Muhammad Ali once said, "It ain't braggin' if you can do it." Maybe that applies to Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd.

Boyd entered today's game against Baltimore with a record of 9-5, a 2.70 earned run average that was fourth-best in the American League, 10 complete games (tops in the league) and three shutouts (second in the league).

He never does anything quietly or conventionally. And it's his eccentricities as much as his often brilliant pitching that make him one of the most popular figures in baseball.

Once this year in a bases-loaded situation against Cleveland, he reacted to an inning-ending double play by high-fiving the first baseman, second baseman and shortstop -- then headed out looking for the startled center fielder. Given such antics, it naturally took a while for the fans and teammates to get used to Boyd, who first came up for part of the 1982 season.

"When you can pitch, and you got a wide-open personality, a nice air about yourself . . . I expected it," Boyd said of his popularity here. "I know my style out there is like a showman, a little bit outside of the game itself. I might seem a little flamboyant. But that's me."

While growing up in Meridian, Miss., he acquired the nickname "Oil Can" for his beer (called oil there) guzzling. At 145 pounds, he makes Ron Guidry look like Conan, and reminds more than a few people of Satchel Paige.

"The Can," as he is called by almost everyone, has command of about seven pitches and exudes ability, which he'll tell you about.

The only thing more fun than watching him pitch is listening to him talk. His conversation is accented by phrases such as "knee high to a snake." He calls a 3-2 count, "a full house" and a breaking pitch "the hemp."

This is how he described to one Boston writer what he does:

"I can get them out with my screwball, my curve ball, my fast ball. I can pitch them up or down, inside or outside. I can pitch with power or deception. It's a challenge to me, a cat-and-mouse game. I'm creative, I'm versatile. I throw my slider and my fast ball hard and I throw an offspeed curve ball high or low. I can throw from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock, from overhand to underhand. I have a sidearm curve ball."

Before Friday night's game against Baltimore, he said pitching, to him, is like "slight witchcraft out there. I like to be wicked, not like a machine that's programmable. Fired up, that's me."

He can get fired up over just about anything, which doesn't sit too well with opposing players and wasn't a big hit with his teammates right away.

Leading Oakland earlier this season, 10-0, he struck out Mike Heath. And as he often reacts to a strikeout, Boyd shot his fist forward in excitement. Heath screamed at Boyd on the way back to the dugout.

"He's not doing it to offend anybody," Boston catcher Rich Gedman said. "I know that there are players who don't like that. But you have to be around him for a while to know where he's coming from.

"He's saying, 'Hey, I made a great pitch in a crucial situation. I need a boost and I'm gonna get it right here, from me.' "

His father, Willie James, played against the legendary Paige in the Negro leagues. "They saw Satchel when he was my age. He created himself that atmosphere; a lot of guys did back then," Boyd said. "I like to wear my socks low, like the old-timey dudes. That's when baseball was fun."

Pickup games as a kid were played in conditions similar to the old Negro league games. Cow manure in left field, a piece of an old tire for the pitching rubber. Boyd loves it. "I lived in it," he said. "I know what the atmosphere is like, the crowd, what it meant to blacks as fans . . . The same mound I grew up pitching on, Satchel pitched 75, 80 ballgames right on the same mound."

When Boyd was 20 years old he went to meet Paige in Hattiesburg, Miss. Boyd says Paige told him to throw "high riders at the chin and peas at the knees. When they're looking for it here, pitch it there and when they're looking for it there, pitch it here."

There's no sense in comparing the two as pitchers. But the build and down-home style comparisons are inevitable.

"I grew up on the playgrounds where you'd play tackle football in the streets," Boyd said. "The name of this game is to be tough. You grow up hard."

He didn't feel he got that respect when he first came up for parts of the 1982 and 1983 seasons.

The veterans weren't fond of some skinny kid who hadn't proven himself throwing high-fives and talking cocky. He was sent back to the minors in '84 after going 0-3 with a 7.36 earned run average.

He was trying to pitch without offending anybody, which he believes led to ineffectiveness.

"The emotion was keyed down. My manager (Ralph Houk) told me I couldn't pitch that way. Now, whether I win or lose, it don't matter. That's my style, and it's not a gimmick and don't tell me I can't do what I need to do.

"I needed that. It took a lot of away from me personally. If I can't play the way I want to play, then I don't want to play at all. Don't take away what I do to get me going. My air is to, hey, let it all hang out."

He says now he was alone on most of the road trips and didn't even have anybody to eat breakfast with most of the time.

"I knew it would be tough, open, slightly cocky, quick to say what I feel. I'll tell you what I do. Some guys don't want to hear that or take that from a young guy. Some guys told me I couldn't do it like this up here in this league; I won't call names. I was like, 'Leave me alone, this is the way I need to do it.' I'm a lot more accepted, but it should have been like that in the first place."

He came back up and went 12-9 the rest of last season to finish in Boston with a .500 record (12-12).

Red Sox designated hitter Mike Easler contrasted Boyd before and after his trip back to the minors:

"He had this assortment of pitches, and didn't really know how to use them. Now he's got a plan. I think his excitement is good for baseball."

Boyd hardly is moping these days, even though the Orioles did get seven runs in only four innings today in a Baltimore victory in Fenway Park.

Boyd says he doesn't pay any attention to "the Wall" in left field because he doesn't want anybody hitting the ball more than 285 feet off of him anyway. And he says he gets mad if anybody pulls the ball. "I loved it when Jim Rice (the Boston left fielder) didn't get a ball for about three days," Boyd said.

So far, it's certainly been a brief, sweet ride for "The Can."

"All I wanted to do was play baseball," he said. "I didn't want to be a damn banker or lawyer or doctor. This is what I wanted to do."