The Red Sox have never lacked for colorful characters, but leave it to Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd to make the likes of Bernie Carbo, Carl Everett, and Manny Ramirez seem like regular guys without much in the way of issues. The same cannot be said for the Can, as any reader will discover just a few pages into “They Call Me Oil Can,” his memoir that doubles as a scream of pain into the abyss.
There are plenty of juicy, tabloid-style revelations, which have been a staple of first-person baseball books since Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four.” Boyd gets up to assorted antics with a gun, has a stint in jail, boasts that he could turn Josh Beckett into an unstoppable ace, while insisting that he could still pitch in the big leagues. After John McNama-ra decided to start Bruce Hurst over Boyd in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, the latter gets high on cocaine, claiming that there went the team’s chances because the Can never got beat twice in a row, never mind that he had been lit up in Game 3.
But demons are demons, and that they’re with us doesn’t mean we invited them in. For Boyd, the demons turned up at an early age when he was growing up in a cauldron of racism in Meridian, Miss. He describes several scenes straight out of “Mississippi Burning,” and it’s no wonder Boyd toted around a lot of anger.
His rage could be channeled into his fight-to-the-death pitching style, but, as the book reveals, just as frequently it fuels his more destructive impulses: drug use, a tendency to destroy close relationships, passive-aggressive rants. Boyd often directs his tirades against former teammates — Dwight Evans, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs. Don Baylor is put down for having a white wife, while Jim Rice is savaged as not being black enough and a player who backed his way into the Hall of Fame.
There’s not a ton of owning up in Boyd’s story. When an opportunity presents itself to take responsibility for something that happened, that ought not to have happened, the blame is always put elsewhere. People are judged by how well they “understood” Boyd; which is to say, by how willing they were to tolerate all aspects of his behavior. The self-aggrandizing gets pretty thick. “We sat and talked; he thought the world of me and still does” — he being Luis Tiant, in this case. Boyd threw one of his epic fits back in ’86 when he was left off the All-Star squad, and he bemoans the slight again in “They Call Me Oil Can,” making a case that he was “pitching better than anyone,” including a 15-2 Clemens who was on his way to the MVP.
At the end of the memoir, readers will be left with the impression that Boyd seriously believes he was blackballed from Major League Baseball because of his “open, natural personality.” However, were it not for his antics — the “flair” and “swagger” to use two SportsCenter words de jour — there would be no book like this one, and no reason to remember Boyd, the pitcher, at all, really, or at least not more than hundreds of other .500 level hurlers. Interestingly, when Boyd discusses the mechanics of pitching, he’s downright professorial: calm and lucid. It’s like he’s eased off the hard stuff to work in a few off-speed pitches, which was always his forte. He would outthink batters. But it’s also hard not to conclude that he tends to outthink himself quite a bit, too.
Colin Fleming’s “Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories” is forthcoming from Texas Review Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.