KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Larry Dierker has the right attitude to manage in the big leagues. His concern is that he will have the wrong altitude.
After 18 years in the broadcast booth, the new manager of the Houston Astros brings a new perspective to the dugout, but he prefers the elevated view from the press box. Dierker fears that he won't see baseball as well from ground level as he can studying the feed from the center-field camera.
He has left the best seat in the house for the hottest seat in the business. He has abandoned the comfort of color commentary for the black-and-white of wins and losses. He has swapped security for a chance to tread a tightrope.
''I've never been afraid to try something new, and I've always been energized by trying to do something new,'' Dierker said, watching the Astros' workout from a golf cart. ''In some ways I haven't been a perfectionist in any one thing, but a dabbler in many things. But I didn't think there was ever a chance I'd be doing this.''
Like Nuxie managing
Dierker's career with the Astros dates to 1964, when the team was called the Colt .45s, but he has been out of uniform (except for old timers games) since 1977. When he was picked to replace Terry Collins last October, it was a bombshell that belonged with a nuclear warhead. It was as if Joe Nuxhall had been named to manage the Reds.
Can you imagine that? Joe Nuxhall can't. ''My temperament wouldn't allow it,'' he said. ''But I'd give anything to be able to go out there and pitch again.''
Like Nuxhall, Dierker reached the major leagues as a teen-ager. (In his first inning, at the age of 18, he struck out Willie Mays.) Unlike Nuxhall, Dierker has outgrown his prolonged adolescence. He is a thoughtful guy by baseball standards - were it not for his new job, he might have spent the winter writing a book about baseball in Cuba - and he has been a tough competitor in his time. Much as career coaches and minor-league managers resent his hiring, Dierker might well be the best man for this job.
''I would say that I'm a right man, not the right man,'' he said. ''I'm not presumptuous enough to think that I can do this better than anybody else can possibly do it. The one thing I may have that would go beyond somebody else who could come in here is that desire to take that last step.''
Dierker refers to the World Series. After 35 years of stewardship by baseball's usual suspects, the Astros have yet to get past the first round of the playoffs. If nothing else, Dierker represents a new direction. Because the franchise's future in Houston depended on a stadium vote last fall, he was also seen as the club's most compelling figurehead.
Key: Relationships with players
Still, the notion of trading cue cards for lineup cards struck him from the blind side when it was first broached.
''I had a lot of buyer's remorse the first few weeks,'' he said. ''But I haven't had any anxiety whatsoever. ''The first time I came down on the field with my street clothes on (after retiring as a player), I felt like I was naked. I felt so conspicuous when I didn't have a uniform on. I anticipated that I might feel the same way when I put the uniform on again, but it hasn't been that way at all.''
Comparatively speaking, it is not really all that long a leap. Former players are expected to read managers' minds as a condition of their employment as broadcasters. Given as much information as the manager gets - scouting reports, injury updates, statistical printouts - most fans could make educated guesses about strategy. Just because broadcaster-turned-manager Jerry Coleman stumbled through an experimental season in San Diego does not mean Dierker is doomed.
''I expect there will be a learning curve, but I don't expect that to be a major problem,'' Dierker said. ''I subscribe to the theory that 80-90 percent of your job is a matter of your relationships with the players.''
Ultimately, knowing when to bunt is not nearly so important as knowing who needs a hug and who could benefit from a cattle prod. Larry Dierker is a smart guy. He'll figure it out.