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Courageous Dick Howser was just too ill to manage

I lay no claim to even the barest medical knowledge, but it seemed apparent to me when I talked with Dick Howser at his home in Tallahassee. Fla., a week before he left for spring training that he was in no physical condition to manage a major league baseball learn He had lost so much weight after two operations for brain cancer that he looked almost delicate He required daily naps and his energy seemed to flag at the slightest exertion But the man is so courageous so relentlessly upbeat, that he just about had me convinced that if anybody could do the job under these daunting circumstances, he could. "I feel good." he told me almost immediately, blithely dismissing his fragile appearance. Now no one in my experience says the word "good with as much conviction and as much gusto as Howser does. He gives it such an operatic flourish that you half expect a full orchestra to strike up behind him. He said he felt good, on this day in Tallahassee, and I could only conclude that my eyes had simply deceived me I believed him Maybe he could manage after all

Of course, he couldn't. He arrived at spring training in Fort Myers on a Thursday By Monday he was gone. Shortly after noon on that day, he gathered his Kansas City Royals mound him at first base in Terry Park and told them he was resigning. Composed and. outwardly al least, unemotional, he wished them luck in the coming season and told them they had the ability to reach the top. Then he introduced his successor, former Minnesota Twins manager Billy Gardner, who had been hired at the end of last season, ostensibly as the third base coach Bowing out was the right thing to do For all his optimism. Howser must have known he was not Up to the long season.

Nevertheless, it was a sad moment. Howser had told me in Tallahassee that he had not been out of uniform in baseball season since the seventh grade, and the only reason he hadn't worn One then was that the school didn't have any. He's a baseball person through and through.

More than that, he's one of the game's true gentlemen. That distinction is passed around so freely in sports that "gentleman" has begun to lose its meaning I have heard the word applied to those who might more accurately be described as scoundrels. But Howser is a gentleman. When his team lost the first two games of the 85 World Series at home, he did not lose his dignity under the heavy fire aimed his way from the second-guessers Howser. it was said, stayed too long with starter Charlie Leibrandt in the second game a 4-2 loss to the cross-slate Cardinals when he had Dan Quisenberry, then considered baseball s best reliever in the bullpen But Leibrandt had carried a shutout into the ninth and was Howser's most durable pitcher Howser accepted the criticism He made himself available to even the most hostile interviewers. His confidence in his players was unshaken despite the hole they were in.

And when his team became the first to win the Series by overcoming such a deficit, your faith was renewed that nice guys do, after all, win one now and then. But even had he lost, he would have spared us the vitriol poured forth by his counterpart. Whitey Herzog. Defeat would have been a bitter pill, but Howser would have swallowed it gracefully.

He had looked forward to this season. In Tallahassee he spoke glowingly of his new outfielder, Danny Tartabull—"He's got pop in his bat"—and of his team's celebrated prospect. Bo Jackson. "Nobody out there has his potential, said Howser. "He's just another reason I don't want to slop managing" He must have known al the time that his chances of managing again were remote al best. But he wouldn't allow that negative thought to insinuate it self into his conversation. Norman Vincent Peale is a doomsayer alongside Howser. Whatever his inner fears may have been he would not give them voice

I learned something else about Howser in Tallahassee. Although he had, as he put it, "taken his faith off the shelf," it hadn't made him a Bible thumper. Cynics may say that he and his wife. Nancy had found religion as a last resort. But it didn't seem that way. Their faith hadn't made either of them appreciably different from what they had started out to be. It was just another sign of their grace. Nancy put it better than I ever could:

"As a child I was brought up to believe that it was not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game Then in the real world I found that to be all wrong There I learned you had to win to get anywhere and it didn't matter how you did it But now after what has happened to Dick I realize that my priorities in the so-called real world were ill wrong. Now Dick and I both know that the old way was the right way. You know it really...and how you play the game."

Win or lose. Howser has played it superlatively.