Ralph Houk of the Boston Red Sox may have replaced Chuck Tanner of the Pittsburgh Pirates as major league baseball's most optimistic manager. And Tanner has never seen a gray sky he didn't think was blue.
With most everyone else picking the Red Sox (78-84 in '83) to finish somewhere near the bottom of the American League East this year, Houk has them challenging for the pennant. And the forecast didn't look so foolish after Boston won a season-opening series against the California Angels in Anaheim recently.
Asked to let us in on his little secret, Ralph replied: ''Everything negative that has been said about the Red Sox is based entirely on last year. At that time we were still breaking in a lot of kid pitchers; we had three or four regulars playing hurt; and we were without Dwight Evans, one of our best home run and RBI hitters, for two months. That's why we lost more games at Fenway Park than we won.
''But this year our pitching is going to surprise a lot of people,'' he continued. ''I'm not saying that our staff is completely mature yet. But any time you've got a bunch of kids with control who can throw hard (i.e., Bruce Hurst, Mike Brown, Al Nipper, Oil Can Boyd), you're going to win a lot of games. And with Bob Stanley (33 saves last year) and Mark Clear, we're also well protected in the bullpen. We're going to be tough anyway, but if we get off to any kind of a good start, we'll be with the leaders all year.''
One of the major criticisms of the Red Sox concerns the range of their infield, which covers ground with the speed of wet cement. Particularly under fire is fifth-year shortstop Glenn Hoffman, who got low marks for fielding balls hit to his left before undergoing knee surgery, and whose throwing arm will never be registered with the National Rifle Association.
''I've read and I've heard what people say about Hoffman, but most rival managers tell me he's the best fielding shortstop in the American League after Detroit's Alan Trammell,'' Houk said. ''Let me tell you something else about Hoffman. He's a clutch player who raised his batting average 51 points last year. If I don't have any doubts about him, I don't know why anyone else should.''
Houk also put into perspective the perplexing winter trade of pitcher John Tudor, Boston's biggest winner last year, to the Pirates for .300 hitting outfielder Mike Easler, who is slated primarily for designated hitter duty with the Red Sox.
''I've always believed that any lineup that consistently places a right-handed hitter after a left-hander, and vice versa, puts extra pressure on the other team's pitching staff,'' Houk said.
''Of course if Easler wasn't close to a lifetime .300 hitter with power, we wouldn't have considered the move. But by hitting Mike in back of Jim Rice (. 305, 39 homers, 126 RBIs last year) and in front of Tony Armas (36 homers, 107 RBIs) we're going to generate a lot more runs over a 162-game schedule.''
Against the Angels, the Easler trade paid quick dividends. He lifted Boston to victory with a ninth-inning homer in the second game of the series, then keyed the winning rally in the ''rubber match'' with a double leading off the ninth.
Houk, of course, also has left-handed Wade Boggs, last year's American League batting champion with a .361 average. Boggs hits in front of Rice and in back of Dwight Evans, a right-handed swinger who hit 22 homers despite missing 36 games. Put it all together and that sounds like a lot of hitting, for both average and power, in the Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 spots in the order.
If you've ever seen Houk kick dirt on an umpire's shoes or throw his hat as though it were a hand grenade you might doubt he has a sense of humor, but actually he is a delightful storyteller. That is, in the friendly confines of his office or relaxing in the dugout before a game.
One of Ralph's funniest yarns concerns a day he was catching for Augusta, Ga. , in a Sally League game.
'' Macon had a runner on third when our pitcher threw the ball in the dirt, and it got by me,'' Houk said. ''As I turned to pick it up, I saw it disappear into a patch of tall grass directly behind the plate.
''Obviously the ball was going to roll all the way to the stands. So in desperation I reached into the grass like I was picking it up, then bluffed the runner back. At the same time I kept giving my pitcher eye signals so he'd realize I didn't have the ball and would go pick it up.
''Well, my acting not only fooled the runner but also my pitcher, who just stood there watching. Eventually the first base coach caught on. He got the runner moving again, and of course he scored. It's funny now, but things like that were always happening in the minor leagues.''