A Cop reporter keeps a milkman's hours. And so it was very early on May 6, 1991, in the newsroom of the San Luis Obispo, Calif., County Telegram Tribune, that Danna Dykstra Coy was idly scanning the wires to see what troubles the human race had gotten itself into overnight. Various crimes and other news streamed by on her computer screen until she came to the bulletin about the famous baseball player and the fast car and the trees in a place called Radnor Township, Pa.
This is an article from the May 11, 1992 issue
Lenny Dykstra, the tough and energetic centerfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, had skidded the fast car into the trees, severely injuring himself and teammate Darren Daulton. Both men were hospitalized. More to come. Danna Dykstra Coy didn't want to hear about more to come.
"I'm a reporter, right?" she says. "So, here I am, reading off the wire about how my brother almost died, waiting to see whether or not he's dead. It was a sickening thing for me." She tried to get through to him at the hospital, but nobody there believed she was his sister. It occurred to her that had one of the Los Angeles Dodgers rolled his car in San Luis Obispo, she might have tried to gel through to him by pretending to be a relative. "The people at the hospital told me that everybody was saying they were related," she says.
Details kept coming in flickers of light on her screen. The stories told how Lenny Dykstra had broken through in 1990, batting .325 after flirting with .400 for the first few months of the season and making the All-Star team for the first time. They told how hard he played the game, how he took the extra base, how he took out the infielders and how he would take on the outfield wall if he had to do that to win the game. Some of the stories compared him to Pete Rose, but those were the ones that also mentioned that Dykstra was then on probation, put there by commissioner Fay Vincent's office for having gone almost $80,000 in the hole playing poker very unsuccessfully against a notorious Mississippi cardsharp named Herbert Kelso.
There was still more to come. Dykstra and Daulton had been driving home from a teammate's bachelor party at a bar called Smokey Joe's. Neither man had been wearing a seat belt, even though Dykstra clearly had been speeding. They had tested Dykstra's blood alcohol, and he had rung up a .179, nearly twice the legal limit. A good cop reporter, Danna Dykstra Coy knew what .179 meant. If her brother had hit a person and not a tree, .179 meant a possible seven years in prison, it also meant that whatever public sympathy her brother might have enjoyed was completely gone. In this country, Danna Dykstra Coy knew that .179 trumped .325 as surely as Herbert Kelso's four kings used to beat Lenny Dykstra's straight.
"The first reaction was, 'Oh, god. I guess he'll be O.K.' " she recalls. "The second reaction was anger. Like, 'Dammit, why was he driving drunk?' "
She finally got through to the hospital three days later but still couldn't speak to Lenny. He was sedated and in great pain, having broken his cheekbone, collarbone and three ribs. But he was going to be fine. He was alive and so was Daulton and so were both their burgeoning careers. They were two lucky fools. That was what everybody said about Lenny Dykstra for the rest of last season, even when he came back and hit .297 before running into a wall in Cincinnati on Aug. 26, breaking his collarbone again and effectively ending his season.
For his first seven years in the big leagues, Dykstra had been a model of how to play the game. Now, and for the foreseeable future, he would be an object lesson in how not to lead your life.
"It's nobody's fault but mine," he says. "I'm not bitter about it. I'm the one who created the problem. I'm the one who put myself in the position to be judged. I did realize that in one second I could've lost everything I had and everything I worked so hard for. One second, boom, it could've been gone."
Baseball players are not usually very reflective; nobody whose profession considers a 70% failure rate successful could afford to be. However, if circumstances have ever conspired to drive a ballplayer to introspection, they did so for Dykstra, probably one of the least introspective men in the game. Preparing to come back from a year in which he was disciplined, injured and repeatedly rendered a public spectacle, he was hit with the second pitch he saw this season, breaking a bone above his left wrist, and was sidelined until April 24. Now, oddly, he is chewing over his life like a plug of Red Man. He is confronting his own celebrity and his own mortality. A man who once said that he didn't read because it was bad for his batting eye is looking back and seeing his life a little differently now.
Not long ago, some players were passing a baseball newspaper around the Phillies' spring training clubhouse in Clearwater, Fla. Topic A in the paper was whether or not baseball players can or should be role models for children. "Role models?" asked Daulton. "Role models? Or roll models—like, roll the car?" Dykstra smiled, but he did not laugh.
Lenny Dykstra seemed the quintessence of those personalities that form within the culture of baseball. He was loud and raucous, calling everybody Dude so relentlessly that it became his own nickname. He was creatively and spectacularly profane. With his ever-present chaw, he looked as though his jaw had sprouted a head. He could have been one of the Gashouse Gang. Even his more widely accepted nickname—Nails—was exactly right. Pepper. Ducky. Dizzy. Nails. Right there, Dude.
His game seemed a perfect expression of who he was, and you hated him until your team traded for him. "We were holding a practice camp in California," recalls Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman, who worked in the Mets' front office when New York drafted Dykstra in 1981, "and he was so tremendously aggressive that he caught your eye immediately." In 1985, having been called up by the Mets for the first time in May, Dykstra hit a home run off Cincinnati's Mario Soto in his first major league at bat. He fairly flew around the bases.
From the beginning, his teammates responded to him, while opponents sought to wring his neck. "When I came up with the Phillies and he was with the Mets, I hated his guts," says Philadelphia first baseman Ricky Jordan. "Now I can't think of anybody I'd rather play with."
"He plays," says Phillie general manager Lee Thomas, "like a kamikaze pilot." More to the point, he plays the way a boy would.
"That's the only way to do it," Dykstra says. "I mean, playing ball for a living is the greatest job that God ever created. You get to work outside, stay at the best hotels. Who wouldn't want to do that?"
Dykstra raged at being a platoon player during his years with the intrigue-riddled Mets. "Lenny thought he should be playing regularly," says Wally Backman, who was reunited with Dykstra last season in Philadelphia; the two of them had constituted the beloved Mets rally-cap auxiliary during the team's 1986 championship drive. "He was really frustrated. You have to understand that Lenny's for himself first, but the ball club is a very close second."
He was shuffled off to Philadelphia on June 18, 1989, when the Mets packaged him and reliever Roger McDowell for second baseman Juan Samuel. He immediately won over a tough town. Thomas was building a team of largely kindred spirits, and the Phillies began to turn around, winning 77 games in 1990 and 78 last year, when they finished third. Dykstra was a big reason for the improvement. "Lenny knows how to play the game," says Phillie manager Jim Fregosi, "and he knows exactly what he has to do to help us win." Last season the Phillies were 36-27 with Dykstra in the lineup, 42-57 without him.
He had an instinctive feel not only for playing the game but also for living the life he so obviously loved. He gambled and he drank beer because that was what big leaguers named Nails did when they weren't taking out the shortstop or diving for a sinking liner. Asked once if he had been changed by his success, Dykstra snapped back, "What do you mean? Am I leaving bigger tips?" Suddenly he had an image, but at the same time, he was so utterly unaffected by his celebrity that most of his friends believed that it truly baffled him. "He was Lenny Dykstra long before he was Lenny Dykstra," his sister says.
On March 10, 1991, the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger reported that Dykstra had gambled away more than $50,000 to Kelso, who was going to trial in Mississippi on a variety of felony charges, including money laundering and helping to operate a gambling business. Dykstra had been called to testify, and one reporter remembers seeing him in the trainer's room of the clubhouse at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla., after the news broke. Dykstra sat, his big open face shrouded in doubt and confusion like a lost child's. It was a measure of his unexamined life that even after Pete Rose had been run to ground in the press, Dykstra couldn't see the news value of his own gambling. Later, after admitting in court that he had lost $78,000 to Kelso, he would say that it was no big deal and that nobody cared about this stuff when he was hitting .230. However, he was soon summoned to Vincent's office and placed on a one-year probation, which he finished serving this March.
"Lenny did a good job," Vincent says. "It was a very complicated problem that Lenny had to get a handle on last year, and he did it.
"You know," Vincent adds, "I always liked the way he played. I saw him hit that homer in his first at bat with the Mets."
Then, on May 5, 1991, the Phillies convened at Smokey Joe's to celebrate first baseman John Kruk's impending marriage to Jamie Miller. Dykstra later said that he had four beers over several hours. He offered to drive Daulton home, and the two got into Dykstra's bright-red Mercedes and took off. On Darby Paoli Road in Radnor Township, the car failed to hold a turn and slammed into a pair of trees. "The first thing I thought of," Dykstra says, "was, Where's Darren? Is Darren O.K.?" (Daulton declines to discuss cither Dykstra or the accident. "Let Lenny talk about Lenny," he says.)
Almost immediately, Dykstra was pilloried in the press. Everything that defined him as an admirable ballplayer now seemed to define him as a reckless and dangerous human being. Even his speedy comeback and subsequent injury seemed tainted. Running into that wall in Cincinnati was no longer the play of a hardnosed ballplayer; instead it was somehow a clue to his recklessness, to deeper problems in the man. "Ah, I don't know," he says now. "People are just so hypocritical sometimes."
"As a general manager," says Thomas, "I personally felt as I would about any player. There really isn't much I can do about my players off the field. They have to realize that they're under a microscope for good or for bad. That'd be O.K. for a while, but it could get to you."
Dykstra got out of the hospital after the accident in May and went to visit Danna and his two other sisters, Brenda and Johna, in California. They were a bit surprised to sec him. "He never came to visit before," says Danna. He seemed quieter. He went to his nephews' Little League games. He seemed to be trying to get in touch with something that had rooted in him long ago, when he was playing Little League, in the days before image and celebrity became a part of his life.
"I noticed the change when he went out to the ball field to watch those Little League games," Danna says. "He seemed really reflective. That was real." Over the off-season, the Phillies put together a videotape in which Dykstra talks about the dangers of drinking and driving. "Nobody forced me to make the tape," he says. "I didn't do it because somebody told me to do it. I felt I might help someone. Nobody can look at it and laugh."
The video consists of interviews with several people whose lives were shattered in alcohol-related accidents. One is a fellow named Steve, who got drunk one night and thought he could drive, and who now walks with his feet jabbing off to either side. And there is Lynne Daulton, whose brother was killed by a drunken driver and whose husband walked away from Dykstra's crumpled Mercedes that May.
"If I were in your place," Dykstra tells viewers on the tape, "I'd probably be saying, 'That b.s. is for somebody else." One night, though, I screwed up big-time. If it wasn't for some dumb luck, I'd have lost it all.... If I hadn't had that accident, if I hadn't missed that turn, I'd probably still be drinking and driving."
Baseball helped create Lenny Dykstra. On and off the field, he learned to abide by the imperatives of the game's culture, which are not always the same imperatives that society places on everyone else. The trick is not to be fooled by that. The trick is in knowing that the rules of baseball culture must bend to the obligations of society. The trick is to avoid defining yourself completely by what you do for a living, to leave a little bit of Lenny there to anchor the Nails.
"You think you're invulnerable," says Dykstra, now 29. "Then something happens, and you see how fragile everything you've accomplished really is. I'm not the kind of person who dwells on the past, because what's happened has happened. I can't change the past. I like to concentrate on the future, because I'm in control of the future."
"He's probably not drinking and driving anymore," his sister says. "He's getting up toward 30, so maybe he's thinking about that a little. But really settling down? That'll never happen, and I don't know if I want it to. I mean, it's good if he doesn't, as far as his ball playing goes."
Phillie coach John Vukovich also worked with Pete Rose. "There are similarities in the two of them," Vukovich says. "They play hard and with a zest for life. Both had that little extra, so when life turned against them, they could go to another level and shut that out. There are a few who can do that, but there are a very select few who can do that and get better at what they do." That makes Lenny Dykstra an extraordinary baseball player, but that doesn't count for as much as it did before. What has happened to Dykstra is not just a matter of "maturity," a word that is used in sports to explain everything from Christian conversion to a sudden reluctance to date entire chorus lines. It is more than that. It's about Lenny Dykstra's becoming a person, and not just a personality. The culture of baseball arrested Dykstra's development at some point, and were it not for the accident, he would have continued to thrive within that culture anyway, as many players do. They end their careers nearly as illequipped to continue on in the larger world as they were when they began.
"I have set goals for myself this year," Dykstra says. "You know, hit .300, get 30 stolen bases and so forth. But, for the first time, I think I'm putting some other stuff first."
The accident and its aftermath may have forced Dykstra to reflect. Near tragedy may have shown him how small he had made his world. It may have rescued him from the curse of an insulated life. As Lenny Dykstra wanders through the locker room in his baseball underwear, getting cursed at here, cursing back there, the clubhouse looks too small to contain him ever again.