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As is the case with just about everything in life, nothing stays the same forever.
Times change. Trends change. Hairstyles, clothing, music (and the devices by which we listen to that music) all change.
Baseball has changed as well, even if the differences aren’t as glaring as the contrast between bell bottoms and leisure suits in the 1970s and parachute pants and sky-high bangs in the ’80s. Baseball has changed in more subtle ways, due in large part to the escalation of salaries paid to players these days.
Pitchers arms are worth, essentially, millions. Like any other valuable asset, the rightsholders to those arms are protective of their commodity. In turn, the rightsholders — also known as Major League organizations — often treat those arms with kid gloves, careful to not overuse or abuse the investment.
A couple of generations ago, on the other hand, pitching was viewed not so much as a science as it was a responsibility. Starting pitchers, quite simply, were supposed to finish what they started. Specialized relief pitchers — lefty specialists, setup men, setup men to the setup men — were largely unheard of. If you pitched the first inning, you were also expected to pitch the ninth. It didn’t always work out that way, of course — it’s not like bullpens are a new thing — but there was a sense of pride with a starting pitcher, and a sense of failure when he wasn’t still on the mound for the last out.
Larry Dierker debuted as a Houston Colt .45 on Sept. 22, 1964, his 18th birthday. He was done as a pitcher by age 30, largely due to the wear and tear on a right arm that endured 2,333 Major League innings.
Dierker retired in 1977 after a brief stint with the St. Louis Cardinals. When he left the Astros, he held a record that still stands today: 106 complete games. It’s likely a record that may never be broken. That’s not because the Astros will never have another pitcher who could show that kind of endurance. It’s just that those pitchers won’t be allowed to finish that many games. Their arms are too expensive. Why take the risk?
Pedro Martinez, arguably the most dominant pitcher of his generation, recorded 46 complete games during his stellar 18-year career. Greg Maddux, also in a class of his own through the 1990s, recorded 109 complete games — over 23 years. By contrast, Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, whose career lasted 21 years from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, recorded a whopping 382 complete games, well over half of his 665 career starts.
Dierker wasn’t in the same class as Spahn, of course, but they came from the same old-school style of pitching: you start what you finish, or you didn’t do your job.
The one season Dierker spent with the Cardinals was the only time he spent away from the Astros. After retirement, he worked for the ticket office for a spell. Then he moved up to the broadcast booth, where he spent nearly two decades as an announcer. He was hired to manage the Astros in 1997, and after that five-year run ended, he slowly worked his way back into the fold as a good will ambassador for the team. All of the alumni functions that have taken place over the last decade are largely due to his leadership.
Dierker threw out the first pitch before the game on Friday, a day when the Astros wore the same Colt .45s uniforms Dierker sported during his debut all of those years ago. Many former players will be honored throughout the 50th anniversary celebration this year, but no one has given more time, knowledge and loyalty to this organization than Dierker.
It’s always nice to see “Sluggo” at the ballpark. Enjoy the images of his first pitch, along with other highlights from the day that was: