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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Oil Can opens up about 1986, Bobby V., drugs, and how he REALLY got his nickname

Before Clemens, Oil Can was Boston's ace

It’s been 20 years since Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd pitched in the big leagues, but he can still bring some heat when it comes to conversation.

I met up with Boyd for a book signing at New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton, Mass., last weekend, and then stayed after for a few hours to talk with one of my all-time favorite Red Sox pitchers. His book, They Call Me Oil Can (written with Mike Shalin) is a no-holds-barred, colorful look at his career and life, and he's just as open – and outspoken – in person as in print.

From our chat, here are the Can’s reflections on…

How he got his nickname: “Everybody says it's because I drank a lot of beer and they called beer “oil” down in Mississippi, but that's not true. It was rot-gut whiskey. Everybody in Meridian, where I grew up, drank it. You got it from a lady up the street named Big Mama, who was the neighborhood moonshiner. I used to go up to her house and fetch it for my mother, sneaking it into our house under my shirt so my father wouldn't see it.

“When I was 7, I started drinking some myself. One day somebody caught us in a tin shed drinking Big Mama's whiskey out of oil cans, so my friend Pap started calling me “Oil Can.” I wrote it under the bill of my baseball cap, and my high school teammates started calling me that too. It stuck.”

Bobby Valentine: “I played for Bobby in Texas, and he’s a good guy. He’s open and will talk straight to you. He could be temperamental, sure, but he’s a very, very smart baseball man. He knows games and respects players, but he’s the skipper. Ballplayers should'n’t be telling him what to do. Your job as a player is to hit the ball or catch the ball; he manages and you play. When you make up all kinds of distractions, this is what happens – the team can’t win. They got the talent, but they never listened to the man.

Wade Boggs (who Boyd claims often directed racial slurs at him when they were teammates): “He’s a bigot; it’s ingrained in his family history. Coming from Central Florida, that’s just what you grow up hearing and learning. He was protected by baseball then, and nobody will say anything against him now. The Red Sox don’t invite me to anything that Wade is going to be at because they know I’ll kick his ass. He wasn’t at the 100th anniversary celebration, right? I was – so there you go.”
For much of 1986, The Can was The Man.

The summer of 1986 (when he was suspended for 21 games after briefly quitting the team following an All-Star snub, but still went 16-10 to help the Red Sox win the pennant): “Being a young ballplayer, with money in your pocket, makes you very vulnerable. There were a lot of distractions and a lot of ways to get into trouble. I found them. It was my fault, sure, but I felt there was nobody I could talk to about it. Still, people looked out for me; I lived in Chelsea, and sometimes I'd be out late at night and the police would come and say, “C'mon, Oil Can, you don't want to be messing around here, you can get shot or killed,” and they would give me an escort home.

“While I was suspended I hurt my arm in a tussle with some cops; they thought I was getting drugs from a guy and really roughed me up good. I would ice my arm every day, but it always hurt. I could hear a clicking in it. But still I kept pitOil Caching, winning the [AL East] clincher against the Blue Jays and through the playoffs and World Series. I didn't tell anybody about the pain.”
During the '86 postseason, Boyd gets his views heard.

On not starting Game 7 of the '86 World Series, when, after a rainout, manager John MacNamara decided to go with Bruce Hurst and skip over Boyd: “When it came time for Game 7, and he [MacNamara] told me I wasn't starting, I didn't know what to say. I just ran off and cried. They used the rain as an excuse, and said Bruce had the hot hand, but I felt that circumstances during the season led to that decision. They put their personal feelings about me ahead of the team. They were not going to take a chance on my going out there and winning the World Series after everything that went on. [Hurst, who had already won twice in the Series, pitched six innings and left with the game tied 3-3. Boston relievers broke down, however, and the Mets won, 8-5. Boyd never got into the contest.]

How he stayed focused on the mound: “I smoked dope – every day. I started when I was 12 and never hid it. I was such a thinker, my mind was never idle, but when I smoked I got locked in. I was so focused, I couldn't hear anything else on the field. I became creative, like an artist doing a painting. A little blue here, a little red there; a curve ball here, a slider there. It got to the point where [first baseman] Billy Buckner would come over and say, “Are you high?” If I wasn't, he'd say “go get him some.”

Boyd was clearly upset as he talked about how things went after '86, when a blood disorder required him to inject a needle with blood thinners into his stomach every day. He was on the disabled list much of the time, and after 1989 signed with the Expos as a free agent. He rebounded to pitch nearly 200 innings each of the next two seasons – often very effectively – but after a trade to Texas and a late-season slump in 1991 was unable to find another big league job at age 31.
The Spaceman (left) and Oil Can trade pointers.

Oil Can felt he had been blackballed, and I realized he had a lot in common with another great free-spirited Red Sox who could pitch and talk up a storm: Bill “Spaceman” Lee. Both men liked their weed, both men were passionate, personable ballplayers embraced by teammates and fans, and both had their careers in Boston end on a down note before a brief resurgence in Montreal. Both felt the baseball establishment kept them from staying on in the majors, and they had two of the greatest – and most famous – nicknames in big league history.

The Can seems at peace with himself these days. After a decade where he said anger over his shortish MLB career forced an estrangement from his wife and two kids, along with a bad cocaine habit, he's quit hard drugs and is back with his family and running the Oil Can Boyd School of Baseball in Providence, Rhode Island.
Two authors hook up at the Mobile Book Fair in Newton. 

He does some private coaching with high school teams as well, along with an occasional event for the Jimmy Fund or other charity. And while he rarely gets to Fenway, he was back for the 100th anniversary celebration in April and got a terrific hand from the crowd when introduced. That meant a lot to him.

“I fight every day not to go out and get drugs, but it's a private fight,” he told me. “I don't call it being clean, I call it being tolerant. I stay healthy, and I'm on a baseball field seven days a week. That's where I feel the most comfortable.”

That's one more thing he and the Spaceman have in common: both are still pitching. Lee has hurled in a variety of leagues through the years, and this summer, at age 65, became the oldest man in history to win a professional game when he went all nine innings for his hometown San Rafael Pacifics of the North American League in a 9-4 victory over Maui.

Boyd, who moved back to New England just in time for the wonderful Red Sox summer of 2004 , now lives in Providence and pitches with teams in two divisions of the Men's Senior Baseball League – one for age 35-and-up, the other for 48-and-up. He's still lean and spry a few weeks short of his 53rd birthday, and says he plays shortstop when not on the mound.

“I gotta go work out, I'm pitching tomorrow,” he told me with a smile as he left the Mobile Book Fair. I thanked him for the time, and all the joy he gave Red Sox fans back in the mid-'80s. It was fun to watch him then, and fun to talk to him now.  

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bobby V. channels Grady Little – the Death Watch Continues

What -- me worry? Nahhhhh

This morning I went out to grab my morning paper – yes, I still get one – and noticed a pack of turkeys striding across my neighbor's lawn. I almost felt compelled to go over and give them directions to Fenway Park.

I broke my word last night to not watch another Red Sox game this year, and turned on NESN for the ninth inning from St. Petersburg. Big mistake. Andrew Bailey was on the mound, Bobby Valentine was in the dugout, but I felt like I was watching Grady Little and Pedro Martinez during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.

First some good news -- Jose Iglesias hit his first ML home run.

Matt Joyce, leading off – single to center. OK, no big deal, still a three-run lead.

Jeff Keppinger – line-drive single to center. Damn, that was pretty well hit. C'mon, Bailey, don't make this a nail-biter. The closer gets a coaching visit to the mound, presumably to tell him to cut the crap and throw some strikes so we can fly home.

Luke Scott – sharp grounder to first. James Loney fields it cleanly but struggles to get the ball out of his glove and is forced to make the play at first rather than second. Ugh, another well-hit ball, and now two runners are in scoring position. But at least there is one out.

Carlos Pena is up next, a .199 hitter but a certifiable Red Sox killer who seems to relish facing the hometown team that let him go before he found his 40-homer stroke. Bailey has the deer-in-the-headlights look of Calvin Schiraldi at Shea Stadium, and two relievers start warming up for Boston.

Line-drive single to center by Pena – Joyce scores, Keppinger to third. Enough is enough, Bobby V. Bailey has nothing and everybody knows it. Take him out now and let's try and end this road trip on a decent note.

Why can't the Red Sox get guys like this?

Shot to Bobby Valentine in the dugout – smirking but not moving. Hey, Bobby! Bobby!? Let's get out there already and yank Bailey, before you have another Daniel Bard on your hands.

Suddenly it occurs to me – this is just like Grady and Pedro at Yankee Stadium in '03. It was clear back then that Martinez had nothing by the eighth inning of Game 7, but Grady left him in to implode and set the stage for Aaron Boone in the 11th.

Sure, there were some differences. Little was playing for the World Series, and Valentine is playing for nothing – not even his job. He certainly knows that's long gone, whatever he says.

But haven't these guys been through enough? Don't they deserve to fly home feeling at least a little good about themselves – after taking 3 of 4 from the Rays and essentially ending their playoff hopes?

If this was Fenway during the last homestand, this would have been the moment fans who had opted for free “FIRE BOBBY V” stickers from the Boston Baseball hawkers on Brookline Ave. (they far outnumbered the "KEEP BOBBY V” versions inside the park) would have held them up or collectively crumpled them into balls to throw in the general vicinity of the Red Sox dugout.

The author offers his opinion (sorry, Nancy)

But in this case, all fans listening and watching across New England can do is yell at their radios and TVs while Bobby V. stays put and pinch-runner Rich Thompson takes Pena's spot at first. Next up, pinch-hitter Stephen Vogt. He's 0-for-11 on the season, 0-for-19 in his ML career, so maybe Bobby figures that even without his good stuff Bailey can get him.

Thompson steals second – putting the tying run in scoring position.

Great, this will likely rattle Bailey some more.

Stephen Vogt – walk on a full count, loading the bases. Look at the bright side; the Sox are still up 4-2, and at least he didn't get a hit. But Valentine needs to get someone else in there to keep this thing from going extra innings.

Vogt ponders what to do with that long stick.

Shot to Bobby V. – a little body movement, but he's still staying put. Valentine would later tell reporters he stuck with Bailey because it was the “first time he was in trouble. Got to give him a chance to get out of it, I think. Wanted to see what he would do.”

Well, we already saw what he could do in trouble two batters ago. And one batter ago. He was just making the trouble worse. Elliot Johnson runs for Vogt at first, trying to lessen the chance for a double-play and a scoring chance on a gap-hit. He represents the winning run with one out.

Desmond Jennings – who has a single and double in his last two at-bats – steps in.

Desmond Jennings – line-drive single to center on the first pitch. Keppinger and Thompson score, Johnson goes to third, and Jennings takes second when center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury bobbles the ball for an error. Tie game.

Now, of course, Bobby V. comes out for Bailey and brings in Vicente Padilla to complete his Grady Redux moment. Google Padilla and the first three hits you get are “children” “kids” and “shot” – links that take you to stories about the multiple babies he's allegedly fathered with different women and the fact he once shot himself in the leg at a shooting range, lost 1.5 liters of blood, and initially lied about it to save his career.

Hmm...this explains everything.

Oh yeah, he also has a 4.60 ERA as he takes the mound and B.J. Upton comes up.

By now I figure this can only end one of two ways: either Upton will hit his 24h homer for a 7-4 victory, or he'll rope a liner to left, Carl Crawford will jump from the stands to take Scott Podsednick's place, and trap the ball as Johnson races home for a 5-4 win.

Belt-high fastball to Upton – homer over the center-field wall. Rays win, 7-4.

This is probably when the turkeys started assembling on my street. It's about a six-mile walk to Fenway, but if they hurry they should make it in plenty of time for tonight's 7:10 start against the red-hot Orioles.

Jon Lester gets the start for Boston and is 14-0 lifetime against the Birds, but this is 2012 and the Orioles appear to be a team of destiny playing for their first postseason appearance since the Clinton administration.

Bobby V and the Red Sox? They are just playing out the string.

Next stop -- Fenway.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

One Red Sox fan’s incredible (and telling) Bobby Valentine encounter

Don't worry, Bobby, it's almost over.

            As the crazy saga of Bobby Valentines managerial meltdown in Boston continues, I thought I'd add another tale to the mix, courtesy of my friend and sometimes Fenway Park seat-mate Nancy.
            During the All-Star break, when Red Sox fans were in the midst of panicking over a surprisingly weak starting rotation, Nancy went for a jog on a blistering hot morning. About one mile from Fenway, along Huntington Avenue, she literally ran into a man in front of the swanky Colonnade Hotel.
            After a quick sorry she turned and started to jog away -- but then froze in her tracks. She was pretty sure the man in the khaki shorts and plaid shirt who she had hit was Bobby Valentine.
            Unlike many fans, Nancy had not yet soured on Bobby V. A season ticket holder, she had been very happy with the managerial change in Boston.
I went to a game last September against the Rangers, when the Red Sox still had a big lead in the standings, she recalls. Lackey got bombed, they lost 11-4, and I remember having a bad feeling -- a sense they werent playing with purpose. They were just going through the motions they were not Kevin Millar team; they were not Johnny Damons team.

Nancy applauded the hiring of Bobby V.
            Nancy turned to her companions, her sisters-in-law, and said, “‘This is it. Were done.’”
She was right. The epic 7-20 September collapse sealed manager Terry Franconas fate, and Nancy applauded the hiring of Valentine who had a reputation for being just the sort of tough-talking disciplinarian she felt was needed. Nancy, who once shouted down fans for singing Sweet Caroline during the eighth inning of a lopsided Red Sox deficit, liked tough guys.
            Now, even after a dismal first half-season, Nancy still hoped Bobby V. could turn things around. She ran back to him, smiled, and said, 'Are you my guy?'
            He laughed and replied, 'Yeah, I guess I am!'
            'I love you!' she shouted. I know you cant say anything, but weve got to get rid of Beckett, weve got to get rid of Lester, we've got to get rid of Lackey.
            Valentine put his finger up to his lips, smiled, and said, You know I cant say anything. He turned around to leave, but then walked back, crossed his fingers, and said, But we can only hope.
            Nancy can't quite remember what he said next, either I had no idea this is what it was like here or I had no idea it would be like this here.
            I looked at him and just wanted to hug him, she recalls. Instead, she said, This is one tough town.
Nancy wants to believe again.

            Valentine sort of shrugged, so Nancy added You listen to all this stuff, but not everybody is against you. I have season tickets -- look at my tattoos! [She has a Red Sox B on her right ankle and a dangling Sox on her right shoulder.] Plenty of people want you to succeed.
            She describes what happened next. Knowing he was a Catholic school boy, which means youre required to take Latin in school, I said to him 'Illegitimi Non Carborundum,' which means 'Dont let the bastards get you down.' I didnt learn that from the nuns, but if you study Latin, you learn things.
            He laughed, so I assumed he knew it too. If he was educated by the Jesuits, he knew it.
            Prior to this interview, Nancy had told her story to only a few close friends with whom she shared her seats.
            Why tell it to everyone now? I feel like its over, she said. They never stood behind him Ben Cherington number one, along with the owners. Im never going to forgive all of these people for the way it turned out. Tito was what I knew and it seemed to be working. But I was not a Tito guy before the end of last season, because he was enabling them to not 'Cowboy Up' and be our team.

Nancy saw a bit of Vaentine's playful -- and honest -- sides.

            Now, with another disastrous season nearing its end, it's time for another change. What does Nancy think?
            Now Im really just sad. I love the Red Sox; I really just do not like this team. I cant watch them. I feel really bad for Bobby V. This is not what he signed up for. Its not what any of us -- including the few players still trying -- signed up for. Were the embarrassment of MLB.
            Besides an attitude overhaul, here are her other recommendations:
            We have GOT to get rid of all the different jerseys -- red, navy, etc. You have your home whites and your travel grays period.
            Sweet Caroline kill it.
            The Wave do not allow it.
            And they better not charge major-league prices next year -- for tickets and beer when theyre not fielding a major league team!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Mike Trout may be MVP, but shouldn't be Rookie of the Year

Trout scoring at Fenway -- get used to it.

After last night's debacle in Oakland, I thought I'd stay away from the Red Sox for a change and focus on someone actually having an upbeat year -- although I don't agree with how it is being viewed.

Watching him help the Angels sweep the Sox at Fenway earlier this week, and based on his entire body of work this season, it's clear that Mike Trout is one of the most exciting young players in the majors. He may even be the American League MVP when all is said and done, but there is one thing I don't think the 21-year-old phenom should be:

Rookie of the Year.

Technically, Trout is a rookie. As the MLB rules state, A player shall be considered a rookie unless, during a previous season or seasons, he has (a) exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the Major Leagues; or (b) accumulated more than 45 days on the active roster of a Major League club or clubs during the period of 25-player limit (excluding time in the military service and time on the disabled list).

Trout makes the cut – barely. He played in 40 games (32 starts) during 2011, in which he had 123 at-bats. This may qualify someone for rookie status the next year, but it seems like an awful big sample set for me.

Trout is a phenom -- but should he be a rookie?

Forty games is nearly a quarter of the MLB schedule, and in Trout's case these were not just meaningless down-the-stretch contests. His first appearance came on July 8 against Seattle, and he wound up playing 14 games in July, eight in August, and 19 in September as the Angels battled for both an AL West title and a Wild Card spot. They got neither, but Trout – who hit .220 with five home runs and 16 RBI – got plenty of experience.

This year, of course, has been a different story. Trout has been with the Angels since late April and has torn up the league with an AL-best .336 average, 41 stolen bases, and 103 runs scored (along with 25 home runs) entering last night. Much hoopla was made when he became the first rookie to have both 25 homers and 40 steals during the Red Sox series, but he just doesn't feel like a first-year guy to me.

He was an everyday player for Los Angeles during a good stretch of LAST season, and while he may seem like an entirely different performer this year, Trout is in fact the same guy who had already seen plenty of big-league pitching entering 2012. To me, a true Rookie of the Year (ROY) winner is a guy who debuts the year he captures the award, or at most plays in 10 or 15 September games the previous season.

Baseball is the only one of the four major professional sports that has this type of shady rookie status. Football players, of course, go straight from college onto NFL rosters and have zero pro experience entering their first year. Ditto for hockey players, who enter the NHL from college or the minor league ranks. And while basketball players may have overseas professional experience, the first NBA games for every Rookie of the Year are played during his initial season in the league.

Blake Griffin -- a "true" rookie.

My 11-year-old son Jason had a very perceptive comment when I mentioned this discrepancy to him. “If Mike Trout is able to do this, what will keep managers from making sure young players don't break the 130 at-bat limit so they can get better and older?” I found no proof of this with Trout, who Angels manager Mike Scioscia played all game, every game down the stretch of 2011. It would have been interesting to see what might have happened had Trout gotten six more at-bats, of course.

Jason also had another funny premise: if a guy came up from the minors for 10 games a year for three years, would he still be considered a rookie going into his fourth season? According to the MLB rules above, he would. This seemed too funny to be plausible, but it happened – the 2008 NL ROY, Cubs catcher Geovany Soto, had played with Chicago for one game in 2005, 11 games in 2006, and 18 games in 2007. A fourth-year rookie!

Geovany Soto -- Jason was right.

I first started thinking about Trout's freshman/sophomore status when Will Middlebrooks was shining for the Red Sox earlier this summer. A broken wrist derailed Middlebrooks in mid-August, and even if he had played out the string the chances are slim he would have put together stats like Trout. But since Middlebrooks was a TRUE rookie whose 75 major games, 15 homers, and 54 RBI all came this season, one could argue (outside Los Angeles) that he is a more worthy Rookie of the Year winner than the guy who will get the award.

For some more perspective, I looked back at AL and NL ROY winners from the past 10 seasons to see how they compare with Trout in pre-ROY experience. Soto was the only one I found with three MLB seasons under his belt, but one other player (Angel Berroa in 2003) had played shortstop for the Royals for a combined 35 games and 128 at-bats in 2001-2002. Talk about cutting it close to the 130 at-bat limit!

Most of the others fell into the more reasonable range of 15-20 games and 50-75 at-bats for position players and 5-15 games for pitchers. Six of the 20 awardees were “true” Rookies of the Year who saw their first MLB experience in their winning year – Chris Coughlin, Andrew Bailey, Evan Longoria, Ryan Braun, Dontrelle Willis, and Eric Hinske. Honorable mentions go to 2006 winners Hanley Ramirez and Justin Verlander, who both played in just two games the previous season.

Andrew Bailey -- as true as rookies can get.

I think the system needs some revamping. Lower the pre-ROY maximum numbers to 20 games and/or 50 at-bats for position players, and 10 games and/or 30 innings for pitchers. This will ensure that September call-ups can still be considered rookies, but guys who played three months like Trout last year will be out of luck.

And what if Trout pulls off the double-win and captures both the Rookie of the Year and the MVP awards? He would be just the third man to achieve this feat, after Fred Lynn (in 1975) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001) – two men who offer another contrast in rookies. Lynn played in a reasonable 15 games in September of '74, and while Suzuki was a “true” rookie in '01 with regards to his MLB status, he did have nine seasons and more than 1,000 games in the Japanese professional leagues under his belt.

Now that's another discussion altogether.