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 21⅔-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."