CENTRAL CHAMPIONS (1997-1999)
FROM THE BOOTH...

    When Astros broadcaster and former pitcher Larry Dierker was called into the General Manager's office after the 1996 season, he must have wondered what was up. He'd been a popular and successful "color" man and had provided some good insights to his listeners during games. Now he was offered the chance to put his words into practice. He was asked if he wanted to manage the Astros.

    Larry decided that, if he failed, he could always go back to announcing, so he agreed to give it a try. While Houston fans were willing to give him a chance, the reaction of the national media was swift and derisive. Dierker had never managed or coached, even in the minors. The thought of a broadcaster becoming a manager was treated as a joke. Dierker, who was known to favor Hawaiian shirts, offered a laid-back contrast to the intense Terry Collins. The joke was on the rest of the National League Central Division.

1997...

    It was called the "Comedy Central". The entire division had an underwhelming feel to it. The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati clubs were claiming poverty, the St. Louis squad was beset with injuries and the Chicago organization was plagued by their usual incompetence. The Astros, as frequently disappointing as they were, at least had the talent to rise above.

    Dierker's managerial debut came, as fate ordained, on April Fools Day against the defending league champion Braves. Shane Reynolds and Billy Wagner deliver a 2-1 victory.

    One obstacle Dierker faced was that he had only three certified starting pitchers to fill a five-man rotation. The Astros rolled the dice on two righthanders coming off arm surgery, Ramon Garcia and Chris Holt. They joined Reynolds, Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile in the rotation schedule.
Hampton: Pitched the clincher.

    Holt showed early promise. On April 20th, he held the Dodgers at bay while Craig Biggio swatted two homers in a 3-1 triumph. He would go 8-12 for the season despite a 3.52 ERA. As the fifth man, Garcia split time between starting and relief work, picking up nine wins with a 3.69 ERA.

    Kile was the one who benefited most from the expertise of Dierker and his pitching coach, ex-Astro Vern Ruhle. A man whose curveball was considered one of the best in the game, Kile had been brutally inconsistent with Houston - a Knepper for the Nineties. With a new focus, not even Denver's new Coors Field bothered him. This was a park where double-digit scores were not uncommon. He blanked the Rockies, 7-0 on May 24th, allowing just four hits over seven innings.

    Luis Gonzalez returned to Houston and found a vacancy in left field where he had patrolled for 4-1/2 seasons. A streak hitter, Gonzalez tied the club record for consecutive games with a hit on June 20 during a 7-3 win over the Cubs. He tied Art Howe's club mark of 23 straight games. He cooled down to a .258 average with ten homers for the year.

    There were other holes to fill. Pat Listasch started the season at shortstop but was soon replaced by Tim Bogar, Bill Spiers and Ricky Gutierrez. Spiers also split time at third with Sean Berry. Center field belonged, at times, to James Mouton, Derek Bell, Thomas Howard and Chuckie Carr. The sprightly Carr had the most speed but had burned bridges as easily as he burned basepaths, copping the attitude of Rickey Henderson without actually playing like Rickey Henderson. Bob Abreu's shot in the outfield was limited due to an injured wrist.

    There was nothing wrong with the right side of the infield. Jeff Bagwell had another monster year at the plate, becoming the first Astro to reach 40 home runs on September 16th in a 15-3 bombing of San Diego. Bagwell would lead the club with 43 homers, 135 RBIs and 40 doubles. He became more aggressive on the bases, swiping 31 for the year.

    Biggio paced the squad with a .309 average, 191 hits and 47 steals. Put in the leadoff spot of the batting order, Craig led the league with 146 runs scored. He also found time to launch 22 round-trippers and drive in 81, both totals second only to Bagwell.

    This was the first year where teams from the American and National leagues played games against each other that mattered in the standings. The Central Division clubs from the National squared off against their American League counterparts. Houston's first game of this type came on June 13th against the Minnesota Twins. The Astros lost, 8-1, and didn't fare well against these new rivals.  Fan reaction to interleague play outside of Houston was positive so the gimmick continued into following seasons.

    All year long, the Astros hovered around the .500 mark. It was good enough for first place in the weak division, but Houston had to fend off a plucky challenge from the bargain basement Pirates of Gene Lamont. This was felt most keenly on July 12th when Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon combined for a ten-inning, 3-0 no-hitter. It was the first time in 28 years that the Astros had tasted a no-hit defeat.

    Kile led the pitching staff, racking up a 17-3 mark by the end of August. He cooled off to finish with a 19-7 record and a 2.57 ERA with four shutouts and 205 strikeouts. Hampton had a strong second half, completing a 15-10 season. Closer Billy Wagner won seven and saved 23 while fanning 106 batters in just 66 innings.

    Down the home stretch, the Astros tried to win the division and keep their necks above water at the same time. After Derek Bell drove in four runs to pace a 10-3 win over the Dodgers on September 12th, Houston stood 3-1/2 games ahead of Pittsburgh but just two games ahead of .500.

    On September 25th, eleven years to the day that Mike Scott last won a division title for Houston, Hampton pitched a four-hitter to give the Astros their first Central Division title. It came at home before joyous fans after a 9-1 pasting of Chicago. Brad Ausmus delivered a three-run bomb to blow open a close game. In one of life's freakier moments, the hit NBC medical drama "ER" chose that night to air their program live. To prove to viewers it was live, the Cubs telecast was carried in the background of various scenes. The TV directors happened to cut to a picture of the game when Ausmus hit the homer. When told of the feat, Brad was excited. "ER", he said, was his favorite series and he was taping the program to watch later, not knowing he would be on the show.

    At long last, the Astros were champions again, albeit with an 84-78 record, but nobody seriously gave them a chance in the National League Division Series against the powerful Atlanta Braves.

The NLDS...

    It turned out they were right. Darryl Kile gave the Astros a fine effort in Game One, giving up just two hits and supplying the offense but it wasn't enough to topple Greg Maddux who scattered seven hits in the 2-1 Atlanta victory.

    Hampton, Garcia and Mike Magnante were hit hard in a 13-3 loss in Game Two. Ausmus provided the only Houston response with a two-run double off Tom Glavine.

    Playing before the home folks was no tonic either. John Smoltz tossed a three-hitter as the Braves closed out the best-of-five sweep with a 4-1 win. The lone Houston tally came on a home run from Carr.

    In an ominous foreshadowing of postseasons to come, the trio of  Bagwell, Biggio and Bell were held to two hits and a combined .054 batting average. When you have to rely on the basestealing ability of lumbering catcher Tony Eusebio and the home run power of tiny Chuckie Carr to produce runs, you're not going to win many games.

    For Dierker, it was a time to prove the naysayers were wrong. Now he had to prove it was no fluke.

1998...

    As a free agent, Darryl Kile could sign with whatever team he chose. Coming off an outstanding year, Kile chose the thin air of the Colorado Rockies. It made him wealthy but it also messed with the pitches he had worked so hard to perfect. His decision to leave Houston set in motion a series of moves that would have a major impact on the Astros' fortunes.

    To further upset the order of things, the National League added two more teams. One was the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. The other was the Milwaukee Brewers who moved over from the American League at the suggestion of Milwaukee owner Bud Selig, the de facto Commissioner of Baseball since before the 1994 strike. In 1998, Selig turned the club over to his daughter and became full-time commissioner. The Brewers would join the Central Division.

Biggio: 50-50 performance.

  Latest wunderkind Bob Abreu was left exposed in the expansion draft. He was claimed by Tampa Bay and immediately traded to Philadelphia where he began tormenting his former teammates. Taking his place was fellow Venezuelan Richard Hidalgo, who became Houston's next "can't miss" outfield hopeful.

   Better news came with the trade of reliever John Hudek to the Mets for outfielder Carl Everett. The switch-hitter had acquired a bad reputation in New York but he showed the potential to be a great centerfielder. He would at least be an upgrade over Chuckie Carr. Another outfielder acquired was Moises Alou, fresh from a surprising World's Championship in Florida. The Astros gave up two highly-prized pitchers and a catching prospect to get Alou, whose father Felipe managed the Expos and whose uncle Jesus was an Astro twenty years earlier. Alou was expected to protect Bagwell in the batting order.

    The team now had firepower throughout the lineup. Former Expos Alou and Sean Berry paced a 15-0 blowout of Montreal on April 26 with Moises driving in five against his dad's team. Alou and Bagwell each swatted a pair of homers in a 17-2 mauling of the Chicago White Sox in interleague play on June 30th. Both homered the next night in a 10-4 drubbing. Everett drove in five on August 24 to pace a 12-3 whipping of the Cubs.

    Dierker's squad led the league with 874 runs and 818 RBIs. Alou paced the ballclub with 38 home runs and 124 RBIs to go with a .312 average. Bagwell belted 34 long balls, drove in 111 and batted .304. Derek Bell hit .314 with 22 homers, 41 doubles and 108 RBIs. Houston had six players in double figures for home runs, eight players with ten or more steals and seven players who hit .296 or higher. As a team, the Astros posted a .280 batting average.

    It was a special year for Craig Biggio. On May 16th, it was Biggio's turn to be the hero when his ninth-inning homer dropped Atlanta, 3-2. As a leadoff man, there was none better. Craig clubbed 20 home runs, drove in 88, scored 123 times, led the club with a .325 average and set a club record with 210 hits. On September 23rd, Biggio became only the second player in major league history to stroke 50 doubles and steal 50 bases in one season. The only other man was Boston's Tris Speaker in 1912.

    The strength of Houston's lineup makes it even more improbable that they could be completely dominated by a rookie pitcher, but it happened. Chicago's Kerry Wood allowed just one Houston hit on May 6th while striking out 20 in what may be said to be the most powerful pitching performance of all time.

    The proficient Houston bats might have made news were it not for Mark McGwire's 70 home runs and Sammy Sosa's 66, both breaking the big league mark of 61 set the year before the Colt .45s were born. The two sluggers, Central Division rivals, got little help from Houston pitchers. McGwire touched the Astros for five homers, Sosa just three. Seven of those eight long balls were with the bases empty.

    What worried the Astros was how well their pitching would hold up. Shane Reynolds was having a fine season. He would post a 19-8 record. Jose Lima, who dared the Astros to let him start rather than pitch from the bullpen went from 1-6 to 16-8. Sean Bergman and Mike Hampton won twelve and eleven games respectively. All four had ERAs under 4.00.

    The fear was that they wouldn't measure up to the dominant pitching of Atlanta and San Diego, the other two top teams in the league. With fearsome 6'-10" lefty Randy Johnson of Seattle looking ahead to free agency, the Astros sent three prospects to Seattle at the trading deadline to have his services for the final two months of the season. It was a surprising deal for the budget-conscious Astros and it signaled to the league that Houston intended to reach the World Series this time.

    Johnson stepped off a plane in Pittsburgh and won his first game as an Astro, 6-2. It only got better after that. He shut out Philadelphia in his home debut. He then blanked Milwaukee with another five-hitter. Johnson outdueled Atlanta's Greg Maddux on September 2nd. He blanked the Reds five days later. On September 23rd, he topped the Cardinals, 7-1, to go 10-1 with four shutouts and a puny 1.26 ERA while averaging ten strikes per game. This was exactly what the Astros wanted - someone they could give the ball to in critical games and come away with a win.

    The Astros broke the 100-win mark for the first time in their history, closing with a 102-60 record. Atlanta won 106 to lead the league. Houston left the Central Division in its dust, outpacing the Cubs by 12-1/2 games. The city breathed baseball as never before. While 98-win San Diego came to town to open the NLDS, many looked past them to a rematch with the Braves.

The NLDS...

    Johnson got the ball for Game One with the Astrodome crowd behind him. He allowed a run in the sixth then a home run to Greg Vaughn in the eighth. Meanwhile, Kevin Brown was almost unhittable. He struck out 16 Astros to set a playoff record then watched as Trevor Hoffman wriggled out of trouble for a 2-1 Padre victory.

    The Astros broke out to a 4-2 lead in Game Two behind three RBIs from Bagwell and a solo homer by Bell. They appeared to be home free when Billy Wagner, a 30-save performer despite missing a month of the season when a line drive struck his head, came on in the ninth inning to close out the game. Jim Leyritz reached out and poked a two-run homer to tie it. Panic set in. It was the unheralded Spiers who came through in the bottom of the ninth off Hoffman to give Houston a 5-4 triumph and tie the series at one game apiece.
Spiers: Game Two hero.

    Hampton traded five scoreless innings in Game Three with Kevin Brown who was pitching on two days' rest. After the Padres scored in the sixth, Biggio tied the game in the seventh. Jim Leyritz homered off Scott Elarton to put San Diego back in front to stay. The Padres managed just three hits but it was enough to manufacture a 2-1 victory.

    Johnson was back on the hill for Game Four but he was surpassed by Sterling Hitchcock and the San Diego bullpen which allowed only three hits. Bagwell tied the game in the fourth with a run-scoring single but the rest of the offense was held in check. The Padres exploded for four runs in the eighth to put the game and the series away.

    The Bagwell-Biggio-Bell trio hit only .146 in the series and Alou was held to three meaningless hits. The Astros had blown their best chance ever to win a National League crown and it happened rather silently in just four games. They expected their season to last longer than October 4th.

1999...

    As they had lost their best pitcher the year before, the Astros would have to make due without Randy Johnson. The free agent signed with Arizona, leaving Dierker to once again rebuild his pitching rotation. Chris Holt, who was injured all of last season, won back his starting job.

    Jose Lima boasted that he would win 20 games. The emotional righthander had made a lot of noise both on and off the field. His gyrations and antics on the mound angered opponents who thought he was disrespectful, particularly after strikeouts. The awkward rally caps and bat banging in the dugout made some wonder if he was mentally fit. He and teammate Mike Hampton shared kisses after wins. Off the field, Lima's Latin CDs sold well. His T-shirts proclaimed "It's Lima Time!". The man is obviously not shy. As the saying goes, it's not bragging when you can back it up and Lima did one better with a 21-10 record along with a 3.68 ERA.

Lima: Backed up the talk.

    The Dome's final season was billed as "A Year To Remember" but nobody knew just how true the marketing slogan would be. A season marred by illness and violence, it was also one that riveted fans until the final out. The Astros said goodbye to the Astrodome in memorable fashion.

    Slugger Moises Alou would miss the entire year with a knee injury but Ken Caminiti returned from San Diego to fill the power void in the lineup. The still-popular Caminiti, however, would miss two months with a mysterious leg injury. Rookie Mitch Meluskey, for whom Houston traded Brad Ausmus in order to work him into the lineup, was out for the year after just ten games with a shoulder injury.

    On their last Opening Day in the Dome, the Astros began their campaign with a 4-2 victory over the Cubs. Shane Reynolds got the win. In retrospect, every triumph the team celebrated that year would have meaning, not just for posterity but for the present. Houston bats broke out on May 11th with a 19-8 mauling of Pittsburgh to tie the club record for most runs in one game. Seven Astros joined in with multi-hit games.

    Jeff Bagwell continued to erase Jim Wynn's name from the Houston record books. He smashed three home runs against the Cubs on April 21st, driving in six runs during a 10-3 triumph. He surpassed Wynn's club mark of 224 career homers that day. Bagwell had another three-homer night on June 9th during a 13-4 drubbing of the Chicago White Sox. On the season's final day, Bagwell would break the team's single-season record for walks in one year with 149, bettering Wynn's mark by one. Jeff got six free passes in one night during a 16-inning victory over Florida on August 20th. For the year, Bagwell would lead the team with 42 homers (including this game-winner in San Francisco), 128 RBIs, 30 steals and 143 runs scored while hitting .304.

    The Astros fended off early challenges from the Cubs and Reds and appeared to be building a lead in the Central Division when tragedy struck on June 13th. In the eighth inning against the Padres at the Astrodome, play was stopped when manager Larry Dierker collapsed in the dugout and began convulsing uncontrollably. Hospitalized, doctors found a jalapeno-sized blood and tissue mass in his brain that had to be removed. Dierker was gone from the team for a month. The easy-going skipper was thankful to be alive.

    The Reds came to town later that month and swept a four-game series to move into the division lead. With Alou and Caminiti out, Carl Everett stepped up his game. During the return trip to Cincinnati, Everett switched around on lefthander Steve Avery and homered to pace a 5-3 victory on a steamy July 4th.  The Astros left with a four-game split. Everett led the club with a .325 average, powering 25 homers, driving in 108 runs and stealing 27 bases while filling the cleanup spot behind Bagwell.

    Dierker returned to the team after the All-Star break and his club responded with five straight wins. Injuries began to pile up, though. Pitchers Sean Bergman and Doug Henry were disabled. Everett, Richard Hidalgo, Derek Bell and Ricky Gutierrez were on the mend too. Dierker was thankful for the versatile Bill Spiers who played seven different positions during the year. The outfield was so in need of able bodies by August that Spiers and Craig Biggio manned the outfield at times while rookie reserve Glen Barker patrolled in center. The Astros brought up two hot-hitting minor leaguers, Daryle Ward and Lance Berkman, who had limited experience in the outfield and traded for flycatchers Matt Mieske and Stan Javier in their need to field a lineup.

    Houston tried to ward off the pesky Reds but Cincinnati refused to go away. The wounded Astros' frustration mounted as they reeled off a club-record twelve-game winning streak at the expense of the Expos, Phillies and Cubs. Despite the record run, the Astros only gained 1-1/2 games on Cincinnati.

    Players returning for injuries and starting pitching were a key to the streak. Caminiti and Everett delivered clutch hits while Lima, Hampton and Reynolds pitched well. Reynolds would struggle through a 16-14 season while Scott Elarton came out of the bullpen to provide a fourth solid starter. Holt fell to a 5-13 mark.

    Dierker's men were expected to walk away with the division but found themselves in the fight of their lives. So did Spiers who was attacked in Milwaukee by a drunken "fan" on  September 24th. Hampton and stadium security came to Spiers' aid but not before another outfield body was temporarily lost. The angry Astros rallied to topple the Brewers, 9-4.

    The Reds and Astros met in Houston tied for first place with five games to go. Cincinnati won the opener, 4-1, but the Astros answered with their own 4-1 victory the next night. The Dodgers came to town for the final series and took the first game, 5-1, but the Reds also lost in Milwaukee.

    Despite the tension for the Central title, both teams also had to watch the New York Mets who had a chance to win the "Wild Card" berth. Whoever didn't win the division had no guarantee they would make it to the playoffs.

    With the season on the line, Houston's two best pitchers were handed the ball. Lima delivered with his 21st win, a 3-0 shutout that was scoreless until Biggio drilled his sixteenth homer. Biggio led the league in doubles (56), led the team in hits (188), batted .294 and stole 28 bases. Billy Wagner recorded a club-record 39th save. With another Cincinnati loss, the Astros had clinched tie for the division crown.

    The season's final game on October 3rd had been sold out for months. The Astros had planned a big farewell to the Astrodome after the game which included a concert by Willie Nelson and the introduction of the All-Astro team. Little did anyone know when they bought their tickets that the game itself would be so meaningful. Hampton kept the Dodgers in check while Ward and Caminiti built an early five-run lead.

    Hampton would set a team record with his 22nd victory. The lefty's 22-4 mark and 2.90 ERA were certainly worthy of the Cy Young Award but ex-Astro Johnson got the trophy instead with 17 wins, a better ERA and an amazing 364 strikeouts.

    Jay Powell wanted to be the one to seal the deal. The reliever was brought in with a 9-1 lead and gave up three runs in the ninth. As impatient fans waited for the celebration to begin, Powell finally retired Raul Mondesi to end the game and clinch the Central Division title. The farewell ceremonies would have to wait while champagne flowed in the locker room. The Astrodome roared in fireworks, music and merriment. It was also sad for many to realize their ultimate playpen, dubbed by Judge Hofheinz as the "Eighth Wonder Of The World" had seen its last regular season game.

    As Dierker himself was honored as both player and manager, his squad completed a 97-65 season that, in some ways, was more impressive than the 102-win season the year before. With all the injuries and setbacks, this club was never allowed to take the day off. The Reds lost a one-game playoff to the Mets and missed out on the postseason. Houston, meanwhile, flew to Atlanta in hopes they could finally celebrate a playoff series victory and finish the Astrodome's legacy in style.

The NLDS...

    The Braves were unquestionably the league's best team in the nineties. Behind solidpitching and timely hitting, Atlanta had won their division eight of the past nine years and had gone to the World Series in four of them. If there was any team the Astros wanted to knock off in the postseason, it was the Braves.

    Shane Reynolds opposed Greg Maddux in Game One. Tony Eusebio staked him to an early lead with a run-scoring single. Atlanta pulled into a 1-1 tie in the fifth when Daryle Ward put Houston ahead in the sixth with a towering homer. Ken Caminiti put the game away with a three-run shot off Mike Remlinger as the Astros earned a 6-1 triumph. It was the first time Houston led a postseason series since 1986. Kevin Millwood quickly evened the series with a brilliant one-hitter in a 5-1 Atlanta win.
Caminiti: Great series ended one homer short.

    The series was now a best two-of-three with the Astros owning a chance to win it before the home fans. Houston had Hampton on the hill for Game Three and the club spotted him a two-run lead in the first inning. He cruised through the first five innings before Brian Jordan launched a three-run homer to put Atlanta ahead. Bill Spiers tied it in the seventh and the two clubs went to extra innings tied at three. In the tenth, the Astros loaded the bases with nobody out and the fans breathlessly expected to be partying shortly. But John Rocker shut down the rally with an assist from shortstop Walt Weiss who stabbed a wicked shot from Eusebio and recovered to throw home and get the second out. Jordan delivered a two-run double off Powell in the 12th as the Braves escaped with a 5-3 decision.

    Drained, Houston looked flat in Game Four as Atlanta built a 7-0 lead after six innings. But the Astros would not let the Astrodome close in such shabby fashion. Eusebio got it started in the seventh with a solo homer. Caminiti provided the big blow with another three-run blast in a furious four-run eighth that closed the gap to two. Caminiti had a chance to tie it in the ninth inning with two outs. He had gone 8-for-16 in the series with three homers. Atlanta tempted fate and Caminiti gave a mighty swing. But it landed short of the center field fence. The Astros lost, 7-5, to squelch the hopes of Houston fans yet again. The Braves moved on to another World Series while the Astros moved on to their new downtown stadium, leaving the Astrodome to echo with the ghosts of 1980 and 1986, joined by the postseason disappointments of the last three years.

    In its 35 years, the Astros won more games in the Astrodome than they lost and, while they never won that postseason game needed to reach the World Series, Houston baseball fans could take comfort that they had seen a spectacular show, the highlights of which you can now revisit as often as you like.


The sign says it all.

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