- Breaking down every angle of Lenny Dykstra's lawsuit levied against his former Mets teammate, Ron Darling. These are the strategies both sides will likely deploy in court.
Until this month, Ron Darling hasn’t been a particularly controversial figure in baseball. The former New York Mets All-Star pitcher is a color commentator on national and regional TV broadcasts. He is generally regarded as eloquent and respectful.
Ron Darling’s written words appear to strike a more strident tone. In his new book, 108 Stiches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game, Darling takes aim at his former Mets teammate, Lenny Dykstra. St. Martin Press published 108 Stiches last week. Darling co-authored the book with writer Daniel Pasner. Together they detail Darling’s reflections on a 13-year MLB career that was highlighted by Darling and the Mets defeating the Boston Red Sox in the 1986 World Series.
Darling, 58, previously authored well-regarded books on baseball strategy. One was The Complete Game, which focused on the art, strategy and psychology of pitching. 108 Stitches, in contrast, takes the reader Darling’s memory lane through his career. He details interesting anecdotes of his interactions with coaches, teammates and opposing players.
One particular memory from 33 years ago has given rise to an emerging legal controversy. It concerns Darling’s recollection of the ’86 World Series. Darling recalls Dykstra hurling racists remarks at Sox starter Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd prior to the start of Game 3. Darling writes that while Dykstra—the Mets leadoff hitter—was in the on-deck circle and while Boyd was warming up on the mound, Dykstra shouted “every imaginable and unimaginable insult and expletive in [Boyd’s] direction - foul, racist, hateful, hurtful stuff.” Darling goes so far as to write that Boyd probably heard remarks more offensive “than anything Jackie Robinson might have heard” when Robinson became MLB’s first African-American player in 1947.
Darling further asserts that Dykstra “was out there shouting this stream-of-unconscionable s-t in plain sight, in earshot of anyone in one of the front rows and certainly in range of the cameras and microphones that had been set up to record the game….” Darling also distinguishes what he classifies as racist remarks from ordinary taunting and razzing. The latter of which, Darling explains, might ridicule a player’s physical appearance or his skills as a ballplayer. Taunting and razzing have a “long and fine tradition in the game,” Darling writes, whereas Dykstra’s alleged comments to Boyd were, as Darling tells it, sheer bigotry and exceptional for all the wrong reasons.
Dykstra sues Darling: Understanding the complaint and its claims
Dykstra, 56, is now firing back. The retired All-Star centerfielder has sued Darling, as well as St. Martin’s Press and MacMillan Publishing Group, in a New York state court. Dykstra’s complaint, authored by New York City attorney Matthew Blit, contends that Darling defamed Dykstra and also intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him. The complaint was filed on Tuesday. As of late Wednesday, online records indicate that Dykstra’s complaint has not yet been assigned to a specific judge.
Dykstra insists that Darling made up the alleged racist taunting. To support that position, Dykstra’s attorney, Blit, includes reference to public remarks by other Mets players from the ’86 team. These players are especially important witnesses since there appears to be no video or audio evidence that proves or refutes Darling’s claims. Wally Backman, who batted second in the Mets’ lineup that night and was thus near Dykstra, insists that Dykstra “did not say” anything racist. “That’s a fact,” Backman told WGBB 1240-AM.
Blit also incorporates public remarks by three African-American players on that Mets team. The trio—Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden and Kevin Mitchell—have no recollection of Dykstra making racist remarks. In an interview with ESPN Radio’s The Michael Kay Show, Strawberry was particularly critical of Darling: “You don't do that ... You don't make up things about a person that other players didn't hear or other players didn't know about...I never heard Lenny say anything racist. Never, ever.”
Perhaps the most important witness is Boyd, who Darling writes was besieged by Dykstra’s supposed heckling. In an interview with WFAN’s Carlin, Maggie and Bart show, Boyd says he “doesn’t know anything” about Dykstra hurling racist remarks. At the same time, Boyd acknowledged that his focus before Game 3 was on warming up and getting ready to pitch. He thus blocked out distractions, meaning he might not have heard Dykstra. Interestingly, Boyd also told WFAN that he tended to believe Darling. At the same time, Boyd recalls playing with Dykstra in Japan and remembers how Dykstra “didn’t’ seem to come off as that type of [racist] person.”
Dykstra’s complaint surmises that Darling views Dykstra as an “easy target.” Dykstra has experienced several run-ins with the law over the years. Seven years ago, Dykstra pleaded no contest to grand theft auto and other charges stemming from a fraudulent scheme where Dykstra and others conspired to deprive dealerships of cars. Dykstra was sentenced to three years in prison and served about six months. Dykstra now contends that Darling’s statements about him are intended to juxtapose Dykstra as a villain and Darling as a hero.
Dykstra maintains that Darling’s claims in 108 Stitches, along with Darling repeating these same claims on the book tour, have caused him to suffer considerably. He says his injuries include “emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of self-esteem, public disgrace, loss of opportunity, and loss of standing in the entertainment and sports communities.” Dykstra insists that appropriate remedies include a court-order enjoining St. Martin Press from continuing to publish 108 Stiches and the defendants paying him unspecified monetary damages.
Understanding defamation as viewed by Dykstra and his attorney
Darling, Dykstra asserts, committed the tort of defamation by writing allegedly false remarks in a published book. These remarks, Dykstra insists, “were willfully and maliciously stated to attack [his] abilities as a professional athlete, person, and ability to earn a living going forward.” Dykstra also maintains that St. Martin Press and Macmillan are liable since they published and distributed the book. Dykstra claims the publishers failed to conduct proper due diligence. To that point, Dykstra asserts that the publishers neglected to contact Boyd and Mets players to verify Darling’s assertions in advance of publication. This supposed absence of fact-checking, Dykstra argues, was “grossly irresponsible” behavior on the part of the publishers.
Dykstra maintains that Darling’s comments about him are so egregious and untrue that they rise to what is known as “defamation per se.” These types of remarks are uniquely insidious and are presumed defamatory on their face.
The legal category of defamation per se is particularly important for someone like Dykstra. He is a public figure and, as a result, must prove that Darling and the publishers committed “actual malice.” In this context, actual malice means that the defendants either knowingly published false and defaming information about Dykstra or had reckless disregard for the information’s truth or falsity. In other words, establishing actual malice would require that Dykstra prove Darling knowingly lied about him or that Darling recklessly disregarded the need to verify his recollection of what occurred before Game 3. Likewise, St. Martin would have engaged in reckless disregard for the information’s truth and falsity if it failed to conduct industry-standard fact-checking before publishing Darling’s claims.
However, if the claims about Dykstra count as defamation per se, they would be presumed defamatory. This would greatly increase the odds that Dykstra prevails. Under New York law, there are four types of false statements that count as defamation per se: (i) statements that claim the plaintiff committed a serious crime; (ii) statements that tend to injure the plaintiff in his or her trade, business or profession; (iii) statements that assert the plaintiff “has a loathsome disease”; or (iv) statements that impute unchastity to a woman.
Dykstra invokes the second type of (allegedly) false statement: that Darling’s statements damaged Dykstra’s reputation in his business and profession. If the public regards Dykstra as racist, it would presumably be much more difficult for him to earn income off of his standing as a retired MLB All-Star. To that end, fewer people would likely be willing to pay for his autograph or want to be associated with him. Dykstra could become a social pariah.
Likely defenses by Darling and his publishers
Attorneys for the defendants will answer Dykstra’s complaint. In the answer, at least one crucial defense will be noted: Darling will stress that he is telling the truth. Truth is the best defense to defamation, since even the most disparaging statement is not defamation so long as it is true.
As he builds a defense, Darling will likely offer insight on how he corroborated his claims about Dykstra. For instance, if Darling kept notes or a diary from the World Series, or if he spoke with family members, Darling may have supporting documentation. Ideally from Darling’s perspective, he could identify Mets players who also heard Dykstra insult Boyd with racist remarks. Similarly, if St. Martin Press and MacMillan took steps to confirm Darling’s statements, such as by reaching out to other Mets players or by sharply questioning Darling to ensure that his recollection stands the test of time, the publishers would improve their legal defense.
Darling could also assert that he is making a good faith recollection. Even if his recollection of events from 33 years is not fully accurate, the book is understood to be a trip back in time, with all of the possible memory disruptions that go along with such a journey. It’s possible that readers accept that not everything in 108 Stitches happened as literally recalled by Darling.
Expect Darling to also push back on Dykstra claiming that 108 Stiches’ statements constitute defamation per se. To that end, Darling could contend that Dykstra’s reputation was irreparably tarnished a long time ago due to his assorted legal troubles. Dykstra is a convicted felon who has served time behind bars. He has been accused of, and in some cases accepted responsibility for, a wide range of criminal acts. They include grand theft auto, possession of drugs, sexual misconduct, indecent exposure and threatening others with physical violence. Dykstra’s reputation in his business and profession, Darling might argue, is already beyond repair and thus no words expressed in 108 Stiches could prove reputationally-impactful. If that point proves persuasive, it would be more difficult for Dykstra to establish defamation per se.
It’s also possible that Darling could assert that the statements contained in the book are couched in general, rather than specific, terms. A successful defamation claim usually requires the plaintiff to prove the defendant’s hurtful remark was relatively specific. Likewise, the plaintiff must show the remark at issue was expressed as a factual statement rather than as opinion.
Darling’s book references his memory of “the ugliest piece of vitriol I’ve ever heard.” He also describes Dykstra as an a-hole and “all-time thug” who treated people like sh-t. Further, as discussed above, Darling recalls “foul, racist, hateful, hurtful” comments. Although claiming that Dykstra made racist remarks is a specific allegation, Darling doesn’t mention the allegedly racist words used by Dykstra. These words also didn’t appear to catch the attention of Boyd and nearby Mets players. In addition, Darling could argue that much of his book’s commentary is understood as sensationalized recollections.
Dykstra and Darling could reach a settlement
Unintentionally, Dykstra’s lawsuit could help Darling sell books. Dykstra’s lawsuit shapes 108 Stitches as a controversial document and controversy usually sells. Perhaps the two sides will eventually reach an out-of-court settlement where Darling and the publishers pay Dykstra a monetary sum to relinquish his claims. If not, the legal battle will continue.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.