Diamonds Are Forever

Why baseball—steroid scandals and all—will never lose its sparkle.

PANELISTS:
Larry Dierker
Former Houston Astros pitcher, broadcaster, and manager.
Nolan Ryan
Hall of Fame pitcher and all-time strikeout leader.

Hollister: So, May 28, 2006, the day Barry Bonds hit home run number 715. In, say, fifty years, how should baseball remember that day?

Ryan: [ laughs] I’ll let Larry answer that.

Dierker: Well, I’m glad I didn’t participate in it. When I was a pitcher, I had a shot at 714 with [Hank] Aaron, and I got through that with a broken-bat single. You know, I tend to not get too excited or emotional about steroids and records. I think Bonds is the greatest hitter that I’ve seen of our time, and I think it’s deplorable if he took steroids, but you know, there were twenty years at the beginning of the century where you couldn’t hit a home run because the ball was dead. And there were the war years, when a pitcher was practically unbeatable because there weren’t that many good players around. So I take things in context. If you don’t know much about records and baseball history, I can see how you might feel this is a sign that there’s something wrong with the game. But I don’t think it is.

Hollister: Baseball’s no stranger to scandal—there were the Black Sox, in 1919, Pete Rose betting on the game in the eighties, the labor negotiations of 1994—but it has always bounced back. Is the Steroid Era a threat?

Ryan: You know, baseball’s like anything else. It goes through these periods. I think the fans have a passion and love for the game. They have a tendency to put these things behind them and move on.

Dierker: I have a favorite quote. It was said by Bill Terry, who was a Hall of Fame first baseman for the Giants in the thirties and a manager for them in the early forties. I think he said this right around 1940. And what he said was, “Baseball must be a great game to survive the fools that run it.”

Hollister: So what’s it going to take to survive this time?

Dierker: From my perspective, nothing has to change. The only thing that would make me feel differently would be if the fans started refusing to pay the freight. They could get a pretty good brand of baseball for a whole lot less money in Round Rock or Corpus Christi. But if they want to sit in the Diamond Club seats at Minute Maid Park, it’s going to cost a pretty penny. I’ve thought for many years that at some point the fans would just say, “Nope, it’s too expensive now. We’re not going to do this anymore.” Yet attendance doesn’t seem to have suffered at all. Maybe that time will never come.

Ryan: I’m inclined to agree with Larry on that. If you go to Minute Maid Park and see the fans and their passion for the game and the electricity in the stadium, I think you walk away from that realizing the game will survive and that a lot of the things that we read in the paper and hear on talk shows really aren’t impacting the fans’ attendance and their attitude about the game. What it does is keep people talking about baseball, and that’s one of the things that’s so attractive about it: We live it in our lives here in America because it’s a day-to-day sport.

Hollister: So you’d say the steroid controversy has been good for the sport?

Dierker: In a sense. I definitely think the situation created by free agency and arbitration, which vaulted players into salaries that approach a movie star’s or a rock star’s, has been good for the game—and in an ironic way, because I think it has drawn people who really don’t know or care that much about the sport but are interested in celebrity, and they see these guys making $15 million to $20 million a year, with their pictures on TV and in all the magazines, and all of a sudden it’s more than just baseball. As far as the steroids, I don’t think it’s necessarily good, but I can’t remember who the guy was who said, “I don’t care what you say about me, just so long as you mention my name.” It keeps the game on people’s minds.

Hollister: Say you got to play commissioner for a day. What kinds of changes would you put into effect?

Dierker: Oh, man, I don’t know. As a person who has traveled the schedule both as a player and an announcer—and certainly this would not be popular with the owners—I’d probably go back to 154 games. Or some combination of games that would create equality of competition.

Ryan: I personally would do away with the designated hitter. I think the game is much more interesting without it.

Dierker: I’d get rid of that from the major leagues all the way down to the little leagues.

Hollister: Let’s turn our attention to Texas. Roger Clemens is back in an Astros uniform. Is he going to be a difference maker?

Dierker: He should be. Over the years he has been in the game, he has actually outperformed the other great pitchers of his era, and up until last August, when he started to have a lot of injuries, he was the best pitcher. That’s why he probably waited as long as he did, just to be smart about it and say, “My body at this stage can’t take 162 games and 35 starts, but I might be able to make 20 or 25 starts and be healthy the whole time.”

Ryan: I’ve always marveled at the fact that at his age and as big as he is, he still has the ability to throw the ball consistently and where he wants it. And that’s a big challenge when you get to that age—having that type of body control.

Dierker: I guess you would know!

Ryan: Well, the challenge is every fifth day having your body where you can have that kind of coordination. And fatigue sets in. There

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