BALTIMORE — At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, two hours before game time, the Kansas City Royals gathered in their clubhouse to learn that their manager, Dick Howser, had just come out of surgery. The news wasn't good. The tumor in the front of his brain, about the size of a golf ball, had not come out clean. Worse, it was malignant.
And thus was a terrible anxiety, five days old since Howser's headache was diagnosed as a brain tumor, replaced with a helplessness that athletes often think they must endure but hardly ever really do.
"You go through an 11-game losing streak and you think it's the end of the world," Royal pitcher Dennis Leonard said.
Said teammate George Brett: "It's funny. You talk about do-or-die games. They're not do-or-die. I sit on the bench at the All-Star game and I'm thinking, 'This is really a bummer.' That's not a bummer. A bummer is when you have surgery, not knowing what you'll find."
The way the athletes reached for obvious perspectives, some off-handedly as they took their cuts during batting practice before a game with the Orioles that was played, nonetheless, may seem to trivialize the tragedy of Dick Howser's tumor. But they were utterly bewildered by this rare intrusion of real life into their clubhouse. The protective cliches tumbled down upon them, the easy platitudes now a crushing weight.
Life is a game?
If so, Royal reliever Dan Quisenberry seemed wholly unfamiliar with it and unprepared to play it, at that. "They say he'll get radiation," Quisenberry was reporting, somewhat uncertainly, as he pulled up his long white socks, the rustle of his linen about the only background noise by now.
"I imagine it helps some people sometime. Don't you think? I mean, I'd like to hear some percentages. There's got to be some people that battled it. Don't you think? Some survivors?"
They've got numbers for this game, too, but they're never good enough. You've got to bat 1.000 in this league to make it.
Inside a small room adjacent to the visitors' clubhouse, a man who once took his own cuts in that horrible league, and who knows the numbers all too well, sat down behind his desk and sobbed helplessly into a towel.
"I'm sorry, guys," said Mike Ferraro, the acting Royal manager, and he twisted away in his chair. He was incoherent with grief.
Finally he said: "It's just not easy."
Not as easy as baseball was the lesson here.
Dick Howser won a World Series with this team last year, won two American League pennants and three division titles.
And now, at the age of 50, as Dennis Leonard was saying: "He's out like a light and he probably doesn't even know it yet. He has to wait and find out the reality of the thing. Ain't that something?"
Leonard shook his head at the newly discovered enormity of life, the way a guy, though still alive, could so quickly slip from the bench into everyone's past tense, as Howser surely had among the Royals. A bad call somewhere, seemed to be all Leonard could figure.
Still, there seemed little real shock among the players. In the time they had been aware of Howser's tumor, they had almost subconsciously prepared for this news.
"This was an eventual possibility," agreed Royal General Manager John Schuerholz, the man who delivered the news Tuesday.
The players had been living with this possibility for five days, waiting for the day when a surgeon would make the ultimate intrusion into Dick Howser's privacy. It would be one thing or another, that much they knew.
The waiting had been hard and had obviously recast the players' priorities.
"The game last night, it didn't seem so important," George Brett said. "Is winning important? Yes, winning is important. Is it the most important thing? A guy knocks on your door and says, 'Do you want to win the World Series or do you want Dick Howser back?' Twenty-four guys say Dick Howser."
Not that any of them really thought this would happen. They even downplayed the symptoms, so visible in hindsight, of Howser's failing condition.
Brett, for one, couldn't think of anything that might have tipped him off. "He didn't seem as happy is all," he said. "But we'd lost 11 games in a row, and he was hurting. Hard to be happy when you're losing. Hard to be happy when you're hurting."
Yet others close to the team recalled examples of a curious disorientation, particularly at the All-Star game. Howser announced Lou Whitaker as his left fielder, meaning Rickey Henderson. He confused two of his own players, Jim Sundberg and Bret Saberhagen. And during recent games, he paced up and down the ramp leading to the dugout. He had never done that before.
Whatever they made of the situation, then or right up to the last uncertain moments, the players didn't let on. Most of them arrived at the ballpark early on Tuesday but affected a casual clubhouse atmosphere. They knew that their manager was even then undergoing neurosurgery, yet chose to engage in all the usual pregame rituals.