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Jim Murray

The Oil Can Belongs in Another Era

October 11, 1986|JIM MURRAY

Move over, Dizzy Dean. Can we please squeeze in here, Rube Waddell? Give us a hand up, Elmer the Great. Where is Ring Lardner when we need him?

Make room for Dennis Ray Boyd. The Oil Can. The Powder Keg. Save some space for one of the great characters of the grand old game. Where did you go, Satchel Paige?

If you don't like Oil Can, you don't like baseball. This is as Americana as a train whistle on a summer night, a harmonica in a bunkhouse.

You watch Oil Can Boyd pitch and you're back to another place in time. You're back in Depression times when the great, as they were called then, Negro barnstorming teams toured the country. The guys that made music out of the game. They did things with a flash and a flourish that was thrilling to watch, exciting to copy. They put spangles into the game. It was a combination contest and high-wire act. They were great players but greater showmen.

Watch Oil Can on the mound. As gaunt as a haunt, as somber as a threnody, he doesn't pitch to the batter, he attacks him. He lets the ball go out of a gyration of arms and legs that looks like a berserk spider climbing a bathroom wall. He slaps his glove, slams his hat forward, glares at the batter.

He's as volatile as two tons of nitroglycerin coming down a mountain in a runaway tanker.

The infield holds its breath when he pitches. It's like watching your new Cadillac teetering on the brink of a cliff. The fielders visit the mound periodically like a parish priest making house calls. They don't have to buck Oil Can up, they have to buck him down. As any gas station attendant can tell you, you never bring a lighted match around an Oil Can.

He gives up a hit, you say, "How's it going, Oil Can? You're doing great! Keep it up!" You blow a ground ball, you reassure Oil Can, 'I'll get the next one, Can, just you watch!" The manager comes out, "There, there, Oil Can, it's just a ball game!"

You treat Oil Can is if he's ticking. Because, usually, he is. Oil Can is no package of fudge out there. Oil Can is into it.

Oil Can kind of jangles when he pitches. Or when he walks, for that matter. He's as lean as a string and when he turns sideways you can see what he had for dinner. Some guys march to their own drummer. Oil Can has his whole damn band in his head.

He takes a little hop on the mound but when he throws the ball it's right down Broadway with this little hop on it, too, and it dips and curls as Oil Can follows it with a "Here, hit this, sucker!" look on his outthrust jaw.

Usually, the hitter can't.

Oil Can almost went into playoff history at Anaheim Stadium Friday night. First of all, he had a no-hitter going against the California Angels for almost four innings.

Now, this is not critical. The California Angels never get a hit before the fourth inning, and sometimes not before the ninth and sometimes not at all. They must lead the league in hitless innings at the start of the game--and sometimes at the end of the game.

The day began for Oil Can on nothing more important than the rumors he had been in a car accident and had not shown up at the ball park and maybe wouldn't.

That's nothing new for Oil Can. As longtime chronicler Larry Whiteside of the Boston Globe observes, rumor and innuendo follow Oil Can around and stick to him like moss on the north side of a tree. Sometimes it seems as if Oil Can himself is a rumor.

Oil Can is cognizant of this capacity of his to attract disinformation, but Oil Can is always on a major campaign to combat injustice wherever he sees it. Sometimes, Oil Can perceives serious injustice out of what is merely petty unconcern.

For instance, Oil Can jumped the club briefly this year in the midst of the pennant drive. It was the kind of injustice that should have had the citizenry marching in the streets. They left Oil Can off the All-Star team.

Now, Oil Can knows an All-Star when he sees one and he saw one right there in the mirror every time he shaved. Where he didn't see him was on the roster of the American League All-Star pitching staff.

It was enough to make a man sick. It made Oil Can so sick, in fact, they had to put him in the hospital.

Now, Oil Can's appendix was all right. He didn't need a heart transplant. His temperature was normal, his pulse was steady, his blood pressure no higher than usual and his hair and teeth were fine, which is to say he has all of them.

What was on the intensive care list was Oil Can's pride. Oil Can hurt in the worst place you can--the head. They can fix a broken leg, cure a bad cough, but Oil Can's trouble was where they couldn't get at it.

But they needed Can for the pennant; so they gave him a clean bill of health. But sometimes the bleeding can't be stopped that easily. Oil Can played hurt in the best traditions of the grand old game. And here he and the Red Sox are in the championship playoff.

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