Late last week, a reporter asked Boston Red Sox Manager John McNamara if Oil Can Boyd could ever pitch for him again.

McNamara began his answer by staring blankly at the questioner. He then stood up, walked away from his desk, spit into a trash can, circled his office and sat back down.

"Yes," he said, "he can pitch for me again."

He said it with all the conviction of a man being forced to watch a dream season unravel. At the time, only one American League pitcher had won more games than Boyd's 11. Boyd's earned run average was 3.71, 12th-best in the league, and he had pitched five complete games.

By just about any measuring stick, 26-year-old Dennis Boyd had become a star. Yet his days with the Boston Red Sox probably were over.

One too many bridges had been burned, sources said. Too many obscenities had been yelled. On the day Boyd was told he hadn't been picked for the American League all-star team (July 11), he stomped around the Red Sox clubhouse throwing clothes, and maybe a career.

He cursed one of his best friends on the club, pitcher Al Nipper, and screamed an obscenity at McNamara, challenging him, "Go ahead and fine me."

Four days later, on the evening of July 15, Boyd was involved in a similar incident, this one with police, who went to his home saying they received a tip Boyd was involved in a drug transaction.

They didn't find drugs, but they found Boyd more out of control than he had been four days earlier.

"We tried to hold him still," Chelsea Det. Sgt. Jack Phillips said. "He said he had a gun and was going to blow our brains out."

The Red Sox suspended Boyd for three days for the first incident and extended the suspension indefinitely after the second, although he technically still is a member of the active roster.

Now, Boyd is in a Massachusetts hospital undergoing a physical and mental examination. Oddly, the Red Sox have refused to reveal an official reason for the suspension.

His agent, George Kalafatis of Cleveland, who was recently brought in to help bail Boyd out of his financial problems, said Boyd could be pitching in a week or so.

Other baseball sources said Boyd may pitch again, but probably not for the Red Sox, who apparently were attempting to trade him when the second incident occurred.

Bigger than the questions about possible psychological problems is this one: What happened to Oil Can Boyd?

Only a year ago, he was going to be the Red Sox's greatest pitcher since Luis Tiant, and the similarities didn't end with their pinpoint control and vicious breaking balls.

Both Tiant and Boyd won, and both won with flair: Tiant with a swaggering, here-it-is-but-you-can't-hit-it motion, Boyd with swivel hips and an amazing mixture of pitches.

But not even El Tiante at his best could match Boyd, who fired imaginary six-shooters when he struck out an opposing batter, slam-danced in the dugout, yelled at his teammates and referred to himself in the third person.

On June 14 last season, he won to go 8-4 with a 2.37 ERA and an amazing nine complete games. Reporters asked him about pitching against Dwight Gooden in the all-star game.

"Who?" he asked, apparently serious.

He was told Dwight Gooden was the star pitcher of the New York Mets, probably the best in baseball.

"Tell him to come to the all-star game and learn pitching from The Can," Boyd said, smiling.

After that, after he found out Dwight Gooden was more highly regarded than he was, a Gooden-vs.-The Can matchup in the all-star game became almost an obsession. When Detroit's Sparky Anderson left him off the American League team, Boyd announced, "This is the last all-star game they won't invite Oil Can Boyd to."

At 25, he was going to be, not only a star, but a folk hero. He was one of 14 children of a Meridian, Miss., family, and his father, Willie James Boyd, had played for the Homestead Grays in the old Negro leagues.

If baseball players are occasionally considered dumb or predictable, Boyd was neither, a refreshing player and a refreshing interview.

Asked about his hot-dogging on the mound, he said, "That ain't hot-doggin'. That's the way we pitch back home. I've been doing that since I was knee-high to a snake."

He didn't finish 1985 as he had begun it, going only 7-9 the rest of the way, and what bothered the Red Sox more than his won-lost record was his erratic behavior. He had violent mood swings, was late more times than anyone could count and appeared to be on the verge of fights about a dozen times.

If the Red Sox had an explanation, it probably was that he was a young kid under a lot of pressure, both external and self-imposed, and that this was his way of handling it.

When the problem got worse this spring, the Red Sox asked veteran Don Baylor, just acquired from the New York Yankees, to speak with Boyd. Baylor went to Boston as one of the game's most respected players, and as Baylor and Boyd talked life and baseball, Baylor apparently came to like Boyd.

Boyd opened up to Baylor, and some of the things he told him were troubling, sources said. He felt some of the veteran Red Sox players picked on him. He had always been something of a loner, dressing in a corner of the clubhouse apart from his teammates, but the more he talked to Baylor, the more a persecution complex surfaced.

Baylor told him flatly that kind of thing wouldn't happen on the 1986 Red Sox and, very early, he made sure it didn't.

Baylor got a meeting between reliever Bob Stanley and McNamara, with the manager telling the pitcher, "Lay off the kid." (Later that day, Stanley was seen talking to Boyd in the outfield.)

When Texas third base coach Tim Foli yelled insults Baylor considered too personal, Baylor walked from dugout to coaching box during a game and said, "Say one more word to him, and I'll knock your butt off."

Yet when Boyd threw his first tantrum, no player was more critical of Boyd than Baylor, and when Boyd returned and apologized to the organization two days later, Baylor said the apology "meant nothing to me."

Whatever influence Baylor was having on Boyd inside the clubhouse, Boyd's life outside it apparently still was a mess.

Boston sources said he was late with payments on both his condo and Mercedes and that his telephone had been disconnected because he hadn't paid the bill. Money may have been part of the reason he was so furious at being left off the all-star team because he had a contract clause that would pay him $25,000 for being picked.

Now, almost no one knows what will become of him. The Red Sox are expected to announce some kind of diagnosis later this week, and if Boyd is healthy, they must decide whether to pitch him, trade him or release him.

"We'd like to see him pitch again," Red Sox General Manager Lou Gorman said, "but I think everyone's general feeling now is concern over his well-being. Basically, he's a very good kid. People who know him like him."

Asked what had happened to this very good kid, Gorman said, "I don't know."