The Houston Astros’ Dierker Era, from the mid-1990’s to early 2000s, would make a fascinating documentary. Read part one of the series here.
While Michael Jordan was finishing his final dance, the hometown Houston Astros were quietly compiling a powerhouse squad. Led by broadcast favorite-turned-skipper Larry Dierker, who from 1997-2001 compiled a combined 435-348 record as manager, this version of the Astros was filled with some highs and some disappointing lows.
In 1997, Jeff Bagwell mashed 43 home runs and 135 RBIs while Craig Biggio hit .309 and hit 22 homers and scored 146 times, placing them third and fourth in the NL MVP voting respectively. In 1998, the Astros racked up their most wins in a season at the time (102) and boasted a powerful squad that seemed sure to make it to the World Series.
Anchored by longtime fan favorites Bagwell and Biggio as they hit their prime with other notable contributors like Moises Alou, who batted .312 with 38 homers and 124 RBIs, and Carl Everett, acquired in a trade for reliever John Hudek, contributing 15 homers and a .296 batting average.
They seemed destined for greatness with a powerhouse rotation of Shane Reynolds (19-8 record, 3.51 ERA), Mike Hampton (11-7, 3.36), Jose Lima (16-8, 3.70) and newcomer Randy Johnson, who posted a 10-1 record with a 1.28 ERA. Flamethrower Billy Wagner, who closed for the Astros in 1998, racked up 30 saves.
In a year when both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa smashed the home run record, having Johnson was an added insurance policy in the National League. And boy did he deliver.
The table was set for a long title run… until they met Kevin Brown.
Brown mowed down the Astros for two games as the Padres quickly dispatched the Astros in four games in the NLDS, with only one win coming in walk-off fashion thanks to Bill Spiers.
One of the best years in Astros history was quickly dispelled by the NL pennant winning Padres. Behind the curtain, the excitement behind the blockbuster that brought Johnson over from Seattle was undercut by the unloading of what would be three major league talents: Freddy Garcia, John Halama and Carlos Guillen, which might have been looked at as a major coup for the Mariners for just a four month rental.
Re-signing Johnson in 1999 surely would have made it worth the haul, but Johnson would sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who with Curt Schilling, won the Series in 2001 over the Yankees.
The 1999 season had its fair share of storylines as well. As the final season in the Astrodome and dubbed as a “Year to Remember,” it certainly fit its bill and didn’t disappoint.
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Despite having major injuries to Alou, who would miss the entire year, and Ken Caminiti, in his second stint with the Astros, missing two months to a mysterious leg injury, the team ended up winning the NL Central with 97 wins.
On June 13, 1999, in a game against the Padres, Dierker collapsed in the dugout during the eighth inning and was taken to the hospital. After, it was found that he had a mass of malformed blood vessels in his brain that needed to be removed. It was a harrowing time for the Astros, but they seemed to respond in their skipper’s absence.
With another fantastic season behind the power of Bagwell (42 home runs, 126 RBI and .304 batting average) and Everett (26 HR, 108 RBI, .325 AVG) and the pitching prowess of the two 20-game winners, Mike Hampton (22-4, 2.90 ERA) and Jose Lima (21-10, 3.58 ERA), the Astros won the division by 1.5 games.
Another odd story happened in Milwaukee on Sept. 24. A drunken fan wandered on to the field and assaulted Spiers. Though Hampton and stadium security came to the rescue, the obvious trauma Spiers endured caused him to leave the game early.
The 1999 season ended like so many in the ’90s at the hands of the reliable Atlanta Braves. The Astros would take Game One in Atlanta 6-1 but would go on to lose the next three and spend the postseason on the outs again.
The 2000 and 2001 seasons would prove to be great years again for Bagwell, Biggio and newcomers Lance Berkman and Vinny Castilla. 2000 ended with the Astros ending up in fourth with a 72-90 record, while 2001 ended in an NLDS sweep from the hands of the Braves.
There was no shortage of storylines during the Dierker years, but nothing would come close to that magical season in 1998 (until recently) with Johnson leading the charge and would surely have evoked many storylines and back plots in the heart of the steroid era.