Oil Can Boyd in 1986

A New York Times profile of Oil Can Boyd’s troubles on July 20, 1986, by Ira Berkow, included these excerpts:

Boyd, who earlier in the week had been expected to check in with the Red Sox, was now in a hospital in the Boston area. According to information issued by the Red Sox, Boyd was undergoing a comprehensive examination that included testing for drug use.

Boyd’s contract calls for a $25,000 bonus if he made the all-star team. When he learned that he had not, Boyd went wild in his clubhouse. ”It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” said Baylor. Boyd ripped his clothes out of his locker and threw them around, swore and called his teammates names, and then stormed out. ”Jim Rice and I had tried to calm him down but he looked right through us and was swearing at the top of his lungs,” said Baylor.

The bonus money would have come in handy, apparently. A source close to Boyd said that the pitcher ”makes $400,000 a year and doesn’t have a penny in his pocket.”

The concern of the Red Sox over the possibility of drugs brought into focus something else, the possibility that yet another star athlete is involved in cocaine. This follows the deaths within the last month of Len Bias and Don Rogers, both caused by cocaine, according to toxicologists, and the ongoing drug problems of Micheal Ray Richardson and Steve Howe.

According to a source with the Red Sox, Boyd, who this season signed a guaranteed contract with a clause that allowed voluntary drug testing, was tested six times by the Red Sox since spring training. The results of the tests have not been released.

Boyd was chosen by the Red Sox in the 16th round of the June free agent draft in 1980. He was then a student-athlete at Jackson State. Within three years he was in the Red Sox starting rotation. He was a skinny, whippy kind of pitcher, standing 6 feet 1, weighing only 145 pounds, and with a long, fluid motion on the mound.

In his second full season, 1984, he started off with an 0-3 mark, and the Red Sox sent him to their farm team in Pawtucket to learn to throw more effective offspeed pitches. He applied himself, gained control of the new arsenal, and was back. He turned in a 12-9 mark the rest of the season. Last year he compiled a 15-13 record, and led the Red Sox pitchers in victories, earned run average, games started, complete games and shutouts, with three.

By then he had made such a hit with some Red Sox fans that a song was recorded in his honor by a local group, John Lincoln Wright and the Designated Hitters.

“Can is the Man for every baseball fan,” it began, and went on to say:

“For he’s hyper, he’s a sniper, he’s a viper, Heaven knows, “Oil Can!”

Boyd was born Oct. 6, 1959, the last of nine children in the family of Willie James Boyd Sr. He grew up in Meridian, Miss., a town that was in the center of civil rights violence in the early 60’s. He started drinking beer regularly when he was 15 – ”it was just part of growing up,” he said – and thus was given the nickname Oil Can. Cans of beer there are called oil cans. ”It was nothing for me to drink a six-pack and go out and play a game of baseball,” he said, describing his youth, in an interview last year.

Boyd has said that as a boy he had two heroes. One was Satchel Paige. Boyd learned to pitch on the same mound at the same park as Paige – the pitching rubber is a slab from a tire – and young Boyd modeled his sidearm delivery after Paige. The park is now owned by Boyd’s father.

”Dennis isn’t overpowering, but he’s got a great, smooth motion, and he’s got different speeds and a great breaking ball so that you think he’s throwing harder than he throws,” Gedman says. On the mound, Gedman went on, ”Dennis is like in his own little world. He’s tough to communicate with. Sometimes when he gets excited I try to calm him down. He says, ‘O.K., O.K.’ This year he’s been pretty good, better than in the past.

”The thing is, he wants to do so good. And when he gets banged around, he tries even harder and starts to fight himself. He becomes herky-jerky, and the ball flattens out and his location becomes terrible.”

When Seaver joined the club a couple of weeks ago, he had a conversation with Boyd about pitching. ”I talked to him about misdirection of energy,” said Seaver. ”I mean, if a play at third base goes the other way for Can, he seemed to get so wound up that it affected the way he pitched to the next batter. Not all the time. But some of the time. I thought that he should just forget about the play at third and isolate on the hitter. When he didn’t, I considered that misdirected energy. It’s usually a fault of a young pitcher, and the good ones eventually get over it to a great extent.”

As a follow-up on Oil Can 10 years later, when he was no longer famous or notorious, but still playing baseball, and once again in New England, here are some excerpts from a Boston Globe profile of Boyd on August 15, 1996, by Joseph P. Kahn:

A Saturday in late July. Rain had washed out practice prior to a game between the Bangor Blue Ox and Rhode Island Tiger Sharks, two teams in the independent Northeast League, where Dennis Ray Boyd, 36, former Boston Red Sox pitcher and franchise legend, is the newest star attraction. Boyd’s summer job has him pulling double duty as Bangor’s ace pitcher and pitching coach. A bunch of teammates – mostly young men in their 20s who will never make the bigs, and whose memories of Oil Can in a Red Sox uniform range from hazy to prenatal – were standing around the fieldhouse before the game, shooting hoops.

In strode Boyd, wearing a batting helmet and sucking on a lollipop. Gray hair flecked his scruffy black mustache. Wire-rimmed glasses lent him a quaintly professorial air. Boyd’s physique looked surprisingly unchanged from his Fenway days – skinny enough to blow off the mound in a stiff wind – yet he moved with the fluidity and confidence of a 210-pound running back. Time has been kind to Boyd in many ways, even if the baseball establishment has not.

Nine-year-old Dennis Jr. skipped along behind his daddy. Baby Oil, as he is affectionately known, is the team batboy and a ubiquitous presence at the ballpark, just like his father. Born with cystic fibrosis, young Dennis undergoes regular physical therapy sessions and works out as hard as any player on the Blue Ox. He, too, has become a local favorite in a town where not everyone is sure about the future of minor league baseball, but everyone seems to be a Can fan.

Oil Can Boyd – the one-time clubhouse hothead and press-box quote machine; the scrappy Mississippi kid with the beer-container nickname; the first replacement player (read: scab) to sign during the strike-threatened 1995 season; the flamboyant Red Sox pitcher who flipped out over an All-Star snub and wound up in a psychiatric hospital; the angry accuser of big-league ownership, claiming to have been a blackball victim for the past five seasons; yes, that Oil Can Boyd – now quietly serves as an ambassador for his sport here. A mentor. A role model. A devoted husband and family man.

Karen Boyd, the Can’s wife and mother of the couple’s two children (Tara, 3, is off visiting her grandparents in East Providence), is dining in the next booth with Dennis Jr. and a Blue Ox teammate. She was a Providence hairdresser when she and Dennis met. In separate conversations, both describe themselves as polar opposites of each other. Both also agree these differences are the key to a marriage that thrives on, not despite, Boyd’s itinerant baseball career. Others around the club say that she is the rock upon which the Can stands.

He once viewed the world in the same way, Boyd says, with unpleasant results. “I wanted baseball to treat me like a man, not a child. Don’t tell me which neighborhood to go into. Don’t tell me there’s drugs there – hey, who put the drugs and guns there? Now they want to put every damn black person in the country in jail.”

Karen leans over the booth.

“Dennis is a country boy at heart,” she says, capitalizing on a rare conversational lull. “I’m more a city person, more reserved. With baseball, though, I go with the flow. Listen, playing keeps Dennis sane. It’s what he needs to do. We’re just glad to be back in New England, where the fans love Dennis and he kind of feeds off that energy.”

“I was the old cliche when I came up through the Red Sox farm system, a throwback to an older era,” Boyd observes. “I was feeling like Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige in my heart, but in my mind I was a modern ballplayer. People haven’t heard me say this, but it’s true.

“I look back now and it was not a good mixture to come from Meridien, Miss., and be smelling Satchel and Willie Mays in the air,” Boyd continues. “It’s interesting the things that have turned people away from me. Drugs had very little to do with them not wanting me to play baseball, ’cause I have never been caught with drugs. It had nothing to do with my personality, ’cause I’m as high-strung as the damn day I came up.”

He smiles and sips his beer.

“I didn’t have to go see a psychiatrist” – furious at being left off the 1986 All-Star team, Boyd was suspended and briefly hospitalized for emotional problems – “but every black ballplayer like me who is outspoken or who bucks the system . . . there’s something wrong with us, you know? You’re not supposed to feel like that when you’re making a million dollars. ‘Forget where you came from and you’ll be all right.’ Well, it wasn’t like that with me. Hell, no.”

“People say, ‘Maybe the Can is misunderstood.’ . . . I’m not misunderstood. I’m an individual. Everything I say is English enough to understand. People take what they hear and make it what they want. You want me to be black and arrogant and hostile – if I show you any kind of attitude, that’s what you’ll make me.”

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Published in: on December 3, 2008 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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