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The Darned Red Sox Haven't Any Holes

Although Boston has by no means sewn up the American League flag, don't needle Manager Ralph Houk

Some people masquerading in Boston uniforms have been romping through the American League in this merry month of May. Whoever they are, they can't be the Bosox. Red Sox are always awesome hitters and awful pitchers, toe-to-toe sluggers who fail to go the distance. Red Sox traditionally are going, going, gone.

But so is their old image. The Bosox who led the AL East by one game at the end of last week with the best record in the league, 23-12, have been scoring runs politely, pitching exquisitely and fielding fetchingly. "We don't beat you to death anymore," says Pitcher Dennis Eckersley. "We just beat you."

Through Sunday these darned Sox had won 21 of their last 28 games. They were 10-5 in one-run games, as opposed to a 14-15 record in close calls last year, and they had come from behind in 11 of their victories. And the Red Sox now win away from Fenway Park; they are 13-5 on the road.

By the score of it, Boston's 10-5 victory at Kansas City last Saturday seemed like a game from the past, but it was fairly typical of the new Boston team. Only one of the runs came on a homer, by Dave Stapleton, as the Red Sox beat the Royals' Black (Harry) and Blue (Vida). Tony Perez, who had turned 40 the day before, drove in three runs, and Dwight Evans had two doubles, each good for an RBI, and four walks. Mike Torrez started for Boston, but after he gave up a three-run homer to George Brett in the seventh, on came Mark Clear, who shut down the Royals for his seventh save of the year.

The bullpen has been superb, with Clear, Tom Burgmeier, Bob Stanley and Luis Aponte having combined for eight wins, 11 saves and an ERA of 2,27 through Sunday. The defense had made only two errors in its last 12 games. One of the few familiar things about the Sox is the man they call Yaz. Although Carl Yastrzemski had missed seven of the team's last 10 games because of a pulled groin, he was hitting .330 with five homers and 21 RBIs, all team highs.

In a way, the Red Sox are the inverse of that old Branch Rickey aphorism, "Luck is the residue of design." General Manager Haywood Sullivan has assembled a well-balanced team somewhat by accident. He made an excellent trade after the 1980 season, sending Rick Burleson and Butch Hobson to the Angels for Third Baseman Carney Lansford, Centerfielder Rick Miller and Clear. Actually, Sullivan would have settled for another pitcher, Fred Martinez, who's no longer in the majors, instead of Clear, but Angel Vice-President Buzzie Bavasi was generous to a fault. The Red Sox also lost Centerfielder Fred Lynn, getting next to nothing in return, and Catcher Carlton Fisk, for whom they received zilch.

So what happened? Lansford batted .336 to lead the league in '81. Miller's average in his second tour with the Red Sox is about 50 points higher than Lynn's with the Angels. Platooning catchers Gary Allenson and Rich Gedman have given Boston more run production than Fisk has given the White Sox. Glenn Hoffman, a year removed from the pressure of replacing Burleson at shortstop, at week's end had 21 RBIs, 10 of which had either tied the score or put the Sox ahead, and was fielding quite nicely.

Sullivan's master stroke, though, was hiring 61-year-old Ralph Houk after the '80 season. The Major has proved to be an adept handler of pitchers and an even more adept handler of men. "I thought he would be too old," says Yastrzemski, of all people. "Heck, he's even younger than I am."

The players like Houk because he doesn't play favorites, second-guess or keep anyone in the dark. "He's a genius at motivating players," says Tony Kubek, who played for Houk in New York. "He never belittles you, but if you don't hustle, he has this very intimidating stare. He'd even give it to Mantle."

Houk's positive attitude caught on last year, when the Sox surpassed almost everyone's expectations by finishing a close second in the AL East in the second season. Theirs is a happy clubhouse, though not too long ago it was a snarling one. "No more jealousies, just pats on the back," says Evans. "If we'd been this together in the mid-70s, there's no telling how many games we would've won. It's all Houk, it's all him."

Houk's knack with pitchers is legendary. "I can usually tell from the bench when to make a change," he says. "I can see the pitcher's frustration just by his actions. I can see he's not quite himself."

The pitchers can also read Houk. "Whenever he gets ready to go out to the mound, he takes off his glasses," says Burgmeier. "In the bullpen, you always hear, 'Uh, oh, Ralph's taking them off.' "

The Houk Hook has upset some of the starters recently, particularly John Tudor and Bob Ojeda, but Eckersley, for one, is a staunch defender. "He knows when to take the ball away," The Eck says. "Some guys have gotten mad, but that'll just make them more competitive." In the spring, Houk convinced Eckersley to throw through the early pain and to stop pampering his arm. The Eck, who says he has never felt better, has responded with four complete games, four wins, two shutouts and a 2.19 ERA.

Houk keeps elaborate pitching charts, counting warmup as well as real pitches, and he almost never brings a reliever in two days in a row, though he must be tempted to do it often with Clear, the man called Horse. Clear, a righthander who through Sunday had 316 strikeouts in 318 career innings, combines an intimidating fastball with a pitch he maintains is a slider but everyone else calls a curve. It breaks about the length of a bat, and lefthanded hitters think it's a pitch-out until the ball drops in over the plate. Aponte, the other short man in the bullpen, was once released by the Red Sox but was re-signed after pitching in the ill-fated Inter-American League. He says he's 27, but his teammates are always kidding him that he came up with fellow Venezuelan Luis Aparicio, who retired at age 39 in 1973. Stanley produced a fake birth certificate in spring training that said Aponte was born in 1947. Aponte is a writer of love poems, some of which he has recited on Venezuelan radio, but his true passion is relieving because, he says, "If you're good, things are 67 percent on your side. You win, save or lose. When you start, it's just 50-50, win or lose." He throws sinkers, sliders, changeups, forkballs and—though only at appropriate moments—fastballs.

The long relievers are Stanley (Steamer) and Burgmeier (Bugs). Stanley got off to a poor start, but Houk stayed with him: In one 21‚Öî-inning stretch, he gave up 15 hits and only one run, with 47 of his 65 outs coming on grounders. Nominally, his best pitch is a sinker, but Stanley could probably tell Gaylord Perry a thing or two. Burgmeier, once the Sox' bullpen ace, had allowed only one run in his last four appearances, three of which were longer than five innings.

The spiritual leader of the offense is Coach Walt Hriniak, the poor man's Charley Lau. The Red Sox no longer pull everything, so they are more adaptable when they leave the land of the Green Monster. Evans was Hriniak's star pupil last year. This spring his pet project was Yaz, who hit only .246 in '81. "The bat should be at a 45-degree angle when you start your swing, and for a year I tried to talk Yaz into starting it there," Hriniak says. "Finally, with four days to go in spring training, he decided to try."

"I guess I've gone full circle, because this is where I held it when I first came up," says the 42-year-old Yastrzemski. "I went high, I went low, but Walt showed me that the bat always came back to that 45-degree angle no matter where you began your swing." Of course, the stance may not be responsible for Yaz's revival. It could be history repeating itself: Ted Williams looked like he was through at 41, and at 42 he hit .316 with 29 homers and 72 RBIs.

"How the heck does he do it?" K.C.'s Brett asked Saturday as Yaz took batting practice. For one thing, he's a physical marvel. Last year when Frank Katch, a professor of exercise science at the University of Massachusetts, tested the Red Sox players for strength, flexibility and endurance, Yastrzemski's reflexes rated about as high as Katch had ever seen—and Katch has also tested pro football players and Olympic athletes. Yaz is still a superb fastball hitter, and he will wait and wait until he gets one.

Dick Howser, the Royals' manager, shared his first Opening Day in the majors with Yastrzemski—April 11, 1961. Three years ago he also recruited Yaz's son Mike to play for him at Florida State. "Carl's looking better than he has in three or four seasons," says Howser. "I'm not really surprised because he keeps himself in great condition. He weighed 180 when I first saw him, and that's about what he weighs now."

Brett recalls the first time he met Yastrzemski. George was 14, and his brother, Ken, was pitching for the Red Sox. "You know how nervous you get when you meet somebody big and famous," he says. "I remember my left eye kept twitching. Later, my brother gave me a pink tie that Yaz had given him. I wanted to wear that tie all the time. I kept bugging my father to take us out to dinner just so I could wear it."

Even Yaz's teammates, who hold him in slightly less awe than opponents do, admit to being fans. Hoffman used to paste a picture of his own face on his Yaz poster. Gedman, a Worcester, Mass. native, and Jerry Remy, from Somerset, Mass., pretended to be Yastrzemski when they were kids. "Of course, I grew up to be Pumpsie Green," says Remy.

Yastrzemski and Perez have been alternating DHs, and had combined for seven homers and 31 RBIs. "We'll play forever," says Perez. "After we're finished here, we'll go to Japan." The Red Sox wanted to trade Perez to the Dodgers early in the season, but Doggie turned it down, preferring to go to Philadelphia. Nothing could be worked out, which is now to the mutual delight of the Red Sox and Perez.

Neither Yaz nor Perez is likely to see much action in the field this year. Before the season, Houk told both men that he would play Stapleton at first. Stapleton's better range has relaxed the pressure on the whole infield, although Remy says he's playing no differently. Hoffman, who was much improved in the second season last year, has shown unexpected range. The outfield is second only to Oakland's defensively. Even Reid Nichols, subbing for Miller, made a game-saving, diving catch against Texas recently. Behind the plate, Allenson has thrown out six of the seven runners who have tried to steal on him, a great improvement over the second half of '81, when he nabbed only two of 15.

What's strangest about the Red Sox surge is that only lately have Evans and Jim Rice begun to produce. As recently as May 11, Evans had as many assists, four, as RBIs.

"I like the way the Red Sox are doing it," says Howser. "Pitching and defense will win over the long haul. I haven't seen any team better. Their strength is they don't have a lot of weaknesses."

The people of Boston haven't really noticed the Red Sox yet, or else they haven't recognized these Bosox as their team. Attendance is down 24,702 from last year, and it'll probably be a while longer before the Red Sox catch on. After all, they weren't expected to win. They also weren't expected to win in 1946, 1967 or 1975.



Hoffman is hitting .267 and has surpassed his 1981 totals of one homer and 20 RBIs.


Yaz's hot bat is reviving memories of yazteryear.


Houk is downright bullish on his bullpen of Clear, Aponte, Burgmeier and Stanley.