MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Howser's influence resonates, 30 years later

Royals manager's steady hand guided 1985 champs before his passing in '87

Howser's influence resonates, 30 years later

The memory is vivid for George Brett.

He dropped by the hospital to visit Royals manager Dick Howser, who was about to undergo surgery for a brain tumor. And after the two exchanged pleasantries, a picture on the stand next to Howser's bed caught Brett's attention.

"I didn't know he thought that much of me as a person to put a picture of me and him in his hospital room," Brett said of that late July night in 1986.

The following spring, the reality hit. Howser, who had led the Royals to a World Series championship in 1985 with his ability to bring along a young but talented pitching staff, wouldn't be returning to the Royals.

"I remember when he came back in Spring Training [in 1987]," said Brett. "He had his jersey from the year before, but he had lost so much weight it looked like he was wearing Cecil Fielder's jersey. He was weak, but he addressed the team, and everything was great. Fort Myers was really hot that day. And he got out on the field, and 10 minutes later, he was in his office.

"That's when he was done. I remember going in his office and said, `You all right?' He said, 'I don't think I'm going to be able to make it. I'm not strong enough. I don't feel good out there. I have no energy.' You can't manage a team if you don't have the energy. I don't think he ever put on a uniform again."

Howser passed away less than four months later, 30 years ago Saturday.

Baseball lost a brilliant manager and a wonderful human being. And the Royals stumbled.

Kansas City had advanced to the postseason seven times between 1976 and '85, twice making it to the World Series, not to mention coming back from 3-games-to-1 deficits against the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series and then the Cardinals in the World Series to claim that 1985 title.

But it was another 30 years before the Royals got back into the postseason, losing the World Series to the Giants in 2014 before returning the next year and beating the Mets for the franchise's second World Series championship.

Time has only strengthened the memory of Howser for those players he managed.

Rockies manager Bud Black, for example, took No. 10 for his uniform in honor of Howser.

"He's the guy who gave me my chance and believed in me," said Black.

Howser stood only 5 feet, 8 inches, but was a giant in the game. He managed with confidence and determination. He wasn't about to be pushed around.

Howser is the only manager to resign from the Yankees during the George Steinbrenner regime, and at least three times when Howser managed the Royals, he turned down overtures to return to the Yankees at significantly more money than he earned in Kansas City.

And Howser's arrival in Kansas City after the settlement of the 1981 midseason strike was a welcomed event by the Royals.

"He was so easy to play for," said Brett. "I don't think he ever had a yelling, screaming match, like other managers do. … His demeanor was calm. He didn't get too excited when things were going [well], and didn't get down when things were going bad. He'd end every meeting with, '[Heck] with it. We'll get it done. I have confidence in you guys. You guys just relax, go out there and play.'"

And the Royals not only went out there and played, but they played well.

Howser's ability to lead was never more evident than in the spring of 1984. As if a major remake of a rotation wasn't challenge enough, four members of the Royals had been convicted of cocaine possession the previous year and spent the offseason in prison.

Howser, however, wasn't about to be distracted. The focus was on what was ahead, not behind. And he quickly assimilated rookies Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza -- both coming out of Double-A -- and Danny Jackson into the pitching routine, along with Black, who had split the two previous seasons between the Royals and Triple-A Omaha.

A team that found itself in last place and 11 games below .500 (40-51) on July 17 began a turnaround the next two nights, Gubicza and Saberhagen pitching the Royals to victories against the Orioles that sent the Royals on their way to a 43-27 finish en route to an AL West title. They were swept by the Tigers in the ALCS, but the stage was set for 1985.

"He just stuck with [the young pitchers]," said Brett. "They weren't polished their first year, but they were good. The way he handled them, showing a lot of confidence in them that first year in the big leagues, turned out to be an integral part of our ball club. That was a great starting rotation."

It certainly showed in the seven-game World Series success against the Cardinals in 1985. The starting pitchers worked 55 1/3 of a possible 62 innings -- including two complete games by Saberhagen, who capped the World Series with a complete-game victory.

"He had a great mind and a great feel for players," said Black, who pitched 15 years in the big leagues and was a pitching coach with the Angels and manager of the Padres before being hired last offseason by the Rockies. "He knew -- whether it was me, Danny Jackson, Charlie Leibrandt, Sabes or Gubicza -- we were legit big league pitchers. We were competitive, not scared. And team guys -- even though we were young. …

"That's something I have carried on in my career, the belief in a player. The gut instincts on a player are usually right. I've grateful Dick was my manager and had that belief in me because there were some up-and-down performances early. But I felt he thought, long-term, I could be successful."

Howser was right, to the surprise of nobody who knew him.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.