Houston Astros DIERKBALL FEVER--CATCH IT

March 23, 1998

CLOSE BUT NO CIGARS/NL CENTRAL

There's a lot of good talking going on in Houston these days.
The owner of the Astros, Drayton McLane, knows how to talk to
the county pols, and now taxpayers are building his club a new
downtown ballpark. The general manager, Gerry Hunsicker, knows
how to talk to the owner, and the payroll has jumped from $33
million last year to $39 million. The manager, Larry Dierker,
knows how to talk to the G.M., the owner, the players,
everybody, and he has them all loose and happy and playing
Dierkball.

What you have in Houston is the near-perfect execution of your
basic one-big-happy-family concept, and it seems to be working
pretty darn well. Last year Houston won the National League
Central before losing three straight to the Braves in the
Division Series. This year the Astros are aiming even higher,
looking to win their division, and more. They'd love to face the
Braves again (though perhaps not until the League Championship
Series), maybe win a game or two this time before settling in
for the winter. Maybe even win more than that.

Of course, even in the happiest of families, not everybody feels
chipper all the time. Jeff Bagwell--the All-Star first baseman
who hit .286 with 43 home runs and 135 RBIs last year as the
only pure power hitter in the lineup--was kind of grumpy in the
off-season. The story is that he got upset at McLane and
Hunsicker for not re-signing his bud, righthander Darryl Kile,
Houston's ace last year. Bagwell claims Hunsicker didn't make
the pitcher feel wanted enough, first by offering $4 million
less than the Rockies (who signed Kile to a three-year, $24
million contract) and then by lying about how much he had
offered. The Astros deny this.

As for Dierker, his response to the Kile situation is revealing
as to the depth of his mellowness.

SI: Were you mad at your bosses for not re-signing Kile?

Dierker: No.

SI: How come?

Dierker (drawling) : 'Cause I look at it as an either-or. Either
we're going to sign Kile, or we're going to get some players to
replace him. We didn't sign him, but we got Moises Alou, Dave
Clark, Jack Howell and Carl Everett instead. I don't trust
pitchers to stay the same anyhow. Position players, yes.
Pitchers, no.

A note on the drawl: Dierker, who grew up in Los Angeles, has
lived in Houston for 34 years, and his voice reflects a blend of
the two cultures. He sounds unworried, laconic, content--and he
is. What's the worst thing that's going to happen? His club is
going to lose a game? He's going to lose his job? No big whoop.
He can always go back to the broadcast booth, where he spent 18
years calling Astros games before being asked to manage the team
in October 1996. Dierker is the opposite of his best all-around
player, second baseman Craig Biggio, who is intense, always
studying, always planning. The two get along famously.

Back to Kile. Houston will miss him. Not just because he went
19-7, with a 2.57 ERA, but also because he pitched 255 2/3
innings. That's a whole lot of frames to replace, and the Astros
don't have the arms to do it. Their rotation is a mess. It's
Shane Reynolds, a control pitcher coming back from knee surgery,
followed by Mike Hampton, a 25-year-old southpaw, followed
by...as they say, lots of question marks. The Astrodome is a
hurler's haven, and when the Astros have won, they've won with
pitching. If they win this year, it will be with their bats:
Biggio, Bagwell, Derek Bell, along with Alou.

This year we'll find out if the manager can get his team to play
Dierkball full time. Last year we got a glimpse. Here's his
spiel on how the game is played.

First rule: There are no rules. Anybody who wants to try to
steal a base, go ahead, knock yourself out. Any pitcher who
wants to bat for himself and stay in the game, grab yourself a
piece of wood and show us what all you can do. I'd love to get
another inning out of you. You know what you guys consider a big
lead? Take two more giant steps. That is a lead. Now, son, why
would you want to bunt the runner over when you could swing
away, maybe hit yourself one of those doubles you hit so often
in Double A, and then we'd have second and third, no outs?
Remember, fellas, we're playing a game here.

Dierkball. It could catch on. --M.B.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO WICKED STICK With the loss of their ace, Kile, the Astros will go as far as offensive stars like Biggio can carry them. [Craig Biggio batting] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Shane Reynolds]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)