Rusty? Can says he's returnable
BROCKTON -- Of all the talented ballplayers who thrilled us in the 1986 World Series, there are only two still playing professional baseball.
One of them is a seven-time Cy Young winner, a multimillionaire who is still the most dominant power pitcher in the majors even though he's 42. His ERA is 1.11 in eight starts with the Houston Astros this year and he answers to the nickname "Rocket."
The other one is 45 years old, hasn't pitched in the big leagues in 14 years, and answers to the nickname "Oil Can."
There he was last night, standing on the mound at Campanelli Stadium, pitching to the Worcester Tornadoes in a Brockton Rox preseason game. The one, the only . . . Oil Can Boyd.
"I'm blessed with this mystique," the Can said after throwing 42 pitches and allowing only one hit and no runs in three innings (his velocity was estimated at 85-88 miles per hour). "I got a nickname and I know how to pitch. And it seems like the fans in this part of the country don't say no to Can. So it's all right."
Boyd is back on the mound because he still loves the game and thinks he still can pitch. He's playing because he wants to impress those who might someday promote "Oil Can Boyd's Traveling All-Stars." There is no such team at this time, but the Can envisions a day when his hardball troupe might tour the South, bringing joy to little towns where baseball always has been king.
"I want to find me 18 ex-major leaguers that want to go with me and play some baseball," he said.
The Can started 207 games in his 10-year major league career (his catcher for the bulk of that time was Rich Gedman, who now manages the Tornadoes). Boyd started the third game of the 1986 World Series and was lined up to pitch Game 7 before rain and manager John McNamara changed history. The Can went 78-77 in the bigs with a 4.04 ERA and pitched the division-clinching game for the Sox in '86. But his favorite baseball memories come from his younger days in Meridian, Miss.
"That was the most fun, around when I was 12-15 years old," Can said. "It was just the atmosphere in the black community. Baseball was the epitome back then. There'd be barbeque grills and freshwater fish sandwiches and snow cones. I remember the white chalk lines. They'd let us ride on the back of the truck when they lined the fields. Those days, playing with my friends, that was the best times for the Can. I played a lot of baseball when I was little, so I have big reminiscences of baseball and that's how I came to be the player I came to be."
He was the kind of player who loved to throw. All the time. Straight over the top. Fastball. Curveball. He could throw a ton of innings and he always wanted the ball. Baseball was in his blood. His dad, Willie James Boyd, pitched for the Meridian Braves, and legend holds that Willie James faced Henry Aaron and Willie Mays at the Lake Erie Ballpark on 10th Avenue in Meridian. He threw the "dead red" (fastball) and the "yellow hammer" (overhead curve). He threw "in-shooters" and "out-shooters."
Willie James and his wife, Sweetie Boyd, had six sons and all of them played ball, but the old man had hurt his shoulder by the time little Dennis developed into the best pitcher of the bunch. Willie James is 77 now, still working with his sons in the landscaping business in Meridian.
Dennis Ray Boyd was nicknamed "Oil Can" because of his fondness for beer (the nickname gets a special citation from Susan Sarandon in "Bull Durham") and he was one of the more delightful characters on the Boston sports scene after splashing down in 1982. Ralph Houk and later McNamara didn't know quite what to make of the Can, but they knew he wanted the ball every fifth day and he could pitch.
There was plenty of controversy. The Can was hospitalized with a mysterious liver ailment in 1986, then went into a rage and temporarily quit the Sox when he didn't make the All-Star team. There were rumors of drugs, and he got into a jam with the Chelsea Police. The Sox subjected him to a psychological evaluation and went public with their concerns. When teammate Wade Boggs announced he was a sex addict a few years later, Can said, "Now who needs the psychiatrist?"
In the end, it was blood-clotting in his throwing shoulder that took the Can away from the game he loves. He pitched for the Expos and Rangers before retiring after the 1991 season. When teams hired replacement players during a labor strike in the spring of 1995, the Can reported to the White Sox and prepared to be their Opening Day starter.
"I had to do what I had to do, and I wanted to play baseball," he said.
But the strike was settled on the eve of the season, and the Can went back to Mississippi.
He had a home in Winter Haven, Fla., for a while but has lived with his wife and two children in Mississippi and Rhode Island in recent years (his son, Dennis, is a righthanded pitcher for a high school in East Providence). Last August, the Can returned to the mound to pitch in Steve Buckley's Old-Time game at St. Peter's Field in Cambridge. Officials practically had to pry the ball out of Boyd's hand to get him off the mound.
Now he's back in pro ball. Other than the Old-Time game, Boyd said it had been more than five years since he toed the rubber.
"This is something I've been contemplating the last few years," he said. ''I wasn't able to play and do business at the same time, but now I want to put together my own ball team and play out of the Tupelo area. It's just a great area where people love baseball. When I'm on the ballfield, I'm the one people will come out to see. I'm blessed with that. But in order to do that, I need to show that I can still pitch, and that's why I'm here. If somebody thinks an old man can still do it, put the ball in my hand like they did today."
After he was done with the majors, he pitched for the Monterrey Industrialists and the Sioux City Explorers. He pitched in Mexico. He's reluctant to share many details of his post-major league life, saying, "There's legal things that I can't discuss and things that I just don't want to talk about."
He still wishes Johnny Mac had given him the ball for Game 7, but a day of rain allowed McNamara to bring back Bruce Hurst on three days' rest. Hurst shut out the Mets for five innings but gave up three in the sixth and the Sox lost, 8-5. Boyd never got in the game.
"I don't flash back too much to that," said the Can. "I didn't have any control over it, so I'm not going to let it be a burden that they didn't let me pitch. But I would love to have gone seven or eight innings and held them to one or two runs. I think I would have been able to do that."
There are so many more stories. Hopefully, they'll all come out someday. Veteran Globe reporter Nick Cafardo is working on a book proposal and soon will be fishing for a publisher. The movie rights should come after that. Can't you just see Jamie Foxx or Denzel Washington playing the lead in ''The Oil Can Boyd Story"?
Then again, maybe Dennis Ray Boyd would have to play himself on the big screen. There's only one Oil Can. No one else has ever come close.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.