In the days before he collapsed, Larry Dierker was planning to call the Houston Astros together for a team meeting. He knew what he wanted to say, but befitting a former broadcaster and journal writer, he was still coming up with the right words and the right moment.
What he wanted to say was simple enough. He wanted his players to know that he cared. Tommy Lasorda might race to the mound for a group hug after a victory. Lou Piniella might destroy office furniture after a tough loss. Jim Fregosi might curse a reporter while defending a player.
Dierker didn't do any of those things, but he still wanted his players to know that none of those managers wanted to win more or had any more regard for his players than he did.
Three years earlier, he'd taken over as manager for the authoritarian Terry Collins. With his Hawaiian shirts and loosening of the reins, Dierker had been a pleasant change. From the beginning, Dierker told his players his approach would be simple and that he had no intention of being "a puppeteer" orchestrating every move. The Astros responded by winning back-to-back division championships and seemed on their way to a third when Dierker, 52, began thinking about calling a meeting.
"I don't even know why I'd started thinking about that," he said this afternoon as he sipped a cup of coffee and slid a blank lineup card around in his hand. "It certainly wasn't the way we were playing. That wasn't a problem. It was just that the players didn't see a lot of emotion from me, and I wanted to call a meeting to tell them I did care."
Dierker never got around to calling that meeting. On the afternoon of June 13, he suffered a grand mal seizure during the eighth inning of a game against the San Diego Padres at the Astrodome. The seizure was so fierce that 220-pound outfielder Derek Bell was thrown back while attempting to pin Dierker's arms. Two days later, Dierker underwent surgery to remove a tangled mass of blood veins from the front of his brain.
In the hours before the surgery, Dierker had time to contemplate the possibility that he might not see his wife, Judy, or his three kids again. He might die before taking that trip to Europe and playing that perfect round of golf.
The next morning he woke up alone in the hospital room and remembers "feeling wonderful." He recounts step by step how he slowly got out of bed, walked for a bit, then sat down and had a cup of coffee while reading the morning paper.
"It was the most wonderful thing I'd ever done," he said. "I learned something about taking things for granted."
A few days after the surgery, Dierker saw something that moved him as much as any of the hundreds of cards and letters he received. While watching a video tape of coverage of the seizure, Dierker saw his players fight back tears as he was attended to. He saw them gather for a group prayer after he departed for the hospital. He heard the emotion in their voices and saw the worry in their eyes during interviews.
"Watching those guys on television told me everything I needed to know," Dierker said. "I didn't need to tell them I cared. They knew it already."
Three months later, his players' reaction is one of the things he remembers most, along with the trays of food and hundreds of e-mails and prayers. He will eventually respond to every single letter, including the 30-page essay on mental toughness from a woman who'd been incapacitated by a similar condition and the self-published book from a man who used an attack to work on his mental toughness.
"I've just been amazed by the reaction," he said. "So many of the letters came right from the heart. They reminded me how important what we do is to our fans. That's been the biggest change for me -- to appreciate how important what we do is. I know if I got a thousand cards there were probably 100,000 who didn't write. It made me feel awfully good about myself."
In the month and a half since returning to the dugout, Dierker has done dozens of interviews about the seizure and its impact on both his life and his team. He has been asked again and again about how a life-threatening experience changes one's perspective on his work and his life.
Some of those who know him best laugh at such questions. They say his perspective hasn't changed because it had never been out of whack to begin with.
"What you see is what you get," Astros hitting coach Tommy McCraw said. "He's not one of these guys consumed with ego. On this team, he knows the best thing to do is get out of the way and let the players play. He's not going to go trying to get credit for what the players are doing."
Dierker said: "I think I had a reasonably good perspective on what's important. I still appreciate all the wonderful things that have happened in my life -- both in baseball and family. I've been blessed."
Dierker's perspective may have been fine because he became a manager only after succeeding in everything else he had accomplished. He pitched 12 of his 13 big league seasons for the Astros, then became a popular broadcaster for 19 seasons. Three years ago, he was as shocked as anyone when owner Drayton McClain stunned Houston by announcing that his broadcaster and former 20-game winner was now his manager.
Dierker immediately set about showing baseball that every manager didn't have to be a chain-smoking control freak. He acknowledged that the Astros might win regardless of who was managing them because they had a pair of all-stars -- first baseman Jeff Bagwell and second baseman Craig Biggio -- who set the tone for every other player. He had terrific starting pitching. And he had a competent young reliever, Billy Wagner, on his way to becoming a dominant closer.
"I've known him for 13 years," Biggio said. "The thing about Larry is that he's a straight shooter, and he's up front with people. That goes a long way where a baseball manager is concerned. He lets the players play. It's like it was when he played."
Dierker, typically self-effacing, puts it another way.
"I knew there would be a lot of skepticism throughout the baseball community to me being hired," he said. "I thought the people in Houston would embrace the idea because I'd been there so long. I didn't think it would sit real well with the national baseball media. That's pretty much what happened. As far as the players, I wasn't worried they would accept me. They knew me. They were hoping for a change, whether it be me or someone else. I thought the main thing was not to get in there and pontificate. I had to let things develop and be patient.
"I wanted guys to have the latitude to do things their way. I didn't want to be a puppeteer and try to command every player on the field. I want them to have the freedom to express themselves as players rather than be part of some sort of military-type operation."
Two division championships later, his way has worked. The Astros have stayed ahead of Cincinnati this season despite being decimated by injuries. They've used the disabled list 16 times this season. Outfielder Moises Alou has missed the entire season because of a knee injury, and now his replacement, Richard Hidalgo, is also gone for the season with a knee injury. Of the eight position players who started on Opening Day, only Biggio and Bagwell haven't spent time on the disabled list.
They've been so beat up that Biggio volunteered to play a couple of games in the outfield, and General Manager Gerry Hunsicker was forced to shore up the roster by acquiring outfielder Stan Javier in time to get him on the playoff roster. Still, some days the Astros win with guys who were not supposed to be part of the mix this season: Daryle Ward, Paul Bako, Glen Barker and others.
And they keep going. Three starters -- Mike Hampton, Jose Lima and Shane Reynolds -- could win 20 games, and Wagner has a team-record 34 saves. Bagwell -- hitting .310 with 39 home runs and 112 RBI -- may be the National League's most valuable player.
"I have no idea how we've done it this season," Dierker said. "Our goal was to create a situation like the one in Atlanta, where the players feel it's their birthright to win a championship. Look at the Dodgers. They have a lot of good players, but they don't have the unity and the commitment to do what it takes to win. Atlanta just has that aura, and I feel we're beginning to get that."