"May I take your hat, monsieur?"
Lenny Dykstra stared at the manicured hand extended before him. His eyes pedaled up past the white cuff and black tuxedo sleeve to the slightly bowed head of the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d', who was tall and unblinking as he waited for their eyes to meet, his black mustache trimmed like a woman's eyebrow.
Dykstra had just been seated in perhaps the finest restaurant in Paris, but he was still wearing his tan driving cap. He considered it elegant headwear, as it could not be pulled down to his ears; but more important, it concealed the matted hair of his perpetual hat-head. When Dykstra returned his gaze to the outstretched hand, his eyes were almost crossed and the tip of his tongue was revealed like a teddy bear's. "No, thank you," he said to the hand. "I'm going to keep it on."
"Yes," said the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d', who rolled his eyes and rotated his head one revolution on the pivot of his neck until everything was back as it had been. "Your hat, please, monsieur."
December 6, 1993
"Uh, no," Dykstra said, and he began pointing at his own head with both hands. "I've got this...." he sputtered. "I really can't." Dykstra squinted upward with pleading eyes, but the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' stood erect, his hand like a cop's waiting for the driver's license. Dykstra looked like he wanted to turn his head and spit. "I've got to keep it on, I've got this.... Bob? Bob! Bob, man, explain to this dude that...."
Dykstra whispered into the ear of Bob Schueller, his interpreter. Schueller rose and spoke in French to the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d', gesturing. The ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' sighed and, with a mighty shrug, fell into a line of five other men dressed just like him. They formed a black picket fence around the Dykstra party of 12, perhaps to protect the other customers from the raucous conversation and general commotion as everyone got settled.
When a wine list bigger than The Baseball Encyclopedia arrived, Dykstra told Schueller about a bottle of something he once had for dessert at Caesars Palace, something called Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau d'Yquem. The wine steward pointed out the listing to Schueller, who turned to Dykstra and said, "They're offering you a bottle for 16,000 francs."
That's almost $3,000, but Dykstra nodded as if Schueller had leaned out of a drive-thru window to tell him he would have to take a chocolate milkshake instead of vanilla. And suddenly everyone around Dykstra relaxed and began to treat him more appreciatively. Ordering such a bottle of wine was like homering to rally your team in the seventh inning of Game 6 in the World Series—and Dykstra had done that too.
Four hundred years ago customers actually dueled to get a table here at La Tour d'Argent, but now Dykstra was suddenly abandoning his table and taking his entourage with him. He just felt like taking a walk. The ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d' practically ran after him to the elevator. "You are leaving?" he asked.
"We're coming back," Dykstra said. "We're just going to take a tour of the place."
Dykstra's good friend and business manager, Lindsay Jones, said, "Save the table for us," as the doors closed in the face of the ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d'.
Someone in the elevator asked Dykstra how he had been able to keep his cap. "I got Bob to tell the waiter I have a serious baseball injury," Dykstra said. "I told him I can't expose my head to the air."
So what was Major League Baseball thinking when it exposed Dykstra to an unsuspecting audience in Europe, dispatching the rollicking Philadelphia Phillie centerfielder as its goodwill ambassador on a tour of Düsseldorf, Paris and Amsterdam from Nov. 19 to 23? Less than three years ago Dykstra was placed on one year's probation by then commissioner Fay Vincent for losing $78,000 to a Mississippi gambler. Two months later, in May 1991, he was nearly killed in an accident while driving legally drunk in Radnor Township, Pa. The resulting injuries—he broke a cheekbone, a collarbone and three ribs—caused him to miss 99 games in '91, then he sat out 77 more in '92 with three separate on-field injuries.
But last season he stayed healthy and overcame a miserable start at the plate, winding up with a .305 batting average and becoming the first player to lead the National League in at bats, hits, walks and runs. If the Phillies had had a better bullpen, Dykstra would have been a world champion, and with a .348 average and four home runs against the Toronto Blue Jays, he would have been Most Valuable Player of the World Series.
A more likely overseas spokesman might have been Toronto's Paul Molitor, who was the Series MVP, or even Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, who beat out Dykstra as National League MVP. Any number of players might have seemed a more logical first choice to represent the game on the Continent rather than the stubby leader of the alley-cat Phillies, his mouth stuffed with chewing tobacco during games.
But who better to handle the indifference, the anonymity any player was sure to face in Europe? Who would make people laugh regardless of the language barrier? The personality traits and mannerisms that have made Dykstra both laughable and lovable—the bluntness, the almost childlike charm—were universal qualities, making him seem approachable to people who knew nothing about his game. Dykstra was always going to be more than a high batting average and lots of stolen bases. This is baseball, shake his hand, his name is Lenny Dykstra.
Hard to believe, but Europe knew less about Dykstra than he knew about Europe. ("Now, Paris is France," Dykstra was heard to reason on the flight from Paris to Amsterdam. "But London, that's just London, right? It's just London?") While in the last decade the NBA, the NFL and even professional beach volleyball have established marketing footholds in Europe by playing exhibitions or setting up overseas leagues, and creating a following through televised events, baseball has been arguing with its own shadow. The adversarial relationship between baseball owners and players ruined plans to stage major league exhibitions in Barcelona prior to the '92 Olympics and last October at the famous Lord's cricket ground in London, which, by the way, is in England.
But baseball was able to muster this one-man tour, which officially began on Saturday morning, Nov. 20, in Düsseldorf, where Dykstra signed autographs for two hours at Karstadt, reputedly the largest sporting goods store in Europe. At the entrance to the store Dykstra looked up to find Shaquille O'Neal dunking over him. It seemed fitting enough that a basketball poster two stories tall would greet a 5'10" baseball player. Michael Jordan is the world's most popular athlete and O'Neal is already a global celebrity in his second pro season, but the World Series was not even televised in Germany.
Dykstra's job was to show Europe what it had missed, to give baseball a face. A steady line of Karstadt customers wanted his signature, although in many cases they had no idea who he was. Yet Dykstra did not appear disappointed as he left for Paris that night.
Things picked up the next morning over breakfast at the Ritz, where Dykstra was interviewed by two journalists from Strike, a quarterly French baseball magazine. He put on his Phillie uniform for photographs at the Eiffel Tower, and then he was taken to the French national sports institute, where he awarded medals to a group of 8- to 12-year-olds who had won the local baseball championship. Also four players from the French national baseball team, all in their 20's, were waiting to take batting practice in his presence. They didn't show Dykstra anything to write home to Phillie general manager Lee Thomas about, but he delivered his lecture on hitting as promised.
Later, wearing nothing heavier than a sweater on a freezing afternoon, he led a group of traveling companions across the square fronting Notre Dame. He had discovered an artist. "Dude has no arms, man," Dykstra said. "He has to paint with his feet!"
The artist turned out to be a dwarf confined to a wheelchair—and he had both of his arms and feet. Copies of artwork similar to his might have been found at a nearby tourist shop at a cost of $4; but for two drawings of Paris by the dwarf, Dykstra paid 850 francs, roughly $150. These were authentic, Dykstra reasoned, drawn by hand. While urging Schueller to talk the dwarf down a few francs, Dykstra allowed another artist, this one a long-haired man from Italy, to draw his portrait. Because the easily distracted Dykstra spent most of the ensuing three minutes with his back to the guy, the result was a $30 caricature that looked more like Don Zimmer.
The next day it was on to Amsterdam, where Dykstra was better known because baseball is popular in Holland and highlights of each World Series game had been broadcast there. He gave lots of interviews and took part in a press conference during two days in Amsterdam, showing much more patience than you would have expected and going out of his way to explain things.
On the second day Dykstra bought his wife, Terri, a three-carat diamond ring, whose price he got down to $41,000, with an extra one-carat diamond thrown in. That night he visited the Hard Rock Cafe, where more than 100 people were crowded around the door, chanting, "Lenny! Lenny! Lenny!" By now it was becoming clear that while he was promoting baseball, he was also promoting Lenny Dykstra.
"My goal is to build a financial empire," he proclaimed later that night in a hotel bar. "It has to start somewhere. It's just like these old buildings over here; they all had to start somewhere."
He will launch his first business this winter with the Lenny Dykstra Car Wash in Corona Hills, Calif. Baseball memorabilia will be on display there, and employees in baseball uniforms will hand-wash the cars. His long-term dream will be helped along, he hopes, by a contract extension; he wants to negotiate a new $25 million deal with the Phils. Then perhaps he'll develop a high-rise condominium in Florida—he isn't sure just yet. "I know people laugh about all the stuff I say and do," he says. "But believe me, before I take a dirt nap, I'm going to build myself a financial empire."
Grown in the Bordeaux region, Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau d'Yquem is perhaps the most difficult wine in the world to produce, requiring an extraordinary summer of heat and an extraordinary autumn of moist, misty mornings to properly rot the grapes. Because each grape is picked individually only after it has sufficiently dried and shriveled on the vine, it takes 10 to 15 painstaking tours of the vineyard to pick the crop.
The great wine would not be available at La Tour d'Argent if not for Andrè Terrail, who, as the proprietor during World War II, bricked off his supply of Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau d'Yquem to hide it from the Germans. Even so, only five bottles from the 1937 and '38 vintages remained in the restaurant's cellar two weeks ago. And one of those would not have been consumed by the American baseball player had not Dykstra taken the advice of his limousine driver and jumped at the chance to dine at one of the world's most celebrated restaurants, where he spent more than $13,000 at dinner that night.
As Lindsay Jones and his wife, Sharie, were getting up from the table, Dykstra announced for all the restaurant to hear, "We're getting ready to pour the 16,000-franc dessert wine; you'd better get some bench."
"We were just going to tour the wine cellar," Jones said.
"Tour the wine cellar? You can go down on your way out," Dykstra said. "It's Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢teau Whatever, he's got it coming. You just don't sit down and have yourself a gulp."
Then Dykstra turned to find another hand outstretched before him. It was the hand of Claude Terrail, Andrè's son and the current proprietor of La Tour d'Argent. "Monsieur, it is a pleasure to meet you," he said with an exaggerated bow. "You have just bought the best wine in the world."
Lenny adjusted his cap and turned to the steward. "Let me get another bottle of this," he said. "To go."