm—sore all season despite his record—was bothering him. "My elbow just stiffens up on me so that I can't throw good breaking pitches," he said.
Even when angry, Dierker's appearance is mild. He has a face reminiscent of Claude Jarman Jr. in The Yearling—heart-shaped, pink and innocent, crowned by tumbling reddish-blond hair. But when he is pitching he has, in the words of his manager, Harry Walker, "a good firm stomach for this game."
Dierker's catcher, Johnny Edwards, most admires his intelligence and his unflappable presence on the mound. Dierker had a shutout working several years ago, Edwards recalls, when Author Bouton, then merely a pitcher for the Astros, decided to calm the youngster down. He found him sitting in the dugout between innings with his head hung low, mumbling something.
"Jim thought he must be giving in to the tension," said Edwards. "Then he realized Larry was singing Rocky Raccoon, the Beatles' song."
This anecdote is just one of 20 references to Dierker in Bouton's controversial first book, Ball Four. When Dierker was interrupted reading an advance copy of the sequel, I'm Glad You Didn't Take It Seriously, he protested that he preferred the classics to the memoirs of old teammates.
Anyway, he has some fine memories of his own. Dierker is only 24, but this is his eighth year in the big leagues—he pitched his first game for Houston on his 18th birthday, Sept. 22, 1964—and he had 71 wins entering this season. By comparison, Tom Seaver, who is two years older, had only four more victories. And one of Dierker's seasons—1967—was foreshortened by military reserve duty. He was a 20-game winner at 22 and the ace of the Astros' staff, whatever that may mean. "At 24," says Edwards, "he has the savvy of a pitcher of 29. And he's learning all the time."
With savvy comes a certain sophistication. Dierker, for example, is not overly impressed with his fast start this season. At roughly the same time a year ago he had eight wins and two losses. There followed a dreadful drought in which he did not win a game for almost two months. He rallied to finish the season with 16 wins and 12 losses, a distinct comedown from his 20-13 record of 1969, but nevertheless impressive.
Dierker defeated every team in the league save the Mets last year, but he sees no omen in his loss to them last week. On the contrary, he feels that his control is better than ever—he has walked only 15 batters in 64 ‚Öî innings. Sunday he won his sixth game and he feels he can win 20 games again.
Whether he does or not, he will continue to pursue the academic life in the off season. He started college at the University of California at Santa Barbara and hopes to finish at Houston, where, he says, he is "about 50 hours away" from a degree. Dierker selected English as a major not so much because he aspires to step into the literary toeplates of ex-colleague Bouton, but because he just likes to read. If he did write, the title of his book would be Ball One. Better control than Bouton.