He sat behind the desk slowly sipping a beer, holding the can to his lips for a long moment almost as if he hoped when he put it down he would wake up and find out he had just been having a bad dream.

But each time he swallowed, Dick Howser knew the scene wasn't going to change. He was still going to be sitting in his office in Royals Stadium and he was still going to be facing question after question about the decisions he made during his Kansas City Royals' 4-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the World Series Sunday night.

Actually, Manager Howser faced just one question. But he faced it at least 100 times: Why did he let starter Charlie Leibrandt stay in as the Royals' 2-0 lead dissolved in the ninth inning when Dan Quisenberry was ready in the bullpen? Again and again Howser insisted he had not lost confidence in Quisenberry. Again and again he said Leibrandt was throwing well.

Most remarkable was Howser's patience. Across the hall, Whitey Herzog, with a two-game lead, was snarling. If there is a World Series record for obscenities uttered, the Cardinals' manager is a lock to break it.

But there sat Howser, second-guessed by players, writers, probably ushers, too, and he never blinked. He said he was sick over the loss and he looked pale and tired. But never was heard a disparaging word.

"That's what's amazing about Dick," Quisenberry had said on a happier day. "He never loses his cool. If there's a problem, he doesn't say, 'It's not fair that I have this problem.' He says, 'Here's how we'll solve it.' "

This has been a paradoxical month for Howser. When the Royals trailed the Toronto Blue Jays, 2-0, in the American League Championship Series, he was second-guessed in two countries for his pitching maneuvers. When he outmanaged old friend and former teammate Bobby Cox in the last three games, Howser went from vilified to deified.

Now, he's back to vilified.

But sudden turns of fortune are nothing new to Howser. In 1980 he managed the New York Yankees. He won 103 games and beat the Baltimore Orioles for the East Division title in a superb race during which the pursuing Orioles won 100 games. But he lost to the Royals in the playoffs. So, George Steinbrenner fired him.

Less than a year later, the Royals hired him and he won the strike season mini-pennant. Again he lost in the playoffs. This time, though, he didn't get fired.

Instead, he watched the Royals crumble, torn by a drug scandal that ended with four players going to jail after the 1983 season. Prior to the 1984 season, many people picked the Royals last in the West.

They finished first. Again, they lost the playoffs. In 1985, 7 1/2 games back in July, they won the West again, on the final weekend of the season. This time, after trailing three games to one, they won out.

In the champagne-soaked locker room, the Royals players agreed: "This is great for Dick."

"I got sick and tired of hearing he couldn't manage because he had a bad playoff record," George Brett said. "We lost those playoff games. Dick is one hell of a manager."

And Howser, who had insisted time and again that his playoff record -- once 0-11 -- didn't bother him, admitted it had bothered him.

"Because of the questions all the time," he said. "I know I'm a good manager, I don't think I have to defend my record. But when we kept losing, it did get frustrating. We lost because the other teams were better than we were. We won this time because our guys were better."

They call Howser a player's manager. He was a journeyman major-leaguer, a utility infielder for most of his eight years. His career ended in 1968 with the Yankees. He stayed in the organization until the managing chance came along in 1980.

Howser is 48 but when he jams his arms into his windbreaker as he sits behind his desk, he looks like a little boy sipping his father's beer. He still has the face of the kid shortstop he once was. He laughs easily and never says a bad word about one of his players.

He is image-conscious. When a television camera is on in his office, Howser puts his beer under his desk. When questions about Steinbrenner and the Yankees come up, Howser ducks: "The Yankee organization was very good to me. It gave me a chance to manage."

But Howser isn't always sanguine. When Minnesota Manager Ray Miller commented that the Royals looked uptight and tired during a three-game Twins sweep late in September, Howser retorted.

"I love these guys who spend their lives sitting in the bullpen," he said of Miller, who used to be the Orioles' pitching coach. "They finally get a job managing and they think they know everything. So they swept us. How many games out are they now, 20?"

Friends say Howser laughs when second-guessed because he has so much self-confidence. Howser rarely takes credit for the Royals' success. He is almost always self-effacing. But in the flush of victory in Toronto he murmured with a smile, "I'm not the best manager alive. Just one of the two or three best."

Then, he laughed. "Don't print that," he said. "Say one of the two or three best in Kansas City."

He has won three division titles in four full seasons. And the last two seasons he has won with a team full of offensive holes. The Royals hit .251 this season, 13th best in the American League; only the Texas Rangers scored fewer runs.

"He is patient with everyone," Brett said. "As long as he thinks you're trying, he won't get on you. And the guys on this team will bust a gut for Dick Howser."

Howser stood firm on his work of Sunday night.

"Charlie Leibrandt wasn't coming out," he said. "It was my decision and it didn't work out. I'm the manager. I take the responsibility. That's the way it should be. I know people will remember this and think I made a mistake. That's life."

And when Howser looks back on this season, perhaps he'll remember something he said Wednesday:

"Now that we won this thing, I won't have to worry about answering questions about my playoff record for another year. If we lose the World Series, I'll probably get asked about my Series record.

"But at least now I have a World Series record to talk about. A lot of managers never get that chance."