It’s been 20 years since Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd pitched in the big leagues, but he can still bring some heat when it comes to conversation.
I met up with Boyd for a book signing at New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton, Mass., last weekend, and then stayed after for a few hours to talk with one of my all-time favorite Red Sox pitchers. His book, They Call Me Oil Can (written with Mike Shalin) is a no-holds-barred, colorful look at his career and life, and he's just as open—and outspoken—in person as in print.
From our chat, here are the Can’s reflections on…
How he got his nickname: “Everybody says it's because I drank a lot of beer and they called beer “oil” down in Mississippi, but that's not true. It was rot-gut whiskey. Everybody in Meridian, where I grew up, drank it. You got it from a lady up the street named Big Mama, who was the neighborhood moonshiner. I used to go up to her house and fetch it for my mother, sneaking it into our house under my shirt so my father wouldn't see it."
“When I was seven, I started drinking some myself. One day somebody caught us in a tin shed drinking Big Mama's whiskey out of oil cans, so my friend Pap started calling me “Oil Can.” I wrote it under the bill of my baseball cap, and my high school teammates started calling me that too. It stuck.”
Bobby Valentine: “I played for Bobby in Texas, and he’s a good guy. He’s open and will talk straight to you. He could be temperamental, sure, but he’s a very, very smart baseball man. He knows games and respects players, but he’s the skipper. Ballplayers shouldn’t be telling him what to do."
"Your job as a player is to hit the ball or catch the ball; he manages and you play. When you make up all kinds of distractions, this is what happens—the team can’t win. They got the talent, but they never listened to the man.”
Wade Boggs (who Boyd claims often directed racial slurs at him when they were teammates): “He’s a bigot; it’s ingrained in his family history. Coming from Central Florida, that’s just what you grow up hearing and learning. He was protected by baseball then, and nobody will say anything against him now. The Red Sox don’t invite me to anything that Wade is going to be at because they know I’ll kick his ass. He wasn’t at the 100th anniversary celebration, right? I was—so there you go.”
The summer of 1986 (when he was suspended for 21 games after briefly quitting the team following an All-Star snub, but still went 16-10 to help the Red Sox win the pennant): “Being a young ballplayer, with money in your pocket, makes you very vulnerable. There were a lot of distractions and a lot of ways to get into trouble. I found them. It was my fault, sure, but I felt there was nobody I could talk to about it."
"Still, people looked out for me; I lived in Chelsea, and sometimes I'd be out late at night and the police would come and say, 'C'mon, Oil Can, you don't want to be messing around here, you can get shot or killed,' and they would give me an escort home."
“While I was suspended I hurt my arm in a tussle with some cops; they thought I was getting drugs from a guy and really roughed me up good. I would ice my arm every day, but it always hurt. I could hear a clicking in it. But still I kept pitching, winning the [AL East] clincher against the Blue Jays and through the playoffs and World Series. I didn't tell anybody about the pain.”
On not starting Game 7 of the '86 World Series, when, after a rainout, manager John McNamara decided to go with Bruce Hurst and skip over Boyd: “When it came time for Game 7, and he [McNamara] told me I wasn't starting, I didn't know what to say. I just ran off and cried. They used the rain as an excuse, and said Bruce had the hot hand, but I felt that circumstances during the season led to that decision. They put their personal feelings about me ahead of the team. They were not going to take a chance on my going out there and winning the World Series after everything that went on."
[Hurst, who had already won twice in the Series, pitched six innings and left with the game tied 3-3. Boston relievers broke down, however, and the Mets won, 8-5. Boyd never got into the contest.]
How he stayed focused on the mound: “I smoked dope—every day. I started when I was 12 and never hid it. I was such a thinker, my mind was never idle, but when I smoked I got locked in. I was so focused, I couldn't hear anything else on the field. I became creative, like an artist doing a painting. A little blue here, a little red there; a curve ball here, a slider there. It got to the point where [first baseman] Billy Buckner would come over and say, 'Are you high?' If I wasn't, he'd say go get him some.”
Boyd was clearly upset as he talked about how things went after '86, when a blood disorder required him to inject a needle with blood thinners into his stomach every day. He was on the disabled list much of the time, and after 1989 signed with the Expos as a free agent.
He rebounded to pitch nearly 200 innings each of the next two seasons—often very effectively—but after a trade to Texas and a late-season slump in 1991 was unable to find another big league job at age 31.
Oil Can felt he had been blackballed, and I realized he had a lot in common with another great free-spirited Red Sox who could pitch and talk up a storm: Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
Both men liked their weed, both men were passionate, personable ballplayers embraced by teammates and fans, and both had their careers in Boston end on a down note before a brief resurgence in Montreal. Both felt the baseball establishment kept them from staying on in the majors, and they had two of the greatest—and most famous—nicknames in big league history.
The Can seems at peace with himself these days. After a decade where he said anger over his shortish MLB career forced an estrangement from his wife and two kids, along with a bad cocaine habit, he's quit hard drugs and is back with his family and running the Oil Can Boyd School of Baseball in Providence, Rhode Island.
He does some private coaching with high school teams as well, along with an occasional event for the Jimmy Fund or other charity. And while he rarely gets to Fenway, he was back for the 100th anniversary celebration in April and got a terrific hand from the crowd when introduced. That meant a lot to him.
“I fight every day not to go out and get drugs, but it's a private fight,” he told me. “I don't call it being clean, I call it being tolerant. I stay healthy, and I'm on a baseball field seven days a week. That's where I feel the most comfortable.”
That's one more thing he and the Spaceman have in common: Both are still pitching. Lee has hurled in a variety of leagues through the years, and this summer, at age 65, became the oldest man in history to win a professional game when he went all nine innings for his hometown San Rafael Pacifics of the North American League in a 9-4 victory over Maui.
Boyd, who moved back to New England just in time for the wonderful Red Sox summer of 2004, now lives in Providence and pitches with teams in two divisions of the Men's Senior Baseball League—one for age 35-and-up, the other for 48-and-up. He's still lean and spry a few weeks short of his 53rd birthday, and says he plays shortstop when not on the mound.
“I gotta go work out, I'm pitching tomorrow,” he told me with a smile as he left the Mobile Book Fair. I thanked him for the time, and all the joy he gave Red Sox fans back in the mid-'80s. It was fun to watch him then, and fun to talk to him now.
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at http://amzn.to/qWjQRS, and his Fenway Reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @saulwizz.