Can is the man for every baseball fan
He's got charm, he's got an arm and a Hall of Fame name
—JOHN LINCOLN WRIGHT AND THE DESIGNATED HITTERS
Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, the Red Sox' 6'1", 145-pound Ichabod Crane of a righthander, is the stuff of legend and song. A one-man Bingo Long Traveling All-Star team, he is baseball's skinniest player and winningest showman. Already this year Boyd, 25, has wowed 'em in New York, Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland and Texas and positively spoiled 'em back home in Boston. He walks around the mound, exhorting himself to "get in the mix." He waves to the crowd. He does clenched-fist "out" calls and Michael Jackson struts after strikeouts. He gives teammates high fives for good fielding plays.
And he pitches. Oh, how he pitches. If his hitters had given him a little more support—they have produced exactly one run in his last two starts—Boyd could be 8-2. His performance at Arlington Stadium last Friday night was typical. Boyd, himself, recorded as many assists and putouts (five) as the Rangers had hits, but Boston was handcuffed by knuckleballing Charlie Hough and lost 1-0. At week's end the staggering Sox were sixth in the American League East with an 18-24 record, and Boyd was 4-4, with a 2.78 ERA, 56 strikeouts in 74? innings, five complete games and increasingly favorable reviews.
Who pans the Can? Usually opponents upset at Boyd's antics, though he did have a brief misunderstanding with teammate Rick Miller after Friday's game. Boyd has a ready answer for his critics. "Nobody called Bird Fidrych a hot dog, and he did the same stuff," he says. "I got color. I got character. I'm the Caaaan."
There is certainly no faulting the Caaaan's pitching. Boyd uses six different pitches (fastball, curve, two sliders, changeup, screwball), each thrown at least two different ways. Boyd's most canny pitch is a righthanded rarity—a backdoor screwball.
Nor can you fault Boyd's nickname, unquestionably the most inventive and popular calling card in baseball. In Boyd's hometown of Meridian, Miss., beer is known as oil. When he slogged down a six-pack as a 16-year-old, his friend Paps (for Pabst Blue Ribbon) Blanks began calling him Oil Can. Red Sox teammates also call him Tin Can, and Pete Rose calls him Trash Can. For his part, Boyd is a linguist's delight, forever inventing hybrid words and lyrical descriptions. "I have a deceptional pitch," he'll say. Or, "My family babyfied me," meaning they spoiled him. Even as mundane an act as a 3-2 overhand fastball produces Boydian verse. "When it goes up to the full house," he says, "the Can will bring high noon."
Boyd has been playing "high noon" with opponents. In the April 8 opener, a 9-2 win over the Yankees, Boyd threw three balls under Dave Winfield's chin. Winfield privately told teammates Boyd had to be taught a lesson. Five days later Boyd celebrated a 7-2 win over the White Sox by waving his cap to the Fenway faithful and high-fiving his teammates. "He didn't need to pull some of that stuff," said a White Sox player. "He'll get his."
Unlike the opposition, Boyd's teammates understand that his pitching and persona are unavoidably intertwined. "When he's not enthusiastic, he doesn't pitch well," explains first baseman Bill Buckner.
The youngest of nine children born to Willie James and Sweetie Boyd, Oil Can got his style from the spectacularly flamboyant players of preintegration baseball. His father, who played for the Homestead Grays, and his uncle K.T. were prototypical Negro league stars, men who had little hope for advancement but plenty of fun.
As a teenager Boyd played with much older men who introduced him to the Bingo Long style of play.