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Book Review: "They Call Me Oil Can," by Dennis Boyd

They Call Me Oil Can, by Dennis Boyd with Mike Shalin. Triumph Books, 240 pages. Now available.

Whatever your expectations for a "standard" sports autobiography, you can rest assured thatThey Call Me Oil Can will tear them to shreds. This book is unlike any other book, essay, or article you're ever likely to read about the Red Sox. Some parts of the story--that Boyd pitched the 1986 season either smoking pot or coked up--have already been released to the public. But the parts that haven't been discussed are just as important, but don't come off quite as the authors intended.

The prologue chronicles Oil Can's shattered emotional state after finding out that he wasn't going to pitch Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. It's an angry renunciation of the world, and sets up in the reader's mind that the remainder of the book will chronicle his rise and fall within the major leagues, and lead to the end of his baseball days and continue with that difficult post-career transition that seems to plague most ex-athletes.

Unfortunately, the book leaves us wanting for much of its length about Boyd's time in the major leagues. Instead, we have rather extended anecdotes from his time growing up as a child, and his high school and college days. During this time, we're also greeted with the first of the many tales of how racism, both real and merely perceived, affected Oil Can throughout his life, While there is no doubt that some of the actions taken against him were racist, many of them had much simpler origins. Boyd acknowledges this, but also finds himself trapped in the "Angry Black Man" mentality.

Ultimately, the racism angle proves to be Boyd's undoing. Any time there's a problem, whether it's a teasing teammate or being kept out of the rotation or the All-Star lineup, the answer always seems to be that racist actions played a role. It seems remarkable that nowhere in his account does Boyd really accept the responsibility for his drug addiction. Even when his actions lead him to a parole violation and to jail, only "the system" is at fault.

This seems especially confusing in light of his tirade about being pulled before Game 7. He had already admitted to the team owners and management that he was a cocaine addict, and yet he expects that they will turn a blind eye to this on one of the most important nights in franchise history? It's frankly inconceivable that the Sox management could allow him to do so, particularly after having a meltdown in Game 3. A post-game revelation that Boyd was high during the game would have caused a media circus that made last year's post-season exposé look like a fender-bender in comparison to a magnitude-9 earthquake.

As mentioned above, Boyd seems determined to crush any expectations that the reader might have. This goes even to the structure of the book itself. It's a quick read, at just 226 pages. There doesn't seem to be much actual discussion of baseball, though, until one is almost two-thirds of the way through the book. Around that point, however, there's a curious change in tone and structure. Gone is the ranting; in its place is a rogue's gallery of anecdotes and musings on players, managers, coaches, and mentors in Boyd's career and beyond. Unfortunately, there are too many of these episodes, and they are often recounted so quickly, that readers may feel like they've just drunk out of a fire hose. Having interspersed these throughout the book (where they would have made more sense) would have made this a better book.

However, Boyd does have a terrific "feel" for the game, and nowhere more so than when he starts talking about the difference between pitching and simply "throwing," and how the game has, in many ways, descended into a hunt for the strongest and fastest arms, teaching velocity in place of precision, control, and strategy. It is such discussions as these, mainly confined to the book's latter pages, that really make the book worth reading. However, before the end of the book, there's one final chapter, "The World According to Oil Can," which just devolves into more of the "I want to say something about random topic X" that often plagues the book. At the end of the book, the reader is left wondering exactly what Boyd was thinking not only in writing the chapter in general, but why he chose to end the book the way he did. (His final paragraph is so unexpected and unlikely a stopping point that one imagines Boyd either ran out of things to say, or time in which to write them.)

While Boyd's career and life was flamboyant, his inability to bring that same outsized personality to life on the written page is frustrating. It's all the more surprising when the fact that this isn't a solo effort, as the assistance of a co-author, Mike Shalin, is clearly noted. What Shalin, an accomplished sports biographer, did to improve this manuscript is questionable, but it could have used a firmer editorial hand in overcoming its structural deficits. On the whole, it's still a readable book, and at times entertaining; unfortunately, at the end of the day it feels more like a screaming foul or warning track shot than a home run: the reader has that same initial sense of excitement, followed by the bitter disappointment of a missed opportunity.