A guy called a Kansas City newspaper last week with a solution to a question folks from Raytown to Topeka have been asking. He knew what was wrong with the Royals.

"Bo Jackson," he said flatly. "The Royals haven't been worth a damn since they signed that football player."

When the story was repeated to Manager Dick Howser, he almost laughed. He spends many of his waking hours trying to figure out why last season's champions were eight games below .500 through Friday (39-47) and in need of a miraculous recovery.

To make sure he has all possible theories in hand, fans phone and write him with dozens of possible explanations, and the Royals' signing of a Heisman Trophy winner is not the only odd suggestion.

"Someone said he saw a player with a strange woman in the parking lot," Howser said. "Another heard a certain player was having trouble with his marriage.

"People have called to say the players aren't getting along or that they're making too much money."

Howser sighed and pushed a hand through his hair.

He wishes it were girlfriends or clubhouse chemistry or Bo Jackson.

What he fears is worse: That the Royals may not be very good.

To understand what they are going through this season, you have to race back to the end of last season, which Howser often does.

"Hey," he said, "we knew we were one of the best seven, eight, nine teams in baseball. And we knew we were only going to dominate people if our pitching dominated people.

"If a couple of people went down or stopped producing, we were going to be in trouble."

Howser knew this at the end of last season when his Royals won the American League West with baseball's fifth-best record (91-71).

Not only that, they did it with an offense that was next-to-last in runs and batting average and dead last in on-base percentage.

They did it knowing that when the season ended, they would have to make some major changes.

Since they had pitching talent available at the minor-league level, they discussed trading a starting pitcher or two to get a power-hitting outfielder and maybe a shortstop who'd hit more than .188 (as Buddy Biancalana did).

Even after their improbable victories in the American League playoffs and the World Series, the Royals planned on making changes because, as Howser said, "Everyone remembers the 11-0 game in the World Series Game 7 . I remember the 3-0 and 3-1 games. Those are the kind of games we had all year long."

Then at the winter meetings, they did nothing.

And as baseball races toward the all-star break, the Royals are paying the price -- with a 39-47 record and a team that is 8 1/2 games out of first place through Friday's games.

Where are the Royals weak?

Where are they not weak? Catcher Jim Sundberg is hitting in the low .200s, center fielder Willie Wilson is hitting around .240 and the shortstops have made 16 errors.

Worse, the starting pitching has been no better than mediocre, especially Bret Saberhagen, the 22-year-old Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP.

From a 20-6 season, Saberhagen has gone 4-10 and Howser said he may be going to the bullpen.

"You can make excuses," Howser said, "but the truth is, he has been getting hammered. It's so hard to understand because of the way he pitched the first two years.

"Right now, he's reluctant. He's throwing too many breaking balls. He's going to have to go after hitters, challenge them, get some people out.

"Nobody is looking for average pitching. Is he going to be average? I don't want him to be in that category. I've seen guys like that come and go. You can see those guys on the street corner all the time."

From a 14-10 season, 23-year-old Mark Gubicza has been shifted to the bullpen and has a 3-5 record. "He looks absolutely great for one pitch or one batter," Howser said. "But I don't know what he'll do from one pitch to the next."

The more Howser comes to his office and tries to figure out how to produce runs with a lineup that was outscored, 78-34, in a franchise record 11-game losing streak that ended last Wednesday, the more he remembers trades the Royals didn't make.

Figuring they needed one more big bat, they talked to the Texas Rangers about Gary Ward, the Minnesota Twins about Tom Brunansky and the San Francisco Giants about Chili Davis.

They actually had a Gubicza-for-Davis deal worked out, then rejected it.

"Is he still leading the National League in RBIs?" Howser asked. "I don't look at the papers. I could say it was the general manager or somebody else who turned it down, but it was me just as much as anyone. The guy Gubicza won 14 games for us. You start the season thinking you're going to get 16 out of him."

The Royals did make some minor changes, picking up shortstop Argenis Salazar from the Montreal Expos and signing outfielder Rudy Law when he was released by the Chicago White Sox (Law has played well, hitting .264 and driving in 31 runs, but is out with a knee injury).

What they still lack is a home-run threat in the middle of the lineup. With Wilson hitting (which he hasn't been) and with George Brett healthy (which he hasn't been), the Royals are still a bat short and must rely on second baseman Frank White or first baseman Steve Balboni to drive in runs.

"Frank White is one helluva player," an American League scout said, "but he's no cleanup hitter. Balboni is good in the No. 7 spot, but put him higher and he chases every pitch thrown in the dirt because he tries to do too much.

"Look at their lineup -- Darryl Motley, Balboni, Greg Pryor, Jim Sundberg, Salazar . . . That's a pitcher's dream."

Then there is Saberhagen, who was supposed to prevent 11-game losing streaks and was unhittable in the World Series (2-0, 0.50 ERA). Scouts who've seen him say his velocity is down, and that he has stopped throwing inside.

Publicly, the Royals will only say that Saberhagen is healthy. Privately, they believe he may be suffering the hangover from an intoxicating season.

"We played a game in Sarasota this spring, and he was introduced as the hero of the World Series," a Kansas City source said. "What a bunch of bull. He was outstanding, but did they forget Brett hit .370 and that Charlie Leibrandt and Danny Jackson both pitched well?"

Saberhagen has heard everyone's theories. He agrees with some, disagrees with some.

"This is the most frustrated I've ever been," he said. "I go through stretches where I make real good pitches, then have other stretches where I don't. If someone figures it out, I wish they'd tell me.

"When I go out and pitch, I feel like I'm the same guy who was out there last year. I think too many people have given up on me. I plan to play for a long time. If I can't get through this, I can't get through anything."