- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2004


“Pitchers control the game,” said the former Boston Red Sox hurler to a group of young players at a baseball clinic yesterday in Roxbury. “The pitcher is the most important guy on the field.”

There is no doubt that when Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd stepped on the field, he believed he was always the most important guy on the field. However, he was not quite accurate in his call about who controls the game.

Managers control the game. Oil Can should know that, since it was his manager, John McNamara, who controlled who would pitch Game7 of the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and the New York Mets. It was supposed to be Oil Can, but after rain delayed the game for a day, McNamara opted for Bruce Hurst, who blew a 3-0 lead in a game Boston lost 8-5.

“What happened to me in 1986, it’s forgiven and forgotten as far as I am concerned,” said Boyd, who is 45 and still pitches for a semipro team in Mississippi. “But people should know that there wasn’t a day when I came to the baseball park where I wasn’t ready to play. When it was time for me to pitch, and you were going to put the ball in my hands and count on me to win, it’s won. When the game was on the line, that was what I did.”

Can appears to have forgotten that he lost Game3 of that series 7-1. There is a lot that anyone who has ever worn Red Sox red would like to forget about 1986 — but they can’t, particularly with Boston back in the World Series. Yesterday, before the Red Sox played Game2 of the series against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park, a group of former major league players held a youth baseball clinic not far away, at Jim Rice Field, and 1986 was resurrected yet again as another exhibit of the Curse of the Bambino.

There was Oil Can, one of the game’s more colorful characters, who is part of the lore of 1986 because of speculation of what might have been if he had gotten the Game7 start. And there was the man who hit a weak ground ball that was like a knife through the heart of Red Sox Nation.

“When you make a mistake in the infield, the outfielders back them up,” former New York Mets center fielder Mookie Wilson told the youngsters. “But when you make a mistake in the outfield, there is nothing to back you up except the wall. You make a mistake in the outfield, it’s probably going to cost you a run.”

How funny is that? Mookie Wilson, who hit the ground ball that rolled through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in the 10th inning of Game6 in the 1986 Series that gave the Mets a 6-5 win and melted the ice in the visiting clubhouse at Shea Stadium that was chilling the champagne to celebrate Boston’s first World Series championship since 1918, talking about how an outfielder’s mistake would probably cost you a run.

Wilson conducting a baseball clinic in the heart of Boston while the Red Sox are in the World Series was a touch of irony in a city awash in baseball ironies, but what is particularly strange is the reaction of Red Sox fans to Wilson. He has basically gotten a free pass for his role in the 1986 Red Sox debacle. Boston fans have vilified Buckner, but you never hear Wilson’s name cursed. Sure, he hit a ground ball that a Little Leaguer should have caught, but the fact is that he hit the ground ball. If he doesn’t make any contact — if he strikes out — the game goes on and Boston comes up to hit in the 11th inning.

“I’ve been here a few times since then, and nobody ever blames me for that,” Wilson said. “I always get a very cordial reception here. I was only doing my job, and I guess they expected the other guy to do his job, too. I can’t explain it.”

Oil Can says his job these days consists of trying to get a minor league team for his hometown of Meridian, along with former major leaguers Delino DeShields and Derek Bell, and also starting a youth baseball academy. He was in his element yesterday, entertaining the youngsters with his enthusiastic instruction of how to throw a changeup.

“The changeup is the best pitch ever invented,” Can said. “The vanishing pitch.”

What was clear, though, at the clinic yesterday was the vanishing black baseball player. There was Oil Can and Mookie and George Foster and Ken Griffey Sr. — black players instructing about 100 youngsters, of whom a very small number were black.

This is baseball’s real curse, the loss of interest in the game that the black community once loved so much they built their own version of it when major league baseball was for whites only.

“You have to go into the cities, change the environment and nourish the game, or else there will be no more Oil Can Boyds or Mookie Wilsons,” Can said. “It’s hard to get these kids focused on the game. The homes are so broken. It’s a sad situation. There’s been a whole generation of baseball players lost.”

Those who control the game have to make restoring baseball among black youths a top priority and make the most important people on the field those who are not there. The game needs its Oil Cans and Mookies.

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