"People ask me where I come from, and I tell them I come from baseball,' " the Can says. "The Boyds carried a mark of baseball. When I went off to play pro ball in 1980, I told my mother, 'This is it. The last of the Boyds. I gotta make the big leagues.' When I made it, it took a burden off the family because they were so into baseball. When I was called up to Boston in September 1982, I called them when I arrived at the Sheraton and said, 'We made it. We all made it.' and they all cried. Brother Don told me, 'Since you got there, my life has just stopped, because to be a Boyd is to be a baseball player.' Everyone in our neighborhood, in Meridian, knew that these six boys were such good players that one of them had to make it. The other ones didn't make it for racial problems, or because scouts didn't pass through here." Or because of injuries.
In his day, Willie Boyd, like his son, was also a pitcher who raised his fist and pointed at opposing players. Willie Jr. was 19-1 for the semipro Meridian Braves when he was 17, but he never got a chance to play in organized ball and moved on to a singing career. (He had a minor regional hit, He Pulled the Trigger, but You Took His Life.) The five older brothers all played together on the Braves, and though Michael—now 32—was 18-0 in high school and eventually pitched for Florida A & M, he never made it in pro ball. He hurt his arm, and wound up as a nightclub singer. Don, 31, signed with the Cardinals in 1973 but came home after one season after his parents had separated and his mother became ill.
"Can feels so deeply about his family that he usually breaks down when he talks about their being cheated out of their careers," says Wilson.
"There's a lot of family on my shoulders," Dennis agrees.
Boyd also says, "I went to the school psychiatrist when I was 12 because of my tantrums. Those tantrums almost cost me my career, too. In the summer of 1977, before going to Jackson State, I struck out 17 in seven innings in a semi-pro game at Meridian. I had a no-hitter going, the umpire missed a pitch for a walk, and the next guy hit a double that scored him all the way from first. I told the umpire that it was his——fault. He threw me out of the game because you can't swear on the ball field. I went wild. I took my uniform off and left the park in my underwear. I sat in my daddy's car, crying, kicking, cussing, fussing. The next day my daddy said there were a lot of scouts in the ballpark, and they all left. I got so mad at him telling me that, that I walked 20 miles from that pasture all the way back to Meridian. I misunderstood him; I thought my daddy had told me I would never make the big leagues because I was too hotheaded.
"My sophomore year at Jackson State I put on my worst display ever, playing the University of New Orleans down there. It was an all-black team against an all-white team, and they're yelling, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger...' and I'm going crazy. This New Orleans player runs across the mound and calls me a 'nigger' and a 'hot dog,' so I chased him to the first base line and fought him. They didn't throw either one of us out, and the next inning he hit a blast off me. He was running round the bases, shaking his fist and it made me so mad that I let him beat me that I just lost it. I went so crazy—I took my hat off, I started undressing on the mound, I got so mad that I felt as if my clothes were burning up. I was that mad, madder than they saw me in Boston...and they wonder about temper. I went off the mound, threw my spikes into their dugout and I came off the field again in my underwear. My teammates looked at me like I was crazy. Stay away from him. Coach Braddy kept yelling at me, 'This was the biggest game of the season and you act like that? Like a spoiled baby?' Then I fought my brother Neal, right there.
"I just want to win. Too bad, sometimes."
Robert Braddy, still the Jackson State coach, remembers Boyd's run-in with the New Orleans player. He describes it as a shouting match, with no punches thrown, and says that Boyd removed only his uniform shirt.
Before Boyd started spring training in Winter Haven, Fla., this year, money problems surfaced. One night in early February, the Can called his mother from Winter Haven, where he and his wife, Karen, had bought a second condominium. He needed $600. His mother called Willie Jr. "Mama, where's Ray's money gone?" he asked. Willie Jr., who works at the General Motors plant in Meridian, was finishing building and paying for a new house. Eventually he had to do some hod-carrying to help his brother out. At that point, Oil Can was paying for two cars and the two condominiums and had another outstanding loan (his $375,000 contract for '86 wouldn't go into effect until April 7) and he says he couldn't get any money from his agent, Dennis Coleman of Providence. "It humiliated him so badly that he stopped eating," his brother Don said, and in spring training Boyd's weight had dropped to 133 pounds. He was taken to the UMass Medical Center in Worcester for tests. They indicated noncontagious hepatitis. Pappas prescribed a special diet and also tried to convince Coleman and Boyd that the pitcher needed counseling. They disagreed with the suggestion.
Boyd, meanwhile, was receiving salary payments on request from Coleman. He says, "I assumed my bills were being paid," including about $13,000 a month on a bank loan arranged by Coleman. In the last week of April he called his mother and said he wanted her to quit her job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on 8th Street and move into his Florida condo. Willie Jr. had often told him. "Our mother shouldn't still have to work."