The most talked-about man in America Monday looked like he hadn't gotten much sleep.

"I did not feel good at 3 a.m.," said Dick Howser. "I didn't feel any better at 5 a.m. And when the morning finally came, the sun was not shining and I did not say, 'It's another day.'

"Very few people in this country don't know what happened last night," continued the manager of the Kansas City Royals, who had 120 million people looking over his shoulder and screaming in his ear on Sunday in the ninth inning of a World Series game.

"Everybody's got an opinion. But only mine counts . . . Everybody is second-guessing me . . . but, you know, that's probably the way it should be. That's a big part of why people pay to get in the park -- to second-guess the manager."

When we make our short list of those charms that most define baseball and keep us bound to it for years, we should never forget that much-slandered poor cousin: the second-guess. It's an embarrassingly large part of what the game has going for it.

No other sport invites, cultivates and relishes debates over strategy to a fraction of the degree that baseball does.

None of our other games is so open. None offers just the perfect amount of time between plays and pitches so that everybody can "get their head into the game." Nowhere else is the gap between the knowledgeable outsider and the true insider so precariously small.

When Howser decided to leave Dan Quisenberry in the bullpen and keep Charlie Leibrandt on the mound at the crisis point of Game 2, the dedicated fan had about 98 percent as much information in hand as Howser had.

If the fan reasoned better, intuited better, understood better, then his opinion, his decision, truly was better than that of the manager of the American League champions.

John Q. Public's opinion on Star Wars or busting the deficit or punting on fourth and one in the Super Bowl is only minimally informed. Next to the secretary of defense or the head of the Federal Reserve or the offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, he's an ignoramus guessing in the dark.

The difference between what we know and what Howser knows isn't really enough to matter in most cases.

When we say Howser blew it -- and I say he dead-flat completely messed it up -- we really think we're right.

Maybe we aren't. But we feel that we are. What an amazing magnetic pull for any game to have upon us.

The true fan doesn't second-guess. He guesses simultaneously. He doesn't wait for the manager to fail, then say, "I'd have done it a different way."

When Jack Clark homered, bruising some poor fan 30 rows up in the left field bleachers, when Terry Pendleton cleared the bases with his double into the corner, millions of us felt a mixture of glee and guilt.

Why glee? Because we'd had the partial vindication of seeing the demise of a tactic that we opposed. Why guilt? Because we'll never know if what we wanted done would have worked.

On top of that, as good fans, we also acknowledge that, in baseball, the right strategy doesn't always work or the wrong always fail. Even the result doesn't settle the argument. Although a 475-foot home run like Clark's has a certain persuasive ring about it, as though we were intended to feel that, yes, this was truly stupid.

Howser has defended his logic clearly. He says Leibrandt was in the midst of a career game, still had good stuff, and that he'd rather have Pendleton up right-handed than bring in Quisenberry to face a left-handed pinch hitter like Andy Van Slyke. (Does Van Slyke have the power to drive managers mad? He was on deck when Clark homered.)

All this percentage parsing is fine, up to a point. But Howser, like many baseball men who live in a world of detail, may have forgotten to look at the whole forest.

For years the Royals have been defined by two players. George Brett and Quisenberry. At such a juncture, how can you publicly withdraw confidence from such a central player? In a sense, it's more potentially destructive, both for the whole Series and for the future, than bringing him in and losing.

On a huge stage, you use larger-than-life people. If you're lucky enough to have them. Year after year, aren't we asked to accept the fact that the Reggie Jacksons, Steve Garveys, Pete Roses and Bretts are more likely to succeed than those who don't think of themselves as Hall of Famers?

When you can bring in a face from the bullpen that the majority of the nation's population recognizes, then make Van Slyke beat that face.

It doesn't happen often.

Al Oliver, with nearly 3,000 hits and an ego to match, may do it. But not many of the spear carriers can.

In moments of great crisis, doesn't it seem that the same managers who have built superb team-machines are the same ones who are unwilling to let those machines run without their intervention?

By crossing the percentages, by letting Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Clark, was Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda in some way becoming the pitcher himself? By leaving Quisenberry in the pen, was Howser taking the whole game on himself? Only a suggestion. But Howser did say Monday afternoon, "Why should I put the bear on somebody else?"

Take on that bear, Dick. Even though Quisenberry's been beating it for six years.

What this baseball postseason has demonstrated is not that a couple of managers may have made a couple of ugly mistakes. You can find sharp people in baseball who will defend both Lasorda and Howser. For instance, Sparky Anderson volunteered, "Quiz ain't got no livin' left-hander out for two months. I'd a stayed with Leibrandt, too."

What we've really seen is a richness of strategic texture and sophisticated argument that only baseball offers. Many games are worth playing or watching. But what other sport is so much fun to think about?