Last Tuesday, by the batting cage at the all-star game, I felt somebody poke me in the ribs with a bat handle.

"Sorry, Dick, am I in your way?" I asked all-star manager Dick Howser.

"Just wanna talk for a second."

I thought, "What's he mad about? Have I criticized his team?"

"What's the problem?" I asked.

"No problem," Howser said. "Just wanted to say hello. How's it goin'?"

We talked a couple of minutes about the pitchers on his World Series champion Kansas City Royals who had gone sour, and his team's recent 11-game losing streak, which had given him what he thought were weeks of tension headaches.

"See ya next week in Baltimore," said Howser.

Howser has always been full of surprises. Nobody thought a little .248-hitting utility man who looked like a cheerful mouse could be a major league manager, a leader of hard men. But Howser won 103 games his first year.

Nobody thought a rookie manager would ever stand up to George Steinbrenner and throw away a job he had worked toward for 22 years just so he could do the right thing by a friend. But Howser did. When Steinbrenner wanted to fire coach Mike Ferraro as a scapegoat, Howser said, "If he goes, we both go." They both went. But with their dignity.

Nobody thought Howser could win a division flag with a team as bad as the '84 Royals, or a world title with a club as full of holes as the '85 Royals -- but he did both. What manager ever did more with less in consecutive seasons?

Nobody ever thought the quiet, modest, serious, inconspicuous Howser would become one of the most popular and respected men within the game -- although he still ducked the public spotlight almost completely.

And, most of all, nobody ever thought that Howser would wake up one day at age 49 with a brain tumor as big as a golf ball.

On the evening of the all-star game, people started noticing that Howser was forgetting the names of players and seemed confused.

"Guys were asking me, 'What's wrong with your manager? He looks awful,' " said George Brett. "I'd say, 'The way we're playing, with that 11-game losing streak, I think he's holding up pretty well.' "

By Thursday, Howser was in the hospital. Friday the diagnosis was in.

Dick Howser didn't make the trip to Baltimore this week.

On Tuesday in Kansas City at 11 a.m., he will begin four hours of surgery to remove a five-centimeter tumor from the left front of his brain. Doctors say he has a 90 percent chance of surviving the surgery. They will not know for another day whether the tumor is benign or malignant.

Seldom has the sport been more saddened or more united in one emotion than it has been the last four days. One of our worst habits is that we often take the best for granted while seldom overlooking the worst. Suddenly, it's as if everybody has realized how special and unique Howser is.

"It's going to be a long 24 hours for a lot of us tomorrow," said Brett on Monday night. "Dick wasn't popular because he tried to be. He didn't try. He was popular because he was a nice guy. He always laid all his cards on the table . . . . Everybody knows he'll accept this battle. He needs more courage now than he's ever had before."

As irony would have it, the coach whom Howser defended against Steinbrenner in 1980 -- Mike Ferraro -- is the interim Royals manager. As a further twist, Ferraro is not only one of Howser's closest friends, but almost the only man in the game who might understand what Howser is enduring. Ferraro overcame kidney cancer in 1983.

"Dick has always been a great inspiration to me. We were utility men sitting on the end of the Yankee bench in 1968. Throughout the '70s, he helped me when I was managing in the minors. He was my example of how it should be done," said Ferraro Monday. "Now I hope I can be an inspiration to him when he thinks about how I licked cancer."

As a team, the Royals have had an almost uniform reaction to Howser's misfortune. First, of course, they are rooting and praying for him.

"Here I thought I had a problem with being out of the lineup with a shoulder injury . How trivial does that sound right now?" Brett asked. "All the little problems that you let eat at you in this game or in your life are back in perspective for a while now.

"Here we have a man who's a friend to all of us and nobody knows his fate. It makes me think about the ridiculous things that I let upset me sometimes. You're so mad and frustrated if you go one for 20, you can feel suicidal. Or I can. You ask yourself, 'Am I washed up? Am I too old to play this game?'

"At a time like this, you say, 'What does all that mean?'

"We just want Dick to come back so that when people look at him they think nothing ever happened. Just so he has a normal life. Whether he comes back to managing, that's another slice of cake. We hope so, but that's not what we're thinking about now."

General Manager John Schuerholz, who insisted that Howser go to the hospital after the manager couldn't remember familiar names, is fiercely optimistic.

"We've gotten so many calls from people who have had brain tumors removed and resumed normal life," he said. "A Kansas City doctor who's back practicing medicine. A Seattle Seahawk assistant coach who's back coaching. Even the official scorer here in Baltimore, Neal Eskridge, who just went through the same thing and may be back out here this week at the park for the first time . . .

"This is another very stark, straightforward reminder that life is precious. The things we take for granted we should enjoy and appreciate."

Since 1958, baseball has always tended to take Dick Howser a bit for granted. That won't happen again. For now, as a long and worrisome couple of days begin, let's just leave it with what people all around the game are thinking and hoping.

Dick, see you next trip in.