Saturday, October 13, 2012

Embers of a former star's fire still burn

“Man, he looks old,” I thought, as he ambled to the field, extending his hand repeatedly to shake the hands of former fans.

He was still long and lean, not much heavier than he appeared during that magical baseball season that fell painfully short when a routine ground ball slipped under the glove of an injured, aging first baseman and into right field and infamy.

His close-cropped hair was mostly gray now, his face etched with deep wrinkles earned through a life of hard living and questionable decisions.

Three years had passed since I last saw him on the same high school field in Boothbay, Maine, in the same benefit softball game against the local ambulance department.

He had looked surprisingly electric then, with base path speed that belied his age and a sweet swing that we never got to see when he was an American League pitcher.

And when I saw him – albeit in a friendly game of softball against a very amateur opponent – it rekindled memories of the brash, trash-talking pitcher who backed up his smack on the mound but whose volatility earned him an extended suspension during a close pennant race.

Ronald C. Modra, Getty Images
More than two decades removed from his heyday as a member of the Boston Red Sox starting rotation, he was still “Oil Can,” the moniker given Dennis Boyd when he was a young man growing up in Meridian, Mississippi.

He could still engage a crowd, on and off the field, a colorful character whose hue had not diminished with the passage of time.

But now, three years later, he looked much older - a grizzled 53-year-old shadow of his former self.

Months before the game, he admitted his rampant drug use during his playing days in an E:60 interview with Buster Olney.

Playing in an era scandalized by high levels of cocaine and amphetamine use - the era that preceded the one of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances - Boyd’s admission wasn’t overly shocking to me or others.

Seeing him now, and with this new knowledge, my thoughts turned to “what could have been.”

How much better could he have been without the drug use that fueled his volatility and erratic behavior?

How much longer could he have played in the “bigs” without his vices, amassing career stats more impressive than the 78-77 won-loss record he compiled during his 10-year major league career.

The inherent problem with hypothetical questions like these, however, is that they remain unanswerable. Without a way to reverse time and the past choices tied to them, one will never know the alternate reality.

Still, I could not clear these questions from consciousness as I watched my 9-year-old son, bedecked in Red Sox garb for the occasion, wait patiently in line to have “Oil Can” Boyd sign his baseball and hat.

This was particularly true when I saw the pitcher’s glove resting on the bench near him, a pack of Newport smokes and a lighter in the pocket that served to amplify my thoughts.

A few minutes after the autograph session ended, Oil Can took the field with former Red Sox first baseman Sam Horn and a few other Sox alumni.

In the span of a few innings, he snagged a long fly ball, helped turn a double play and hit a ball deep to left field and another - a laser shot five feet over the second baseman’s head – to right center.

He offered glimpses of the pitcher I admired in 1986 as a die-hard Red Sox fan, the pitcher who I hoped would - along with a roster of other great players - end the team's decades-long World Series drought.

Sitting wide-eyed on the grass next to me as he watched the former big leaguer play, my son did not have the benefit of watching "the Can" in his prime. On the other hand, he also didn't know about Boyd's admitted drug use or about his many problems on and off the field.

He was - and is - just a fan, pure and simple. One who can love the game of professional baseball despite its many flaws, past and present.

And in watching his excitement in seeing a few former Red Sox stars in action on a warm early August night in Boothbay, Maine, I got the chance to be a fan again myself.

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