The mound on the field behind East Providence Senior High School in Rhode Island is lopsided and made of loose sand, but last Friday the Can marched out to it, turned toward home plate and said, "This is just like the ballpark in Meridian. I got a ball in my right hand, a glove on my left, and I'm back home again." He looked down and kicked at the sand. "Home," he repeated, then looked in to his catcher, his father-in-law, Isadore Ramos.
This was the first appearance on a mound anywhere for Dennis Ray (Oil Can) Boyd in 15 days—since July 10. He had finished his workout at Fenway Park at 5:45 that day, 15 minutes before the eight pitchers selected for the American League All-Star team were to be announced. At the time he was the second-winningest (11-6) pitcher (after his Boston teammate Roger Clemens) in the league, and when he completed his throwing he sat in the dugout to await what he thought would be good news.
When a reporter approached and told him that he had been bypassed for the second straight year, the Can went wild. He charged into the clubhouse, tearing off his uniform, shouting obscenities. He cursed his longtime friend and fellow Red Sox pitcher, Al Nipper; his manager, John McNamara; and team physician Dr. Arthur Pappas, whom he trusted like a father. He gunned his car out of the parking lot, tires squealing, and went home to his condominium, which overlooks Boston Harbor, in the city of Chelsea.
"I didn't want to be bawling in front of my locker, my head in my hands, and have people see me or tap me on the shoulder saying, 'Too bad, Can,' " he says. An hour and a half later he returned to Fenway "to apologize to John McNamara and my teammates," but the security guard informed him that he wasn't allowed back in the clubhouse. "I thought they were telling me that I wasn't wanted anymore, and it made me feel like there was a fire in my clothes," Boyd recalls. So he took off.
There followed a string of events that made the front page of the tabloid Boston Herald eight times in the next 13 days. On July 11 he failed to report to the team and was suspended for three days. The next day the Heralds front page showed an angry Boyd tossing a soft drink at a photographer.
On the Sunday before the All-Star break, July 12, he returned to Fenway and made his apologies to McNamara and the Sox. That was followed by a fracas with two undercover Chelsea narcotics detectives and a complaint by one of them of assault and battery and disorderly conduct. Next came the early return of Red Sox owner Haywood Sullivan from the All-Star Game amid published speculations that Boyd had a drug problem. That was followed by newspaper stories detailing Boyd's serious financial problems, a meeting with club officials who continued his suspension, the July 17 news that he had checked into the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and, finally, his arrest on July 23 for having a speeding ticket outstanding, even before he had officially checked out of the hospital.
"I'm overly emotional. I'm too sensitive and I sometimes act like I'm from another planet," Boyd, 26, said after completing his East Providence workout. "But after reading and hearing about where I'd been and how I was associating with known drug dealers and how everyone thought I was a drug addict, I had to go prove that I was clean before I could do anything else. Well, I proved it, again. I was tested six times before this, and was negative every time. I went into the hospital and tested negative every time, so that's cleared up. Now I'm on the way to clearing up the money business, people are helping me control my emotions, I'm up to 156 pounds and want the Red Sox to give me back the ball."
That's what the Sox—whose onetime eight-game lead over the Yankees had dropped to three by Sunday (box, page 33)—intend to do as soon as they are convinced that Boyd's arm and—more important—his emotional stability are up to the task. As for the question of drugs, the Red Sox seemed convinced that Boyd was clean. "We're satisfied with all the tests in the hospital," G.M. Lou Gorman told The Boston Globe last Friday. "I don't think there's any more we have to say about it."
As the Boston media pulled out the stops, Boyd's friends and relatives back home in Meridian, Miss., reacted with horror. The picture of the drink-tossing ("It scared me.... I looked like a madman," Boyd said) appeared on the front page of The Meridian Star. The stories left his mother, Sweetie, in tears and his five brothers, according to Willie James Boyd Jr., 34, "feeling as if everyone's whispering behind our backs." But Ledarrack Wilson, a friend of Boyd's since childhood and best man at his wedding, said, "That's the Can. Can's my best friend, but he always got his own way, and when he didn't, he flew the coop. We'd lose a game as teenagers and he'd cry, take off in a rage and we wouldn't see him for two days." His mother said, "Dennis demands such perfection that I'd have to press the pleats on his pants every day, and if it wasn't perfect, he wouldn't go to school."
The Boyds have lived in Meridian (pop. 46,577) for four generations, and the men grew up playing baseball at the Lake Erie Ballpark on 10th Avenue. These days, the grandstands are warped and the outfield fences have collapsed, and while a MERIDIAN A'S sign is to be seen and another reads WILLIE BOYD, OWNER, MANAGER, there is no semipro baseball at the field anymore. Just a lot of dust and debris. "My granddaddy played here at the turn of the century," says Willie Boyd, Oil Can's 58-year-old father. "So did my daddy, my cousins. I pitched to Henry and Tommie Aaron and Willie Mays on this field. Satchel Paige pitched here. Generations of Boyds learned the joy of baseball here."