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 4⅓ 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 33⅔ 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."