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Howser's presence is permanent in Kansas City

Legendary Royals manager's impact still palpable nearly 30 years after his death
MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

Thirty years and 2,300 miles have not been enough time nor distance for the late Dick Howser to fade into the Kansas City Royals' background.

The Royals had a day off on Thursday, but it seemed like a visitor could feel Howser's presence.

Thirty years and 2,300 miles have not been enough time nor distance for the late Dick Howser to fade into the Kansas City Royals' background.

The Royals had a day off on Thursday, but it seemed like a visitor could feel Howser's presence.

Oh, there has been plenty that has happened since that afternoon on Feb. 23, 1987, in Fort Myers, Fla., when Howser, who underwent two surgeries for a brain tumor the previous summer, announced he was resigning as the Royals' manager, just hours after making his opening address for Spring Training.

Howser confided to friends that just walking out in the Florida sun and speaking to the players had convinced him that he physically wasn't able to handle the managerial demands.

It was 114 days later, on June 17, 1987, that Howser -- who was the definition of hard-nosed -- lost his battle with cancer.

To this day, though, the aura of Howser remains at Kauffman Stadium, where he has been honored with a statue, and at the Royals' spring complex, which is now located in Surprise, Ariz.

Howser was that kind of person. He wasn't the physically biggest guy. Baseball Reference lists him at 5-foot-8, 155 pounds. Howser was, however, a giant of a guy in baseball terms. Not only was he a two-time All-American at Florida State, but his impact on the game was such that college baseball's player of the year award is called the Dick Howser Award.

Royals Hall of Fame photo gallery: Dick Howser

Howser was the American League Rookie of the Year Award runner-up in 1961, and he spent eight seasons in the big leagues, with time split among the Kansas City A's, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees.

Tough? Howser coached third base for 10 years for George Steinbrenner's Yankees. He took over the manager's post in New York in 1978 only to become the one manager in history to walk away from Steinbrenner. After the Royals swept the Yankees in the '80 ALCS, Steinbrenner demanded the firing of third-base coach Mike Ferraro. Howser resigned in protest and never looked back.

Howser became the managers of the Royals in August 1981. Among his accomplishments in Kansas City was managing the Royals to the first World Series championship in franchise history in 1985. That title team was the first to overcome 3-1 deficits twice in a postseason -- against the Blue Jays in the AL Championship Series and the Cardinals in the World Series.

The miracles, however, ended there. The next season he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, a discovery made after Bill Zeigler -- the trainer of the Texas Rangers and, like Howser, a Florida State alum -- was concerned about the way Howser acted at the 1986 All-Star Game. Howser had managed the AL team and picked Zeigler as his trainer.

The day of the workout at the Astrodome, Zeigler called Royals trainer Mickey Cobb and told him that Howser needed a medical evaluation as soon as he returned to Kansas City. Howser went in on the following Friday, and the brain tumor was discovered.

Less than a year later, Howser passed away. His impact, however, will never disappear.

With less than seven full seasons as a manager, Howser didn't have the service time needed to be elected to the Hall of Fame, despite a career .544 winning percentage -- he enjoyed winning seasons in six of the seven years he filled out a lineup card. Five of the seven seasons resulted in postseason appearances.

And he was as big a factor in the success of those teams as the players.

Howser wasn't one of those managers who would wander around the clubhouse, playing cards or telling jokes with players. But they knew he had their back. He just felt like the clubhouse was the sanctuary of the players, and management didn't belong.

Oh, Howser had an open door policy. He said any player could come in and talk to him any time they wanted. Hal McRae, however, said no player had enough intestinal fortitude to take Howser up on that invitation.

Howser didn't manage an inning or two or three ahead. He was games and weeks and months ahead. Two moments from the Royals' championship run in 1985 stand out as examples of his ability to look at the big picture.

For the first 4 1/2 months of the season, the Royals had a fairly strict platoon of McRae and Jorge Orta at the designated hitter spot. But with the Royals down, 6-3, with runners on the corners and two outs in the ninth inning of a July 9 game at Yankee Stadium, right-hander Brian Fisher was hailed from the bullpen to take over for left-handed starter Ron Guidry to face the righty-hitting McRae.

McRae promptly lined a run-scoring single to left-center.

Asked about allowing McRae to face a right-hander, Howser smiled.

"He's my full-time DH," said Howser.

When did that decision come, after the run-scoring single?

"No," said Howser, "in Spring Training. You could tell Mac's bat speed wasn't there, and he had to cheat to hit a right-hander. If I DH him every day to start the season, the advance scouts would get out the word. This was the last game of our first time through the league. By the time teams figure it out this time, we'll be in the postseason."

And then there was Game 2 of the World Series. Leading 2-0 entering the ninth, Howser sent starting pitcher Charlie Leibrandt, a left-hander, back to the mound. When the Cardinals rallied for four runs that inning, the media was aghast that Howser had not opted for All-Star closer Dan Quisenberry.

Howser calmly answered the questions after the game, and then during the off-day workout the next day. He was politically correct and calm.

Later on the off-day, in a private moment, he was asked why he really stayed with Leibrandt.

"I need Quiz to win four games," he said.

But couldn't that have been one of the four?

"Quiz is at that point where he is struggling to get left-handed hitters out," said Howser. "Leibrandt was in command. He had only give up two hits, and their first three hitters in the ninth were left-handed. I couldn't take that chance."

It worked out. The Royals won four of the next five games and their first World Series championship.

And Howser? He did it his way, and it worked.

Nobody who knew him would have expected anything different.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com.

Kansas City Royals