SAN FRANCISCO -- Dick Howser's life was much too short. There is nothing he or we could do about that. The reputation and the memories he left behind as his sliver of baseball history are, however, just right. What was within his power, he handled as well as anyone could ask. He will be recalled, and for a long time, as a man who proved the difference between book and cover, between show and substance. With Howser, what you saw was much less than what you finally got.
Howser could not have been given much less in the way of raw material. As they say, he wasn't tall, but he didn't have muscles, either. Yet he played shortstop for eight years in the major leagues and hit .248 which, nowadays, probably would have made him a million bucks. Then, it got him a coachship.
Scrubbed and brushed, he was boyish and agreeable; but he couldn't pull off handsome or even mildly impressive. His voice wasn't deep, his glare wouldn't have pierced cream cheese and though he was natively smart, he wasn't brilliant or bookish. He waved home runners and hit fungos for 10 seasons before the New York Yankees promoted him to manager. A boy wonder he wasn't.
In his first season, his team won 103 games and almost made it to the World Series. Then Howser did something that will be remembered much longer. George Steinbrenner told Howser to fire coach Mike Ferraro, one of Howser's friends, as a scapegoat gesture after the playoffs.
Quietly, Howser said, "No."
Steinbrenner screamed, "Yes."
Howser told Steinbrenner to take the most glamorous job in baseball, the job he had worked 22 years to get, and shove it. Fire my friend, fire me.
At a news conference, Steinbrenner tried to gloss over Howser's dismissal, saying Howser had asked to leave and had not been pushed. Howser, a man with no power in his game or personal wealth, quietly and politely told everyone that, though he was sorry he had to point it out, what Steinbrenner had just said was completely untrue and the owner knew it.
Step on Dick Howser and they'd have to get him off you with a wrench.
Within baseball, that incident answered all the questions anybody ever had about Howser. It was a dugout Profile in Courage. You couldn't buy him. You couldn't intimidate him. You couldn't silence him. His loyalty was absolute. No prize baseball could offer could make him lie or betray a friend.
In a world of large, gifted, amibitious, and often belligerent men, Howser quickly became one of the few who was universally respected, admired and warmly liked. One out of three wouldn't be bad. How many others could claim to be all three?
Howser's most remarkable trait was that, when he spoke, people absolutely believed every word. Not that his words were profound or different than those a hundred other managers had said. They weren't. What distinguished Howser was that he said only what he truly thought. In 1985, his Royals trailed California by 7 1/2 games at the all-star break, but beat the Angels by one game. Then, in the playoffs, they trailed a superior Toronto team, three games to one. Howser called a meeting and said, "I still feel like we can get this thing done."
As second baseman Frank White recalled, "That was about all he said. He didn't yell. But he really believed it. And then we believed it."
No team of mediocre gifts ever did so much against odds so great as those Royals. They beat Toronto, then fell behind the significantly better St. Louis Cardinals, 2-0 and 3-1. They, of course, came back to be world champions, winning six sudden-death postseason games.
The clearest memory from that World Series is of Howser. In Game 2 he had left a struggling starter, Charlie Leibrandt, on the mound and Dan Quisenberry, the most effective relief pitcher of the decade, in the bullpen until too late. Leibrandt lost the game.
The next day in St. Louis, there was no game. Just questions. Thousands of them from hundreds of reporters who were convinced that Howser had blundered badly. The first several times Howser explained his decision, I still thought he was dead wrong. Then, I noticed my watch. Wave after wave of reporters descended on Howser. Every 20 minutes, the same questions would recur. For two hours, Howser did not move. He knew he would be blasted in every paper, on every radio and TV broadcast from coast to coast. He wasn't going to change the second-guessers' minds.
And he didn't care.
"Second-guessing is part of the game," Howser said. "I do it, too. It's my job to make decisions, then explain them and then take the heat."
So he stood and loaded his own quotes into all the guns aimed at him. The loss of a World Series was going to be laid at his small feet.
When they told Howser last July that he had a malignant brain tumor, he told the Royals to hold his job, please, because he'd be back for spring training.
Some people may think that Dick Howser failed because he could not manage the Royals this year, because he could not beat cancer, because he died Wednesday. Some others think that the day he reported to camp, dozens of pounds underweight and his uniform hanging on him like a sheet, that he won. He stood in his big floppy golf hat with all the fresh scars underneath and answered the questions. He reported for duty. Shoulders back, proud of what was left of himself. Two days later, he retired. Too hot. Too hard.
Howser's private tragedy is simply that he did not live long enough to suit the family he dearly loved. We can't touch that or help it. The public Howser is our province; that part of him got to fulfill most, if not all, of its destiny. In another 20 years of managing he probably would have won more pennants. But he could not have proved anything new about himself. All the best already was on display.