May 22, 2005


Don't look back: Oil Can Boyd takes a page out of Satchel's book (AP, May 20, 2005)

Willie James Boyd played against the original Satchel Paige and fathered the closest copy to the Negro Leagues star that baseball has seen since.

His name is Dennis, but he came to be known as Oil Can. With the Boston Red Sox in the 1980s he was a talented but temperamental foil for Roger Clemens, as likely to pitch a shutout as a fit.

Fourteen summers after his last big-league appearance, the Can is in camp with the minor-league Brockton Rox for another comeback try. He is 45 -- older than the still-dominating Clemens, but younger than Paige when he had his best year in the majors.

"Whatever Satchel Paige had in [him], Can's got," Brockton manager Ed Nottle said. "If anybody would let him, there's no doubt in my mind that five years from now when he's 50, he'll be able to pitch like he does now." [...]

The first stop for Boyd this time is the Can-Am League -- that's Canadian-American, not some of the Can's colorful syntax -- among the lowest rungs on the baseball ladder. Here, in the working-class hometown of boxing champions Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler, Boyd joins organizational castoffs and undrafteds in search of another shot.

"They asked me, 'Are my grandkids going to be at the game tonight?' I heard it all," Boyd said. "But they're ballplayers, I don't treat them like kids."

He has been around long enough to know that pitching isn't about how fast you get it there. It's about location, and Boyd has found his.

There is still more pepper than salt in Boyd's mustache, more pep in his right arm than a man his age has a right to expect. He has two gold hoop earrings and wire-rimmed spectacles he wears even when he pitches.

At last week's media day, reporters gathered around Boyd and largely ignored his young Rox teammates; if they were unfamiliar with his history, they were about to learn it.

"When I first saw him, I thought he was a coach," said Manny Tejada, a pitcher with a slugger's name and six years in the minors by the age of 23. "Then I was looking at a baseball card and I thought, 'Oh, my God. He was a superstar in the major leagues."'

Brockton catcher Brian Jones, who's 27, grew up in Boston and knew all about the Can.

"When I found out I was going to be able to catch him, it was a treat for me," Jones said. "I don't know if I should tell him I remember seeing him when I was 12." [...]

He claimed during the 1986 World Series to channel Paige on the pitcher's mound. When a game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium was called because of fog rolling in from Lake Erie, Boyd said, "That's what happens when you build a ballpark on the ocean." With the White Sox in the spring of 1995, Boyd called Michael Jordan "Shoes." [...]

Boyd claims to throw 12-15 different pitches, counting different arm angles; most pitchers at this level are lucky to have two. Like Paige, he gives them names like the "Yellow Hammer" and "Backdoor Screwgie" and he claims to keep a knuckleball in reserve, just so batters need to worry about it, too.

Boyd's catcher with the Red Sox, Rich Gedman, happens to be the manager in Worcester this season, which allowed him to see the Can's comeback in person. Jones, Boyd's current catcher, joked with Gedman before the game that he didn't have enough fingers to signal for all the pitches Boyd can throw.

"Just keep wiggling the fingers," Boyd told him. "That's my changeup."

Gedman also stopped by to tell his ex-teammate, "Can Man, do what you do best."

"It was something he told me 20 years ago," Boyd said.

"He looks like a little kid out there," Gedman said. "He just loves the challenge -- 'Tell me I can't' -- that kind of thing.

"He thinks the game as well as anybody I know. He knows how to pitch, I'll tell you that. He sees things most pitchers don't know how to see."

Boyd sneaks cigarettes between innings of his start, and he works out by pitching almost every other day, year-round -- far more than modern theory recommends. Fifteen years past his prime, he remains lanky and fit.

"He's probably not a half-pound different than he was for Boston," Nottle said. "Yesterday, we're taking pitching drills, and he's the best athlete out there."

Fortunately for Mets fans the Sox didn't listen to him and start him in Game 7.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2005 11:33 AM

El Duque is in the Satch tradition as well. And always a pleasure to watch pitch.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 22, 2005 1:35 PM

El Duque went on the DL today. How old is he, BTW?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 22, 2005 8:20 PM

About 50. He says he's 35 though.

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 22, 2005 8:57 PM

Stop pushing this Boyd in Game 7 line.

Posted by: Matt C at May 23, 2005 9:38 AM

Stop pushing this Boyd in Game 7 line. The man had a 5.66 playoff ERA that year.

Posted by: Matt C at May 23, 2005 9:39 AM


It was his destiny.

Posted by: oj at May 23, 2005 9:44 AM

Actually, OJ. The game belonged to Boston until the 5th when Davey Johnson put Sid Fernandez into pitch to Rich Gedman with 2 on and one out. Gedman had no more chance of hitting Sid than I did of becoming pope. Gedman struck out, and the Mets got out of the inning.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at May 23, 2005 10:42 AM

I'm beginning to think that 'Oil Can Boyd would have won Game 7' is even more fundamental to the brothersjudd worldview than 'Eric & Julia Roberts are the same person'...

Posted by: b at May 23, 2005 10:47 AM

Why not just have him play first base in Game 6?

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 23, 2005 2:19 PM