In terms of personnel, there's no way the Boston Red Sox figured to be a contender this year. They don't have any overabundance of power, their starting pitching is mediocre at best, and they began the season with a suspect bench. The so-called experts took one look at all this and just about unanimously consigned the team to fifth place in the American League East. The fans concurred, giving all Boston players the cold shoulder in the annual All-Star Game balloting.
Turning to the latest statistics, the Red Sox still don't look like contenders. The opposition has outslugged them by a wide margin in home runs and extra base hits; their starting pitchers have a combined losing record; and in such key areas as batting average, runs scored, and team earned run average, their totals are just about identical to those of the opposition. Anyone examining these figures would conclude that this is about a .500 team.
So what is an ordinary club like this doing up there challenging for the division title?
Well, as we all know, statistics can be misleading. And maybe the personnel is really better than it appeared. For one thing, the forecasters obviously didn't give enough weight to Boston's outstanding bullpen, which has more than offset the inconsistency of the starters. Certainly no one expected Carl Yastrzemski, who hit a career low .246 with only seven home runs last year, to be batting a solid .280 with 13 homers as he approaches his 43rd birthday. And who could have dreamed that the bench would produce such surprises as infielder Wade Boggs (.358) and outfielder Reid Nichols (.311)?
All of these things have been important, of course, but it's difficult to look at the success of the Red Sox both last season and this without coming to the conclusion that the biggest factor of all is the man they lured out of retirement in Florida two years ago to run the whole show: Ralph Houk.
''He's the best manager I've ever played for,'' said Yastrzemski matter-of-factly as the Red Sox closed out a home stand by winning an important weekend series over Baltimore prior to heading out on their last West Coast trip of the season.
That takes in a lot of territory, for Yaz has had quite a few managers in his 22-year career. So why does he single out this one?
''He knows how to handle men,'' Carl replied. ''He gets the most out of his personnel. He's the kind of person who could run any business - even one he knew nothing about - and because of the way he handles personnel, he'd be successful.''
Dwight Evans, another veteran, echoed Yastrzemski's sentiments.
''He knows the game, he knows pitching, and he gets along with everybody - the media, the front office, and the players,'' Evans said. ''Not many people can do that.
''He sticks up for his players, he shows confidence in them, and he gets the most out of them,'' Dwight added. ''This isn't anything against any other manager; it's just that he's a very special human being.''
Former Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who now plays for the Chicago White Sox, goes even further. He told the Monitor that, in his opinion, if Houk had been managing Boston in the 1970s there would be a least a couple more pennants flying over Fenway Park.
Houk has already won three pennants and two World Series in his earlier managerial career with the Yankees, but he has also managed his share of losing clubs in both New York and Detroit, includng some that finished dead last. He is thus as good an example as you can find of how much ''managerial genius'' depends on the number of strong bats and arms you have surrounding you in the dugout. And in that sense, the job he has done these last two seasons - keeping the Red Sox in the race until the last few days in 1981 and having them up there again this year - really outranks all the championships he won with those Yankee powerhouses of the early '60s.
This year's team doesn't have a single player, for instance, among the American League home run and RBI leaders, and in fact has been outslugged in the former department by a count of 110-91 at this writing. It also doesn't have much team speed, as shown by its 26 stolen bases to the opposition's 67. And the starting pitchers have a losing record (38-42), with the nominal ace, Dennis Eckersley, struggling to stay above .500.
But fortified with an outstanding bullpen anchored by Mark Clear and including Bob Stanley, Tom Burgmeier, and Luis Aponte, Houk has shown an uncanny ability to maximize his staff's strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. He moves quickly and decisively whenever a starter appears ineffective, seldom giving him a chance to dig himself into too much trouble, and the result is a pitching corps in which the whole somehow ends up vastly superior to the sum of its parts.
Most people think this is a modus operandi thrust upon Houk by the makeup of his staff - a case of necessity being the mother of invention - but he says that's not exactly true.
''I've always been strong on bullpens,'' he pointed out. ''I'd rather have a good bullpen man than a 20-game winner, because in the long run he'll help you win more games. As for this situation, I've been able to do it because all four have pitched so well.''
Indeed, the above mentioned quartet has a combined record of 24-11 with 25 saves - already far better than last year's figures.
Offensively, Evans and Jim Rice are producing the solid all-around punch expected of them, while leadoff man Jerry Remy and 1981 batting champion Carney Lansford are also having more or less typical years. Add Yastrzemski, Dave Stapleton, and some pretty good hitters in the bottom of the batting order and you have a lineup that can score runs when it is intact - or even when it isn't.
Indeed, a midseason injury to Lansford thrust Boggs into action at third base , and in addition to hitting the way team officials always expected he would, the 24-year-old Nebraskan turned out to be a pleasant surprise on defense. With Lansford back in action, Wade has been returned to his reserve role for now, but he could well be a factor again one way or another before the race is over.
Add it all up and it still doesn't really seem to spell pennant against Milwaukee's awesome array of sluggers. But Ralph Houk has already surprised most people just by having his team this close - and he and his players believe they may just raise a few more eyebrows by going all the way.