Tight division races are nothing new to Kansas City Manager Dick Howser. The Royals' pilot, if you remember, was in one last year when K. C. waited until only two days were left in the season before eliminating the California Angels and the Minnesota Twins from the American League West. Now Howser, whose even disposition often seemed to have a calming effect on his players, is into a repeat situation with the Angels, probably the only team with a chance to beat his club.
What does Howser look for when there is pressure down the stretch?
``If the schedule puts you into a series against your chief contender, then I think you have to be careful not to overemphasize it,'' Dick said when the teams collided here last week (the Royals took two of the three games in this next-to-last meeting of the clubs, who play one more series in Kansas City the last week of the season).
``I'm not saying a series like that isn't important,'' Howser emphasized. ``Of course it is, and you want your best pitchers available if possible, plus a rested bullpen. But even if you get wiped out, you have to make sure that your veterans don't get down on themselves.
``There are almost always enough tomorrows if you just keep doing the things that got you there in the first place. I've always felt that if a manager showed that he still believed in his team and didn't panic, his players wouldn't either.''
While Kansas City's main strength this year has been its young pitching staff, the Royals have also been tremendous offensively at the corners. Steve Balboni at first base and George Brett at third figure to drive in 200 runs between them, while Balboni also is among the league home run leaders and closing in on John Mayberry's club record of 34.
Though Steve was once in the Yankee organization, New York lost interest in the strikeout-prone slugger two years ago when Don Mattingly began to hit for both power and average.
``At the time we heard that Balboni might be available, we had already decided to trade Willie Aikens,'' Howser explained. ``We felt there were three young hitters around the league who could help us and one of them was Steve. You could check it out to make sure, but I don't think there has been another minor leaguer in the past 25 years with the kind of numbers Steve put on the board with Ft. Lauderdale, Nashville, and Columbus.
``Since then, because Balboni has done so well for us, the Yankees have had to take some heat on that deal,'' Dick continued. ``But I think if the situation had been reversed, we might have done the same thing. Remember the Yankees had no spot for Balboni at the time, and they got two players [pitcher Mike Armstrong and catcher Duane Dewey] from us who figure to help them.
``While we knew we were getting a free swinger who would probably strike out a lot, we also figured if Balboni could break up some games for us occasionally with his power, he'd be worth it.''
When Ron Oester came up to the Cincinnati Reds to stay in 1980, he probably was good enough to start at shortstop for most big league teams. The problem was that Cincinnati already had a resident Gold Glover there in Dave Concepcion, so the Reds moved Oester to second base, where his pivot work on the double play is still as smooth as polished brass. Asked if he had ever regretted surrendering his chance to be a major league shortstop, Oester replied: ``As long as I'm in the starting lineup every day, I don't care where I play. But I still make it a point to take a certain number of ground balls at shortstop every day during infield practice. I do this to keep the muscles in my throwing arm stretched out, so that if I ever did play shortstop again, I could still go into the hole and make the play to first base comfortably.''