05/20/2002 10:39 am ET
Dierker: 'The highest honor'
On his day, legendary Astro reflects on career
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- While wearing No. 49, Larry Dierker provided Astros fans with some of the most exciting moments in franchise history, from his no-hitter in 1976 to his 20-win season in 1969 to the four division titles to which he guided the Astros during his managerial tenure from 1997-2001.
On Sunday, No. 49 was immortalized.
A bevy of former teammates, friends and family joined Dierker at Astros Field to honor a man whose name has been synonymous with Houston baseball for nearly four decades. The ceremony had the feel of a Hall of Fame induction as Dierker was given the proper thanks for all he has done for the Astros as a player, front office exececutive, broadcaster and manager.
The entire day had a Dierker theme as Hawaiian shirts and Jimmy Buffett music created a special ambiance at Astros Field, highlighted by the 1948 Chrysler Town and Country car -- the same type of classic "Woody" that Dierker often referred to during his 17 years in the broadcast booth -- that transported Dierker around the circumference of the field.
"The ride was great," Dierker said. "The thing that I really snapped to just on the outside of our dugout, one of the fans gave the "mahalo" sign [a Hawaiian sign that indicates good will]. When I saw the fan doing that I naturally switched from a wave to the mahalo sign."
Dierker was joined on the field by former teammates and coaches including Buddy Hancken, Carl Warwick, Bob Aspromonte, Danny Coombs, Jimmy Wynn, Norm Miller, Bob Watson, Johnny Edwards, Bill Greif, Doug Konieczny, Roger Metzger, J.R. Richard, Enos Cabell, Bill Virdon, Joe Morgan, Craig Reynolds, Terry Puhl and Alan Ashby.
The three surviving members of the elite fraternity of Astros whose numbers are retired -- Jose Cruz, Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott -- were also on hand for the ceremony.
And Dierker's family -- among them wife Judy, daughters Ashley and Julia and son Ryan, mother Marilynn, brother Rick and sister Laura -- rounded out the list of more than 30 guests who participated in the festivities.
The number 49 has special meaning for Dierker, a mystique that may have started when he was 12 years old. The story, as Dierker explained it, started when he and Rick, three years his junior, were laying in their bunk beds after dinner. For some inexplicable reason, Rick started chanting "49" over and over again until Larry could not take it anymore.
"He was just droning on and on," Dierker remembered. "I said, 'Shut up' but he just kept doing it. So I said again, 'Shut up, Rick.' And he just kept doing it.
"So I kicked him in the small of his back. I kicked him so hard that he started crying and I got in a lot of trouble. He missed school the next day because he really couldn't get up and walk around.
"He claims that's why I got the number 49 and I can't really remember that that's what he was chanting, but he says that's for sure what he was chanting. I don't know why."
The story is as odd and quirky as Dierker himself, qualities that endeared him to everyone who crossed his path from the moment he made his big league debut on his 18th birthday in 1964.
Thirty-eight years later, Dierker's career came full circle with the retirement of his uniform number on a day he said may be the most special of them all.
"I think this is the best," he said. "I think sometimes we have a tendency to say the last great thing we saw was the best, like the last great play or long home run, but how many times have we said that over the years? This is so fresh on my mind.
"It's a lifetime achievement award. I know that there's only about 130 people in the history of baseball who have had a number retired and I didn't take this lightly as an honor. It's the highest honor you can receive. Like the 20-win season, it was a good effort over a long period of time, which is sometimes more satisfying than pitching a no-hitter or striking out the side or doing something that's a one-time thrill. This is deeper."
Dierker, who is in the process of chronicling his experiences for a book that is due to be published in August, was especially touched by the thousands of fans who arrived to the ballpark early to watch the ceremony.
"I had a very good run in baseball and it's been a wonderful life," he said during his speech. "I know my dad's looking down right now and is very proud of what we all did together.
"As a manager I got to experience things that I never got to experience as a player. I cherish those memories."
Alyson Footer covers the Astros for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.