Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: They Call Me Oil Can (2012)

By Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd with Mike Shalin

Way back in 1981 or so, I had the chance to interview Dennis Boyd. I knew he was a young pitcher on the rise in the Boston Red Sox farm system. Boyd had won a game in Buffalo in War Memorial Stadium. Not only was he good, but he was skinny -- very skinny -- and he had flair. It was fun just to watch him pitch.

It was fun to talk to him too. Boyd was friendly in the interview. My final question was the usual one. How did you get the nickname of "Oil Can?" Dennis pointed to a can of beer in his hand and smiled. "It's because of this stuff right here," he said.

Boyd did turn out to be a pretty good pitcher for a while, and his nickname -- picked up as a youth when someone said that Dennis was out in the back of a house drinking out of "oil cans" again -- proved unforgettable.That combination probably helped get a book by Boyd published more than 25 years after his prime.

And after reading it, it's obvious that Boyd is still a character, and hasn't changed much.

It helps to know where a person came from a youth to understand him, and that's true in Boyd's case. He grew up in Meridian, Mississippi. He was black and poor in the Sixties, which probably was close to redundant in Mississippi of that time. But Boyd could pitch, and after a brief stop in college he ended up signing with the Red Sox.

Boyd worked his way up the ladder and landed in Boston for parts of the 1982 and 1983 season. He became a regular in 1984, and won 15 games in 1985. Boyd was on his way to an even better season in 1986, but wasn't picked for the All-Star Game. Oil Can blew up over that, to the point where he had to be suspended. Based on the book, he's still bitter about it today.

Boyd still won 16 games in 1986, and the Red Sox made it to the World Series. You might remember the history, how the Red Sox let Game Six get away to the Mets to set up a Game Seven. The climatic game was rained out for a day, and manager John McNamara opted to change from the volatile Boyd to Bruce Hurst (who had two wins against the Mets in the Series) to start that game. In hindsight, Boyd might have been the one person zany enough to forget about Game Six and win Game Seven. Hurst couldn't do it, the Red Sox lost, and the Curse of the Bambino lasted until 2004.

What we didn't know was that when Boyd didn't get the start, he went out on the streets of New York and found a drug dealer for consolation. In fact, Boyd says he had smoked marijuana every day for much of his life and moved into harder stuff later on. In fact, he did a lot of cocaine during the 1986 season.

There's a lot of bitterness in this book. Boyd is quite angry that he didn't receive what he perceives as fair treatment from the powers that be (which can be translated to some extent into "the white powers that be). Even so, Boyd was never the same after 1986, never winning more than 10 games, and eventually bounced to Montreal and Texas before leaving baseball. Unfulfilled potential always is sad to watch. Maybe if you'd catch Oil Can at a weak moment, he might be willing to admit that he was on the verge of something big and he let it get away through his behavior.

There are plenty of odd opinions here Boyd isn't a big fan of Jackie Robinson, because he thinks Robinson helped destroy a black-owned business in the Negro Leagues by jumping to the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted an all-African American team to compete in the World Baseball Classic. Wade Boggs doesn't exactly come off well. Boyd still thinks he could go out and get some batters out of there was a game tomorrow.

Most of all, the skinny right-hander still seems a little haunted by the racism that no doubt surrounded him as he was growing up. It doesn't look like he'll be able to overcome it, which is too bad. There's an interesting character in there.

"They Call Me Oil Can" is rather weak on facts and logic, but it's certainly an uncensored view of life from Boyd's perspective, and has some entertainment value as a quick read. Those who remember Oil Can's brief  burst in the sky will be interested to read his story.

Three stars

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Running with the Kenyans (2012)

This review originally appeared in The Buffalo News on July 1, 2012

By Adharanand Finn

Noted sportswriter Frank Deford wrote his new memoir that "fish out of water" stories are a staple of journalism, perhaps only topped by "Cinderella" and "man bites dog" tales.

Adharanand Finn's story definitely qualifies as one of the former.

The freelance author of several running articles in Great Britain had noticed, like anyone paying attention to that sport in the past quarter-century, that world-class long-distance running has been virtually taken over by East Africans. Kenyans usually dominate such races as the Boston or New York City Marathon. If the men and women of that country don't win, it's because someone from Ethiopia was a bit better on that day.

Finn (his first name means "enternal bliss" in Sanskrit) decided to try to find out why the Kenyans were so good. He convinced his family, consisting of a wife and three children, that it would be an adventure to move to Africa for six months. Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

The resulting book from that trip is called "Running with the Kenyas." It's an entertaining and often charming look at the Kenyans and their running culture.

The Finns pack up and eventually land in Iten, the running capital in Kenya. Out of 5,000 residents, perhaps 1,000 are in training for the next foot race. The level of talent is astonishing; it seems that everyone that Finn meets was second in the Boston Marathon, or (in the case of men) run under two hours and 10 minutes for a marathon -- a very good time.

While the roads and trails of the Rift Valley of Kenya are crowded, Finn almost never saw anyone who wasn't serious about training. In other words, the recreational runner, such as someone who might run around Delaware Park before after work, is extinct in Iten. That sort of behavior is associated with the relatively wealthy, and few in Kenya qualify. Running has become one of the few ways out of poverty.

Coaches and managers have been flocking to Kenya for the past few years. They've set up training camps there in an attempt to find and nourish talent. If a runner is lucky, he or she will leave the country and win enough money to change the lives or entire families.

Finn and family discover in no time just how quickly the people Iten welcome them to their town. Admittedly, a white man from England who tries to run with the Kenyas does tend to stand out. He's the one who quickly falls toward the back of the pack. But Finn's family can't take many steps outside the door without drawing attention and invitations to share food and drink.

Finn examines possible reasons for the Kenyan dominance in the sport during the course of his trip. The Kenyans' stride is different and their diet is different, while the subject of whether the people of the region have some sort of genetic advantage is discussed but never really proven or disproven.

Finn puts together a running "team" for a marathon that comes at the end of his stay, and the author tries to meet a goal of being the first "mzungu," or person of foreign descent, to finish the 26.2-mile race. It's a good cap to the story.

Few runners will ever get to see what the Kenyans' running experience is like back home. "Running with the Kenyans" is the easy way of taking that trip in a sense, a book that goes past like the countryside on a long run on a pleasant day.

Four stars

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