It was 30 years ago today that Dick Howser, just a month past his 51st birthday, passed away, a brain tumor taking one of the brilliant baseball minds long before his time. A Royals franchise that he led to the American League West title in 1984 and a World Series
It was 30 years ago today that Dick Howser, just a month past his 51st birthday, passed away, a brain tumor taking one of the brilliant baseball minds long before his time. A Royals franchise that he led to the American League West title in 1984 and a World Series title in 1985 took three decades to recover from the impact of Howser's death.
Howser was longtime coach with the Yankees who then managed the team to 103 wins in 1980, only to be swept in the ALCS by the Royals. That ended with owner George Steinbrenner firing third-base coach Mike Ferraro and Howser quitting in protest.
Steinbrenner would not allow Howser to work for another big league team that next season, pointing out that Howser had another year on his Yankees contract. So Howser returned to coach his alma mater, Florida State, until Steinbrenner relented and allowed him to become the manager of the Royals after the strike in 1981.
As an AL writer starting in 1976 who went on to cover the Royals in 1983 and was there through the championship season, I had an opportunity to develop a strong relationship with Howser on a professional, but not a personal, basis, and it impacted this writer's career as much as his teachings on the field impacted players.
In a different approach to the weekly Q&A this week, I interviewed myself regarding Howser.
MLB.com: What about Howser stood out to you?
Ringolsby: His confidence. I mentioned to him that it was impressive how he was never upset at being second-guessed.
"I've never been second-guessed," he replied. I pointed out he had managed the Yankees and was now managing the Royals. There were plenty of folks that second-guessed him. "I don't consider that being second-guessed," he said. "I consider that a chance to educate the unenlightened."
MLB.com: What prompted you to bring that up?
Ringolsby: In Game 2 of the 1985 World Series, Howser sent starter Charlie Leibrandt back out for the ninth with a 2-0 lead over the Cardinals. The Cardinals rallied in the ninth to win. The postgame focused on Dick's decision to stick with Leibrandt instead of going to his closer, Dan Quisenberry. And it was a night game, so for the workout the next day in St. Louis, the Leibrandt/Quisenberry decision again was the media focus. He gave his answers without hesitation. Every day he and I would have a private session, just a conversation between two people, in which we could discuss anything that happened.
So that day I asked him why he really stayed with Leibrandt.
"I need Quiz to win four games," he said. I pointed out that a win in Game 2 could have been one of those four. "But understand," he said, "Quiz has trouble with left-handed hitters now, and if he had gone out to start the ninth, three of the first four batters he would have faced would have been hitting left-handed. If that games gets away, I might never get him back."
Bottom line, Dick wasn't looking at how to avoid losing. He was looking at how to win, and the Royals did win, coming from a three-games -to-one deficit in both the ALCS against the Blue Jays and the World Series against the Cardinals."
MLB.com: So he was good at looking ahead in a game and being prepared?
Ringolsby: He was good at looking ahead to the season. He was way past the ninth inning and what he was going to do. In February, he was looking at August or September or the postseason.
MLB.com: In what ways?
Ringolsby: In the spring of 1984, Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza were coming out of Double-A and made the team in the spring. And they started Spring Training games. Dick didn't bring them in late, like so many managers do. I asked him why.
"Because I want to see them handle the best hitters in the lineup," he said. "If I bring them in in the sixth or seven inning, they're facing the guys they faced at Double-A."
Then, in 1985, he was platooning longtime DH Hal McRae and Jorge Orta the first half of the season. At the midway point, he left McRae in to hit against a right-hander in the eighth inning with a runner on base. McRae doubled. The next day, in our one-on-one, I asked him why he didn't hit Orta.
"McRae's my DH," he said. Why, I asked. "It's the second half of the season. In Spring Training, you could see he was cheating on the pitch in. If I play him every day from Opening Day, the advance scouts see that and I don't have him in the second half. I have to have Hal down the stretch. So I decided to platoon him in the first half, and then it would be the end of the season before word got out."
MLB.com: Sounds like he was strong-willed?
Ringolsby: He was a man with a value system. I know that Steinbrenner tried to hire him back at least three times. He offered him a lot more money than he made with the Royals, but Dick had a value system and he couldn't be bought.
MLB.com: It had to be difficult to hear he had the brain tumor. How did you find out?
Ringolsby: In 1986, I had moved to Texas, and was sent to the All-Star Game in Houston, where he was the AL manager. I was walking by his office and he saw me and said, "Come in here. We need to chat." I did. He was filling out his lineup card, finished it up, looked up and said, "What do you need?" I told him nothing. He said, "Well, I've got a lot going on. Can we talk later?"
A bit later, Rangers trainer Bill Ziegler, who knew Howser from when they played together at Florida State and was the All-Star trainer, asked me if I noticed anything strange about Dick. I told him about the incident in his office. Zig said Dick had him try and rub a knot out of his neck, saying it was giving him headaches, but nothing seemed to help. He said he was going to call Mickey Cobb, the Royals' trainer, and tell him to get Dick into see a doctor as soon as he got home. Three days later, Dick was examined and the tumor discovered.
MLB.com: Did you see him again?
Ringolsby: Yes. The Rangers went to Kansas City in the first week of September that year. Dean Vogelaar, the Royals' PR guy, came over to me and asked me if I could get away for a couple innings because Dick was in the owner's box with his wife, Nancy, and wanted to chat. I didn't hesitate. Our relationship was a business relationship with respect, but not a good ol' boys, buddy-buddy relationship. I walked in the box and shook hands. Then he handed me a package.
"You never asked me for an autograph or anything," he said. I told him I wasn't a collector. The package was an autographed picture of Dick. It's one of four I have from Major League Baseball: Howser, Jim Fregosi, Don Baylor and Nolan Ryan.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com.