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“Oil Can” autobiography takes reader out of comfort zone

Posted May 23, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated May 23, 2012 at 10:50 PM

Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd was a colorful, animated pitcher during his 10-year major-league career, winning 43 of his 77 career victories from 1984 to 1986 with the Boston Red Sox.

But he looks at his career and life in black-and-white terms. In his autobiography that will be released June 1, Boyd is controversial, foul-mouthed, funny and engaging — sometimes, in the same paragraph. Like a pitcher who can change speeds and throw to different locations, Boyd, along with veteran Boston sports journalist Mike Shalin, addresses racism, addiction and more in “They Call Me Oil Can: Baseball, Drugs, and Life on the Edge” (Triumph Books; $25.95, hardback, 226 pages).

Boyd is not afraid to reach back and throw high and tight. That makes this book interesting, amusing, puzzling and at times unsettling. Without a doubt, Boyd takes readers out of their comfort zones.

He does not believe in integration, for example, writing that it “gave white people an upper hand; it didn’t give us a hand at all.”

“I couldn’t have been Jackie Robinson,” he writes. “Not for one day!”

Boyd saves his harshest words for Tampa resident Wade Boggs, and the two former teammates already have waged a war of words on Boston’s talk radio circuit. In the book, Boyd writes that the Hall of Fame third baseman was “a bigot, a modern-day Ty Cobb type.”

“I used to joke that if the ball was black he would’ve had 8,000 hits. In my opinion, he didn’t like anything black,” Boyd writes. “I don’t think he even liked nighttime. He probably wouldn’t even wear black shoes.”

“He was very unique, and most times he was an all-right guy.”

Boggs responded to Boyd’s radio attack (which was similar to his written attack) with his own broadsides.

“Absolutely, positively, 100 million percent, I am not a racist, I am not a bigot,” Boggs said on the air in early May. “You have a delusional drug addict who let not only his family down, but his team, the city of Boston, Red Sox Nation when it counted most. Now he wants the good people of Boston to go out and spend money on this garbage to support his habit. I find that extremely amusing.”

Boggs’ wife Debbie also chimed in: “We have relatives that are African-American in our immediate family.”

That last part is a bit of a stretch — unless you are into genealogy (which I am). Jason Anderson, the black relative referenced by Debbie Boggs, is actually the son-in-law of Debbie’s sister. Or, if you want to muddle it up, it’s Wade’s sister-in-law’s son-in-law. That was told to me by Jason’s father-in-law, by the way. Have fun diagramming that family group sheet.

Boyd even tweaks Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. “The guys who came immediately after Jackie (Robinson) had some kind of crazy attitude,” he writes. “Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and those guys, I got to hear them speak as I got older, and for some reason they felt like they were entitled to be there” in the majors.

Besides racism, addiction is a major subject in “They Call Me Oil Can.” Boyd still admits to having a drug problem (“I just maintain and go a day at a time”), and the stories he tells in his autobiography are well, mind-blowing.

Because of cocaine, Boyd almost missed his wedding. “I was so messed up that my friend had to dress me. I couldn’t even put on my own tux.”

Cocaine became like a person to Boyd.

“Hey, I’m down here. This is cocaine. Come get me.”

“I’ll be right there.”

He smoked crack in the Oakland clubhouse. He didn’t want to leave the remnants in his locker, so he put it in the lining of his cap and went out to pitch.

“I fired this one pitch and my hat flew off. I looked down at the mound and there were rocks all over. I picked up a couple of rocks, like I’m cleaning the mound,” he writes. “I’m picking it up, putting what I can in my pocket, cleaning that stuff off. I even mashed a couple of them into the dirt, ground them into the mound with my foot.”

In addition to cocaine, Boyd used marijuana on a daily basis.

“Nobody ever knew when I was high on weed,” he writes, “because I wasn’t ever not high on weed.”

Boyd even went to his car in the parking lot at Fenway Park between innings to smoke marijuana or crack.

“A few times I was almost late getting to the mound because I was running back down the runway,” he writes, telling his teammates he was using the restroom.

Boyd certainly tells some good stories and is not afraid to credit those who helped him along the way. As a youth growing up in Meridian, Miss., Boyd writes that he “really learned the game” from his high school coach, Bill Marchant, “especially the mental part of the game, which we didn’t know as black kids.”

“We would physically match anybody, but as soon as we got on the ballfield against white teams, they’d play with strategy.”

Boyd also writes about being taunted by opposing players on all-white teams and their fans, claiming he once was hit in the face by a banana peel as he headed off the field to the dugout.

There are several stories floating around about the origin of Boyd’s nickname. As Boyd tells it, he and his best friend, a distant cousin named Pap, broke into a local bootlegger’s place and stole corn whiskey. A local drunk homeless man (called Mr. Fat Mama) caught the pair drinking the whiskey out of oil cans in a tin shed. The next day, Pap called Boyd “Oil Can,” and the nickname stuck.

“They Call Me Oil Can” opens with Boyd’s disappointment about not getting the starting nod for Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. That went to Bruce Hurst, who had already beaten the New York Mets twice in the Series.

In one chapter, Boyd talks about his teammates from that squad, which was one strike away from winning the franchise’s first World Series title since 1918 until the Mets staged a remarkable comeback to win Game 6.

Boyd has warm recollections of Al Nipper and Rich Gedman (who wrote the book’s foreword), longtime coach Johnny Pesky (“He knew the dap handshake … I don’t know where he’s from, but that man’s hung out with some brothers.”), Dwight Evans (“he was like a big brother to me”), Mike Greenwell (“He was a redneck kid, but not a racist redneck kid.”) and Roger Clemens (“regardless of whatever he did or didn’t do, I love him to the bone.”).
He did have some differences with Bob Stanley (“I felt like he was belittling me …”) and Jim Rice, and had complicated feelings for Don Baylor.

“He was a big black Mandingo-kind of guy, but he had this white wife,” Boyd writes about Baylor. “That messed me up. It really did. I didn’t know how to talk to him.”

Boyd is at his best when he writes about the art of pitching, the ability to keep a batter off-balance with an assortment of pitches, pitching locations and speed changes. He remains a defender of the inside pitch.

“Mediocre hitters become above-average hitters and good hitters become great hitters without the knock-down pitch,” he writes.

He also offers some advice, noting that if Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett listened to him, “he’d go out there overnight and turn unhittable.”

“And if he’d let me call pitches from the dugout, he’d throw a no-hitter,” he adds.

Beckett, by the way, has won 129 games in 12 seasons and has 1,661 strikeouts (Boyd had 799 in his career).

After baseball, Boyd worked in real estate, trying to build a housing project in Meridian. He also tried to bring professional baseball to the city, but claims people in his hometown did not want to see him succeed.

“They weren’t proud of me when I left and they weren’t proud of me when I came back,” he writes.

Boyd is erratic at times, but Shalin keeps him on track and keeps the book’s pace brisk and snappy. Shalin is also savvy enough to let Boyd do the talking, and the result is a blunt, honest and sometimes painful work, although Boyd seems to be at peace with himself.

These days, Boyd does charity events for the Red Sox, goes to card shows and participates in fantasy baseball camps.

“One thing is abundantly clear to me,” he writes in his introduction. “Love me or hate me, people will never forget Oil Can Boyd.”

After reading his autobiography, people won’t be able to forget him.

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