Can is the man for every baseball fan
He's got charm, he's got an arm and a Hall of Fame name
—JOHN LINCOLN WRIGHT AND THE DESIGNATED HITTERS
Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, the Red Sox' 6'1", 145-pound Ichabod Crane of a righthander, is the stuff of legend and song. A one-man Bingo Long Traveling All-Star team, he is baseball's skinniest player and winningest showman. Already this year Boyd, 25, has wowed 'em in New York, Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland and Texas and positively spoiled 'em back home in Boston. He walks around the mound, exhorting himself to "get in the mix." He waves to the crowd. He does clenched-fist "out" calls and Michael Jackson struts after strikeouts. He gives teammates high fives for good fielding plays.
And he pitches. Oh, how he pitches. If his hitters had given him a little more support—they have produced exactly one run in his last two starts—Boyd could be 8-2. His performance at Arlington Stadium last Friday night was typical. Boyd, himself, recorded as many assists and putouts (five) as the Rangers had hits, but Boston was handcuffed by knuckleballing Charlie Hough and lost 1-0. At week's end the staggering Sox were sixth in the American League East with an 18-24 record, and Boyd was 4-4, with a 2.78 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 74‚Öì innings, five complete games and increasingly favorable reviews.
Who pans the Can? Usually opponents upset at Boyd's antics, though he did have a brief misunderstanding with teammate Rick Miller after Friday's game. Boyd has a ready answer for his critics. "Nobody called Bird Fidrych a hot dog, and he did the same stuff," he says. "I got color. I got character. I'm the Caaaan."
There is certainly no faulting the Caaaan's pitching. Boyd uses six different pitches (fastball, curve, two sliders, changeup, screwball), each thrown at least two different ways. Boyd's most canny pitch is a righthanded rarity—a backdoor screwball.
Nor can you fault Boyd's nickname, unquestionably the most inventive and popular calling card in baseball. In Boyd's hometown of Meridian, Miss., beer is known as oil. When he slogged down a six-pack as a 16-year-old, his friend Paps (for Pabst Blue Ribbon) Blanks began calling him Oil Can. Red Sox teammates also call him Tin Can, and Pete Rose calls him Trash Can. For his part, Boyd is a linguist's delight, forever inventing hybrid words and lyrical descriptions. "I have a deceptional pitch," he'll say. Or, "My family babyfied me," meaning they spoiled him. Even as mundane an act as a 3-2 overhand fastball produces Boydian verse. "When it goes up to the full house," he says, "the Can will bring high noon."
Boyd has been playing "high noon" with opponents. In the April 8 opener, a 9-2 win over the Yankees, Boyd threw three balls under Dave Winfield's chin. Winfield privately told teammates Boyd had to be taught a lesson. Five days later Boyd celebrated a 7-2 win over the White Sox by waving his cap to the Fenway faithful and high-fiving his teammates. "He didn't need to pull some of that stuff," said a White Sox player. "He'll get his."
Unlike the opposition, Boyd's teammates understand that his pitching and persona are unavoidably intertwined. "When he's not enthusiastic, he doesn't pitch well," explains first baseman Bill Buckner.
The youngest of nine children born to Willie James and Sweetie Boyd, Oil Can got his style from the spectacularly flamboyant players of preintegration baseball. His father, who played for the Homestead Grays, and his uncle K.T. were prototypical Negro league stars, men who had little hope for advancement but plenty of fun.
As a teenager Boyd played with much older men who introduced him to the Bingo Long style of play.
"I had a leadoff hitter who drag-bunted with the bat behind his back," says Boyd. "My fielders would turn two by throwing the ball between their legs. A first baseman named Bud Moore said to throw to him in the dirt so he could pick it and look good. When I punched a guy out, I'd say, 'Get outta here—next guy up.' To hotdog was the way to play."
The bony Boyd may look weak, but he developed strong triceps and leg muscles growing up and reduced his body fat to 4% by shoveling sod and lifting granite slabs while working for his father as a landscape laborer. He attended Jackson State, where he learned to pitch intelligently from one of his coaches, the former Cardinal pitcher Scipio Spinks. Drafted by the Red Sox in the 16th round in June 1980, he arrived to stay on May 30 last year and finished 12-12.
At the end of the season, he was named the club's Unsung Hero by Boston writers. Boyd has now settled in a Chelsea, Mass. condo with his girl friend, Karen Ramos, and their Doberman pup, Doby. The dog watches cartoons with Boyd and drinks a little beer now and then. "I love it when Doby gets drunk," he says. "She starts jumping and biting."
This week the Can will cut a radio commercial for—what else?—hot dogs. That's the Can. So was the madcap fellow who purchased a huge mirror and framed picture of a flower in Cleveland and carried them to Minneapolis and Dallas last week, apparently unconvinced such items could be had in Boston. And so was the calm and besuited character whose conversation impressed some advertising people over lunch the other day at the Harvard Club of Boston.
Boston fans are already comparing Boyd with Luis Tiant, another colorful pitcher who wore No. 23 and won 20 games three times for the Sox in the mid-1970s. Sensing a legend in the making, Cambridge, Mass. country singer John Lincoln Wright turned to rhythm and blues and wrote and recorded Oil Can.
In the vernacular, the Can's bad,
He's gonna win a whole lotta ball games
for the Hose
He'll get those rockin' chair innings,
but he's only just beginning
For he's hyper, he's a sniper, he's a viper,
¬© COPYRIGHT 1985, LINCOLN LINES PUB. (BMI)
Oil Can, who could be 8-2 and not 4-4, is a throwback to baseball's Negro leagues.
The Boyd of summer will bear watching.