Tuesday, August 7, 2007

courtesy of neatesager.blogspot.com

SUNDAY, JULY 22, 2007

The name Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd alone indulges the nostalgia of sports nuts who know off by heart that he won 16 games in 1986 for the American League pennant-winning Boston Red Sox.

That's fine for those among us who bookmark baseball-reference.com, but the former Red Sox and Expos pitcher (pictured) wants to remind his people of their baseball history. Boyd and his friend and former Montreal teammate, Delino DeShields, who were each scheduled to visit Ottawa today for a Tribute To The Expos promotion prior to the Lynx-Rochester Red Wings game, are doing something that in Boyd's words, "hasn't been done in a long, long time ... something that has to be done." They're trying to revive the baseball culture among African-Americans that has been largely pushed out by basketball and football.

In an effort to recapture something of a time when, in Boyd's phrasing, baseball was "in the bloodstream" for African-Americans, the ex-'Spos are pouring their energy into the Urban Baseball League and a barnstorming team called Oil Can Boyd's Travelling All-Stars. The league, conceived as an independent circuit based in predominantly African-American cities, will begin playing games next May.

"It's going to be in the model of the Negro Leagues -- starting with four to six ball teams, in front of one audience, in Jackson, Mississippi, which is like a second home for me. Once it gets started there, hopefully we'll take that concept around the South.

"We're taking our chances with what we believe in, that's the best way to put it," Boyd adds. "We need to create the right vibe first, then it needs to become more cohesive. It's going to be in the styled on the Negro Leagues... We've done a lot of logos for the teams. We'll be launching our website next week. We have our travelling baseball team, which is important since having that team travels around is the spirit and the history of the Negro Leagues.

"We're travelling the road that's already been travelled, but we're going to do it better -- if that's possible."

Boyd and DeShields, the former second baseman, bonded during their time as teammates with the Expos for two seasons, 1990 and '91. They initially considered investing in a minor-league team, as several major leaguers have done, but "over the past 10 years," the notion of getting the Urban Baseball League off the ground has taken root. For Boyd, a "fifth-generation baseball player," the roots run much farther back.

"We need to get these fans and show them the nature of the game. The intellect that's in baseball is part of how basketball and football developed. It was the first game, going back to the end of slavery, for Americans to participate in. So many great minds have come out of the game of baseball. It got passed down, it's a genetic thing.

Boyd adds, "Generations of generations of baseball players, all of us, guys like Jimmy Rice, Dave Parker, all these players are descendants of Negro Leaguers... we didn't get a chance to pass it along ... we've got to revive that."

Boyd references baseball's between-the-ears qualities quite a bit in a 20-minute phone conversation, which makes it clear how much having young African-Americans who know "the value of being a professional anything" coming to know baseball and become fans of the game matters to him. If there's a trickle-up effect to the major leagues, that's a plus, but the core belief seems to be that having a base of baseball knowledge can help one get along in the world. In Boyd's works, as a kid growing up in Meridian, Miss., "we were all-around athletes, but our heart was in the game of baseball. There's no better game that's nourishing for the mind."

That isn't the case today. "It's been taken out of African-Americans, the black community's been taken away from the game. We've lost a whole generation of kids. Delino and I, we're all on the same page. Something has to be done."

In between the era when Jackie Robinson integrated the game -- which as Boyd notes, happened in Canada with the International League's Montreal Royals in 1946 -- and today, baseball lost its bond with African-Americans. The major leagues have opened more than ever before to players from Asia, the Caribbean, Central America and Canada, but African-American participation has waned steadily for more than 30 years. Major League Baseball has a program intended to stimulate baseball interest among inner-city youth. Boyd and DeShields' endeavour seems sincere in its plan to spread the baseball gospel in communities which are facing challenges the average middle-class white Canadian probably struggles to wrap her or his mind around.

This is business, of course, but as Boyd says, "The Negro Leagues was a business in the community, that's part of its history. This is about creating commerce in the community and it's about providing a stronger educational foundation. There's no better game for smartening you up than the game of baseball because it's the most intellectual game."

(It probably should be pointed out that this conversation happened the day after NFL quarterback Michael Vick's indictment.)

Part of creating the vibe for the Urban Baseball League will be wearing uniforms modelled on those worn in the Negros Leagues era. Holding clinics for inner-city youth is also a key component. The league and the Travelling All-Stars isn't limited to players from one cultural background. Bill (Spaceman) Lee, the very left-handed former Red Sox and Expos pitcher, who is white and also pushing 60, has pitched in to help with the Travelling All-Stars this summer.

Boyd has no small amount of notoriety. Like the Spaceman in the '70s and Manny Ramirez being Manny today, in his era Oil Can was the Red Sox player who gave the Boston media what they needed just by being himself. His baseball reputation is a selling point, but more than 15 years after he last pitched in the majors, he's deadly serious about the Urban Baseball League.

Jackson, Mississippi, is a long way from Canada, but Boyd appreciates that people outside the U.S. who are rooting for him and DeShields to pull this off, especially since both were with the Expos in Montreal. (For the record, he believes his former team "could have made it.") One of the first stops the Travelling All-Stars made this summer was in Quebec City, on May 19-20.

"We were respected more and received better there than we were anywhere else," he says. "I imagine it will be the same when we go down to the Dominican (later this summer) and to Central and South America. English-Canadian or French-Canadian, people received us very well."

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