LEN-NEE! LEN-NEE! LEN-NEE!"
The chant began in the seventh inning at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium last Thursday night, and it may not die down for quite a while. Up at bat was Lenny (Nails) Dykstra, .400 hitter (.414 at the time), spark plug of the Phillies, discard of the New York Mets. In the first inning of that evening's game with the Atlanta Braves, he doubled. In the second, he came up with two outs and the bases loaded and singled, driving in two runs in what would be a four-run inning. Then, after flying out in the fourth, he singled again in the sixth to ignite a three-run rally that would cement Philadelphia's 8-4 win.
So when Dykstra came up for the fifth time, in the seventh, many of the 21,160 people in the Vet started the mantra once heard in New York but never before in Philadelphia: "Len-nee! Len-nee!" The joint was jumping for the first time in years, and even though Dykstra grounded out to first base, the fans gave him a big hand. Not too long ago, when he was a Met, they hated him. Now that he's a Phil, they love him.
They should. In the Poseidon adventure that is the National League East, where everything has been turned upside down, the Phillies, who finished in last place in 1989, were battling the Pittsburgh Pirates, who finished fifth, for the lead in the division; at week's end, the Pirates were ahead by 1½ games. And the player most responsible for Philadelphia's role in this reversal of fortunes is Dykstra. Not only was he hitting .404 through Sunday, but he was also inspiring everyone else in the Phillie lineup by playing the heck out of centerfield and being a hellcat on the bases. "He has made us a much better club," says Phillie manager Nick Leyva, "and it's not just because he's imitating Ted Williams."
Asked if he will sit Dykstra down the last day of the season if he is hitting .401, Leyva says, "He wouldn't let me."
This .400 talk is, of course, premature. But if Dykstra can keep his average at that level until June 1, he will become the first hitter since Rod Carew in 1983 (.441) to finish May at or above .400. The magnitude of Dykstra's average is only now beginning to dawn on people. After the game on Thursday night, Phillie leftfielder John Kruk said to Dykstra, "Good thing you went 3 for 5 tonight. Because if you had gone 2 for 5, your average would have gone down"
"If I hit .400 this year, the world will end," says Dykstra. "It can't be done, not with fork-balls and relief pitchers and the schedule. I saw a lot of Rod Carew while I was growing up in Anaheim, and if he couldn't do it, I sure as hell can't. It's hard enough just hitting four out of 10 balls, much less hitting them to where people ain't even standing." Dykstra may not hit like Wee Willie Keeler, but he sure sounds like him.
So far this year, Dykstra has accounted for an extraordinary 18% of Philadelphia's runs. As of Sunday, the lefthanded-hitting Dykstra was batting .444 versus righthanders and .460 at home. At his current pace, he will have 240 hits this season, the most by a Phillie since 1930, when Chuck Klein had 250. What's more, at week's end Dykstra led Philadelphia in runs (35), hits (61), total bases (83), doubles (14), stolen bases (7), times hit by a pitch (4), on-base percentage (a major league-best .480), slugging average (.550) and tobacco juice dribbled (trust us, you don't want that stat).
Dykstra is a throwback—not just to Keeler but all the way back to Java man. He once said he doesn't read books because they might hurt his batting eye. As a teenager, he and his friends sneaked into Anaheim Stadium one Christmas Day, and while his buddies tossed baseballs around, he practiced diving into the outfield wall. He is not going to make anyone's 10-best-dressed list, unless an ensemble of cowboy boots and shorts suddenly comes into vogue. And he is the recent recipient of a haircut that would look good only on a standard poodle. Says Leyva of the coif, "It looks like the barber started at the bottom, then died of a heart attack or something."
The haircut has only served to heighten Dykstra's resemblance to Bart Simpson, the pestering yet lovable fourth-grader of the TV series The Simpsons. You know, the kid on the T-shirts that read I'M BART SIMPSON. WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? Dykstra has the same protruding upper lip, the same habit of calling everyone "dude," the same (sometimes) charming demeanor. When a reporter asked him if he had changed since last season, during which he hit .237, Dykstra replied, "Have I changed? What do you mean? Am I leaving bigger tips at restaurants?"
Nails may lack a certain polish, but he is very much a winner. No club he has ever spent a full season with—in the majors or the minors—has finished below second place. Phillie relief ace Roger McDowell, who came over with Dykstra from the Mets last June, played with him in the minors and, like Dykstra, married a girl he met while playing in Jackson, Miss. "Lenny and I aren't best friends or anything like that, but if there was anybody in the world I would want to be traded with, it would be him," says McDowell. "The first time I saw him in the Sally League, he was a 12th-round draft choice, but he was driving a white Porsche, and he knew he was going to be in the big leagues someday. He has this winning glow about him that you can see even when he just walks through the clubhouse. I'm glad I don't have to play against him."
"When I was coaching with the Cardinals, I hated the little ass," says Leyva. "I sure as hell love him now."
The nonplayer most responsible for the Philadelphia turnaround is general manager Lee Thomas. Right after he came to the Phils from the St. Louis organization, in June 1988, Thomas made a series of trades—Lance Parrish for David Holdridge, Shane Rawley for Tommy Herr and two minor leaguers, Milt Thompson for Steve Lake and Curt Ford, and Phil Bradley for Ken Howell and a minor leaguer—that met with bad reviews and mixed success. But Thomas didn't become gun-shy, and in the space of 16 days last season he pulled off the three trades that have made the Phillies a contender. On June 2 he traded Chris James to the San Diego Padres for Kruk and Randy Ready. Then on June 18, he dealt Steve Bedrosian to the San Francisco Giants for Charlie Hayes, Dennis Cook and Terry Mulholland, and Juan Samuel to the Mets for Dykstra and McDowell.
"My most important consideration in all those trades was chemistry," says Thomas. "We did our homework, and even though some of those guys weren't playing regularly, we knew they were winners. The manager can't motivate a team by himself. He needs guys who will get on their teammates for not showing good work habits."
Three of the players acquired last June are now in the Philadelphia lineup nearly every day: Dykstra in center, Kruk (.265) in left and Hayes (.290) at third. Ready (.304) has been an invaluable utility man. Two of the pitchers, Cook (5-0) and Mulholland (3-2), are in the rotation, and McDowell (12 saves in 12 opportunities) is the closer. More important, the trades transformed the clubhouse atmosphere. Mike Schmidt, whose number 20 was retired Saturday night, recently told Jayson Stark of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "These guys could make a 40-year-old feel 30 again. Sometimes I wish they could have made those trades before I retired. I might still be playing."
"Look around this room," says Kruk. "There's not one guy here you'd want to invite to dinner. But there's not one guy here I don't want to play baseball with."
Kruk is very much a kindred spirit of Dykstra's. When Kruk was with the Padres, owner Joan Kroc once shouted some encouragement to him from her field-level box after he had struck out. Without looking to see who had made the remark, Kruk snapped back, telling Kroc to do something unimaginable to herself. Dykstra, with his huge chaw in his left check, and Kruk, with his wad on the right side, look like the bookend sons of Don Zimmer. It's not a coincidence that Kruk's and Dykstra's former clubs are struggling. In fact, they're exactly what the Padres and Mets need.
The Dykstra trade was not an immediate success. Though he liked the idea of playing regularly after being platooned in center by the Mets, Dykstra wasn't happy being on a last-place team. Remember, this is a player who was so popular in New York that a woman once came to Shea Stadium in a wedding gown with a sign that read MARRY ME, LENNY. Dykstra hit .300 his first month with the Phils, but then he began to lose interest. After the All-Star break, he got fewer hits (56) than he already has this season. "People have to keep in mind that I had to make some adjustments to playing every day for a team that was out of it," says Dykstra.
In the off-season, Thomas had a few heart-to-heart talks with Dykstra. "I told him that if he didn't want to play for the Phillies, I would find him another team,' says Thomas. "I also told him I thought he was the man who could turn us around."
Working with free weights over the winter, Dykstra bulked up to 195 pounds, almost 30 pounds more than he weighed at the end of last season. "I did it strictly for stamina," he says. "I've already lost 10 of those pounds in two months."
"One day during the lockout, I was jogging when I suddenly heard somebody call out my name," recalls Leyva. "It was Lenny, and he was wearing a tank top that showed off all these muscles. I thought to myself, Oh, no, but he assured me he had built himself just for endurance."
In the past, one of Dykstra's problems was his recurring desire to become a home run hitter. Leyva maintains that a rib injury, which kept Dykstra out of the first four regular-season games, is a contributing factor to his unusually high average. "He had to cut down on his swing, and he started hitting the ball all over the place," says Leyva. Indeed, during a 22-game stretch that extended through Sunday, the only game in which Dykstra failed to get a hit was one played the day after he had hit a home run. After the oh-fer, Dykstra told hitting coach Denis Menke not to worry-he was going back to basics.
When Dykstra came to bat in the fourth inning of Thursday night's game, he was already 2 for 2. Behind the plate for the Braves was Greg Olson, who had played with him in the Mets system. "Lenny hasn't changed a bit," said Olson. "Here he's batting over .400, and we throw him a changeup on a 2-1 pitch. He fouls it off, and he's steaming. He says, 'Oly, did you call that? You're supposed to throw me a fastball on 2-1.' I say, 'Lenny, we have to get you out somehow.' " In the game, Dykstra made his first error of the season, on a knuckleballing line drive to center, and he was more irritated about his error than he was happy about his three hits.
On Friday the Phillies beat the Braves again, 5-4, to take over first from the Pirates. Dykstra walked on his first trip to the plate and singled his second time up, raising his average to .415. That may be his high-water mark this year. He made outs his last two at bats, then went 1 for 3 in Saturday's 12-3 loss to Atlanta as the Phils fell out of first. In a 6-1 loss on Sunday, he went 1 for 4, but the hit was dramatic—a double down the rightfield line with one out in the ninth to break up a no-hit bid by the Braves' John Smoltz.
Nobody's saying Lenny Dykstra is going to hit .400 this year. But stranger things have happened. After all, two months ago who would have guessed that the Phillies would be contending for the National League East lead?