When major league baseball owners fire managers during the season, it is always done with the idea that the new man will automatically create improvement. I won't say that never happens, but generally hamburger, no matter what you do to it, somehow resists the flavor of steak.
The exception in the American League West this year is Kansas City, where ex-Yankee pilot Dick Howser replaced Jim Frey as manager on Aug. 31. In what seemed like the amount of time it takes to add milk to instant pudding, Dick had the Royals in first place in their division.
Frey, who guided Kansas City into the World Series last year against the Philadelphia Phillies, probably knows as much about the mechanics of winning as anyone. What cost Jim his job was a 20-30 won-lost record before the strike with a team that had all kinds of talent, and lack of communication with his players after the strike that threatened a repeat performance.
"I don't know how the Royals played before I go here," said Howser, who won 103 games last year as Yankee manager before getting fired for losing the playoffs. "In fact, when Kansas City first talked to me in early August, I was on my way to Florida to visit my mother.
"I told them the same thing I told four other clubs who had approached me with managing offers this season -- that I was taking the year off and that I would be glad to talk with them later," Dick added. "But when KC called me again and I looked at the situation and it suddenly seemd right for me, I knew I had to say yes or lose the Royals job to someone else."
Even though Howser says he doesn't know why Kansas City has responded so well to his leadership, it is no mystery to All-Star third baseman George Brett, whose hitting has really picked up in the last few weeks.
"We've got a lot of guys who can run, and we've been taking advantage of this. Usually I dont't think about anything except my hitting, but one of these days I'm going to surprise everybody and steal a base.
"As for getting into the World Series like we did last year, we've got the talent for it," he said. "But there are a lot of good teams in this league and sometimes, if the talent is equal, it's the kind of momentum you bring into the playoffs that makes the difference. I don't think at this point that anybody can say who is going to win."
Mostly what Howser has done since he took over is go with a set lineup (with the exception of right field); switch from a five- to a four-man pitching rotation; and give several of his players permission to steal on their own in many situations.
"It makes things a lot easier for a manager when he can come to the ballpark every day not having to think about who he is going to start," Dick said. "And Kansas City lends itself very well to a set lineup, although I have been platooning Clint Hurtle and Darryl Motley in right field.
"I've gone to a four-man rotation because neither Larry Gura nor Dennis Leonard has pitched anywhere near as many innings as usual because of the strike. There is no reason why they can't take a lot of extra work down the stretch and still be effective," he continued.
"i also think we've got exceptional rookies to go along with them in Mike Jones and Atlee Hammaker. And my decision to gamble with these kids has let me put Paul Splittorff in the bullpen, where we needed a dependable left-handed reliever to go along with Dan Quisenberry."
Howser says a team wins primarily with pitching and defense, and that so far he has no complaints in either department.
"however I'm not satisfied with our hitting, because with the talent we have we should be scoring more runs," Dick remarked. "But I do think it will come, and with the lead we've got now that should be good enough to keep us in first place in our division for the rest of the season.
"One thing I'd like to clear up is the impression that I've given Willie Wilson and Frank White and a couple of others the green light to run on their own," he continued. "Actually I turn that green light on and off according to the game situation, so I still have control of things. But I want us to be agrressive on offense and take advantage of our speed, and that includes always going for the extra base on balls hit up the alleys."
Although Howser didn't say so, records show that the Royals seldom took full advantage of their great team speed under Frey, who called for the bunt only 16 times in 70 games. But in Dick's first two victories, Kansas City bunted successfully three timeS, made two hit-and-run plays work, and stole three bases.