Free at last. Put an exclamation point on that evocative phrase, then say it again, and you'll get an idea of how it feels to be Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd in the spring of 1991, pitching for the Montreal Expos. The inimitable Can is free from pain, free from doubt and the doubters, and free from the pressures, both real and imagined, of being a black player for the Boston Red Sox. He is free to pump his fists on the mound again after getting a big out; free to shout when he needs to shout or sulk when he needs to sulk. Free, in short, to be himself, the antithesis of the reserved and reticent Yankee, a high-strung, high-profile Mississippian with a nickname that belongs in Cooperstown. Free to be Oil Can. "I feel like I came back from the dead a little bit," says Boyd of his new life with the Expos. "Around here, I got peace of mind, and the bottom line is, when you got peace of mind and nobody bothers you, you can do what you want with the baseball."
Don't be deceived by Boyd's 2-5 record in his first nine starts of 1991. Those numbers could just as easily be reversed. His 3.65 ERA has been steadily dropping since he gave up six runs in 4‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates in his opening outing. Without those runs, Boyd's ERA would be 2.92. In the Can's five most recent starts through last weekend, he had given up only seven earned runs and 24 hits in 33⅖ innings, but poor offense or spotty relief pitching conspired to hold Boyd to 2-2 over that span.
Last Thursday, Boyd had one of his best outings of the year—eight innings, six hits, one run, six K's, one walk, 103 pitches and a count of three balls to only two batters—on the day that the Philadelphia Phillies' Tommy Greene no-hit Montreal 2-0. It was the second time this season the Expos had been shut out with Boyd on the mound. "That's a tough act to follow," said an unflappable Boyd afterward. "All I can do is try to keep my team close. But before this season's over, they're going to get me some runs. No more no-hitters, not against us, because this club can hit."
Unflappable? Boyd? This is the same Oil Can whose off-field goings-on were once deemed front-page news by The Boston Herald eight times in 13 days. "I could sneeze and they'd have it on the 11 o'clock news," Boyd says now. "I was the subject of so many call-in shows that I called in myself a couple of times. There was no fun in it anymore. They had me where I didn't want to play no more ball."
Free at last. Trouble, so dogged in its tracking of Boyd during the eight years he pitched in Boston, has given up the chase so quietly that people in Montreal are wondering, Could he really have changed that much? "He's been a real pro here," says Expo manager Buck Rodgers. "I don't know what went on in Boston, but here he's been a real team guy who's been great in the clubhouse. We haven't had any flare-ups at all." Could maturity and a change of scene have conspired to create a new human being? Or was Boston somehow part of the problem?
"He's more mature," says Montreal's first base coach, Tommy Harper, who was coaching with the Red Sox when Boyd was first called up to the majors in 1982. "He's got that same fire, but when problems occur, the Can doesn't react as emotionally as he once did. He understands you don't have to respond to everything."
Still, the anger in Boyd bubbles to the surface when the subject of playing in Boston comes up. And not all his anger is directed at the Red Sox. Some is directed at the racism he experienced in Meridian, Miss., where he grew up drinking from water fountains separate from the ones white people used. Some of that anger is directed at himself, for he knows the problems he had in Boston were not all the ball club's doings or the city's. But he knows they weren't all his doing, either. "I'd like to have done it all over again with the Red Sox as the laid-back, kicked-back Can I am now," says Boyd. "I'd try not to be as vocal. But it'd be kind of hard for me even now to let a double-standard situation get by without saying anything about it. Jim Rice, Ben Oglivie, Reggie Smith, George Scott—they all had problems in Boston. Black players always do. Tim Raines had it in his contract that he couldn't be traded there. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We didn't have a melting pot there. There were a lot of little cliques, and I wasn't included in any of them."
Boston is a tough town for players, white or black. The press is unrelentingly negative, the talk shows abundant and caustic in tone, and the fans vociferous and fickle. Harper, who is black, played for the Red Sox between 1972 and '74 and still makes his home in the Boston area. He remembers how Carl Yastrzemski's name would be drowned out by boos when the public address announcer would introduce him at the plate. And Yaz was a future Hall of Famer. Nothing and no one are sacred. Former Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman, a native son from nearby Worcester, used to get booed when he jogged out to warm up pitchers. And poor Bill Buckner's error in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the '86 World Series continues to be dredged up at least once a month by Boston sports columnists, Calvinists all, who treat the Bosox's failure to win a World Series since 1918 as proof that Satan is present in man.
Such an environment was not exactly ideal for the hot-tempered, hypersensitive Boyd as he was breaking into the big leagues. And to make matters worse, the Red Sox team during the 1980s had one of the least sociable locker rooms in sports. The veterans wouldn't talk to the rookies, stars wouldn't fraternize with other stars, and players sniped at each other and at manager John McNamara through the ever-vigilant press. Plus, the front-office folks were at war with each other.
Worse than all that, according to Boyd, some players went out of their way to tell him racial jokes in the clubhouse. "I heard slave jokes. Lots of times," says Boyd. "One of the players there—I won't say who, except that he's headed for the Hall of Fame—told me I was the first black pitcher he'd ever seen. Pitcher, meaning I wasn't just a thrower. I didn't know if that was a compliment or not. He was talking about intelligence, not ability. Then the more I thought about it, the more I didn't like it. Like no other black men could think when they were on the mound. I grew up in Mississippi. I grew up being called nigger, nigger, nigger every day. I grew up with separate washrooms. I was used to being looked at as a specimen, not as a human being. So I don't want to hear why blacks got big lips or big hands or all those jokes. I don't want to hear no slave jokes. They were just supposed to be jokes, sure, but the guys who told them knew it would upset you and they didn't care. I'd laugh along so as not to fight, but I wasn't laughing on the inside. That kind of stuff messes up a lot of young black ballplayers in the Boston organization."
Boyd's Red Sox teammates didn't know what to make of him, so most of them gave him a wide berth. One who says he went out of his way to get acquainted with Boyd was second baseman Marty Barrett. "You've got to understand that Dennis can be your friend one day, and the next day he might not want to talk to you," says Barrett, who is now with the San Diego Padres. "We all knew he came from a rough upbringing in Mississippi, all the racial stuff he went through, and I think he just had that anger inside him. One little thing said wrong could set him off. Nobody knew from one day to the next what mood he was going to be in, so everybody let him do his own thing. It wasn't a racial thing at all. We thought he wanted to be left alone."
Ellis Burks, who was also born in Mississippi and is the only black ballplayer on the Red Sox roster this year, recalls Boyd as a generous friend who was "misunderstood" by his fellow Red Sox. "He was like a brother to me," says Burks. "He's a great man, a good family man. Around the clubhouse people thought of him as real loud because of that All-Star Game incident, but he's a soft-spoken guy when you know him, and a good guy to talk to."
The All-Star Game incident to which Burks refers occurred on July 10, 1986, when Boyd learned from a reporter that despite an 11-6 record, he had not been named by Kansas City Royals manager Dick Howser to the All-Star team. The omission cost Boyd a $25,000 bonus, but what hurt him most was that he had already invited his entire family to attend the game in Houston. Boyd exploded in the locker room, shouting obscenities, tearing off his uniform, yelling at teammates and club officials. He left the ballpark and gunned his car out of the lot. It was a classic Can outburst, a temper tantrum, really, far less damaging and vastly less public than Roger Clemens's outburst when he was ejected last year from the American League Championship Series. But whereas the Boston organization and media rallied to Clemens's cause, Boyd received no such support. When he returned to the clubhouse to apologize 1½ hours later, the security guard wouldn't let him in. That sent Boyd through the roof, and when he didn't report for work the next day, the Red Sox suspended him for three days.
Local papers speculated that he had a drug problem. Boyd voluntarily went to the hospital to have himself tested, and he was found to be clean. But on his way out to get something to eat, his wife, Karen, was stopped for speeding and Boyd was arrested for having an outstanding speeding ticket. The papers once again featured him on the front page. The Red Sox requested that he see a psychiatrist about controlling his temper. (Three years later Boyd was still bitter about that suggestion, which he perceived as an example of the double standard the Red Sox employed with their players. When the Margo Adams-Wade Boggs affair was unfolding and Boggs said publicly that "a disease was overtaking Wade Boggs for four years," Boyd said, "I got to go to a psychiatrist because I got mad. Here is a guy who says he is a sex fiend. Now who needs the psychiatrist?")
The molehill—Boyd's failing to be selected for the All-Star team—had grown into a mountain, and Boyd never was the same pitcher for the Red Sox again. In 1987 he started experiencing pain in his right shoulder, a condition that was diagnosed in July '88 as stemming from circulatory problems caused by blood clotting in the axillary artery. Many observers believed that Boyd's career was over, and between '87 and '89 Boyd went on the disabled list five times, for a total of 332 days. When not on the DL, the Can was ineffective. During those last three injury-plagued seasons in Boston, Boyd was 13-12 with a 5.19 ERA in only 40 starts. Every time he threw a baseball, it hurt.
In September 1989, after spending the previous four months on the disabled list, Boyd made five more starts for the Red Sox while using a blood-thinning agent called Heparin Sodium. In a regimen he will continue till the end of his career, Boyd gives himself a shot of the anticoagulant in the upper thigh immediately after he pitches and then three more over the next 36 hours. "It seems pretty normal to me by now," he says. The pain, at last, had gone away, and Boyd went 1-1 with a 3.23 ERA in that final month of '89, averaging over six innings per start, and drawing the interest of the pitching-hungry Expos.
It was Harper who first contacted the Can on Montreal's behalf. "[Expo general manager] David Dombrowski called and asked me about him," says Harper. "I told him if he was looking for a real competitor who would work hard and give 100 percent every time out, they were looking for Oil Can. I called Can after that. He told me he was looking for a place where he could pitch and feel comfortable. 'Montreal is it,' I said. He fits in here. In Boston they tried to mold Oil Can into something that other people thought he should be. Here, if a man wants to sit in the locker room and not say a word to anybody the day that he pitches, that's his right. We don't make a big deal of it."
Rodgers and Expo pitching coach Larry Bearnarth also asked some people about Boyd. "We were told he's a competitor who's a little high-strung," says Rodgers. "That didn't bother me. I'd had Pascual Perez here the last couple of years. If you try to take the adrenaline away from those guys, it's like cutting their heart out."
Bearnarth didn't know what to make of the Can at first, of the way he would stomp around and fume after giving up a run, or sit in the dugout cursing a blue streak between innings. "On days that he's pitching, he turns into a pitching animal," Bearnarth says. "I asked Tommy Harper about it, and he told me he wasn't mad at anyone but himself. You've got to give him his little fits, but eventually Can does listen to reason."
Bearnarth's message to Can has consistently been that he is no longer the power pitcher he was when he came into the big leagues with a 93-mph fastball. Boyd's heater today tops off at 86 and averages about 84. "He's a pitcher who has to survive on deception," says Bearnarth. "I could tell right from the start that he had a pretty good idea about setting up hitters. He had picked the brains of guys like Seaver and Clemens and Hurst pretty thoroughly."
"Tom Seaver helped me focus," says Boyd, who was Seaver's teammate on the Sox in 1986. "He told me to channel all that energy I had toward home plate, and someday I'd be great. And Luis Tiant told me, 'Denny, you have superb control. Do you know what you can do with control? Anything you want.' "
Boyd's pitching repertoire includes four kinds of fastballs (a sinker, a riser, one that's cut and one that tails), a screwball, a curve, a slider, a change, a forkball and something he calls a dry spitter, which Boyd throws without touching the seams. And he can drop down to sidearm or three quarters on any of his pitches. "You'll never guess with me," says the Can. "Some days everything is working, but every day something's working. I try to make it as complicated as I can for the batter to take a swing."
Boyd's 10-6 record in 1990 could have been gaudier with a little luck, for the Expos were 19-12 in the 31 games Boyd started. His 2.93 ERA was eighth in the National League and 1.22 lower than his average with Boston. His hits-to-innings-pitched ratio—164 hits allowed in 190⅖ innings—was by far the best of his career, and opposing hitters batted just .234 against him. He had three shutouts, the first he had thrown since 1985, and cashed in on every incentive but one in a contract that eventually paid him $1.5 million.
The one incentive Boyd didn't reach was the payoff for making 32 starts. He came up one short; he could have pitched the last game of the season, but Rodgers decided to start rookie Scott Anderson instead. That, if you can believe it, cost Boyd $250,000. The Players Association has filed a grievance and an arbitrator will hold a hearing on the matter on June 12. If anything could test Boyd's new-found peace of mind, one would think that being stiffed out of a quarter-million-dollar bonus might, but you won't hear Boyd, who is in the final year of his contract, complaining. "It's not a distraction one bit," he says. "I don't wake up no day thinking about it. I'm not searching to leave. I want to play right here. I got Gold Gloves at either corner [Tim Wallach at third and Andres Galarraga at first], good management and great teammates. We got a melting pot of guys on this team. There's no room for any bigotry. Those guys in Boston wouldn't fit in here. They'd kick them out of the clubhouse. In Boston, I always said I didn't need no friends. I need respect. Here I got both."
Baseball is fun again. Being Oil Can Boyd is fun again. Says Boyd, "In Montreal, a black man is just a man. Skin don't dictate the way a man is judged. This is the place for a black man to play. Ain't no slave jokes up here."
Free at last. Pity for Boyd, pity for Boston, pity for all of us that Oil Can had to play his baseball in Canada to feel it.