Hitting Cleanup In a 12-year major league career, Nails was best known for his hard living and down-and-dirty style. So how did he polish up his act? By opening an upscale chain of car washes

July 11, 2004

The eponymous owner of Lenny Dykstra's Car Wash Corp. is proudly
showing off his three-acre compound at the traffic-clogged heart
of Simi Valley, Calif., 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Dykstra is a little paunchy at 41, but he still has that
cocksure strut so familiar from his days patrolling centerfield
for the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1985
through '96. Nursing his eighth or ninth coffee of the day,
Dykstra blows into a waiting room of the 16-bay auto-repair
center to point out its gleaming green-marble countertops and
rich cherrywood cabinetry. "That's solid cherry, not veneer," he
says. The skin on those stylish black chairs? "Real leather,"
he says, stroking one of the seat cushions.

After rearranging the chairs and straightening the stacks of cups
for the complimentary coffee, Dykstra heads outside and traverses
the blacktop to the car wash, stopping twice to pick up stray
bits of trash and stuff them into his pocket. Under the broiling
summer sun dozens of workers apply a final bit of sparkle to the
modest chariots of middle-class Simi Valley while the customers
wait on comfy chairs in a lushly landscaped shaded area, leafing
through the hundreds of current magazine titles and sipping the
free coffee or water. "Spring water," Dykstra emphasizes, "not
tap." A large man-made waterfall feeds a small reflecting pool.
Next to the waiting area are two air-conditioned offices, rented
out by real estate and mortgage brokers. Dykstra calls these
"cross-market earning centers," jargon he has picked up by
habitually listening to audiotapes of various business tomes.

Dykstra rolls into the convenience store that is attached to the
car wash and dominated by a 600-gallon saltwater fish tank, alive
with dozens of exotic beauties. A pair of foot-and-a-half long
Australian smooth-back hound sharks knife through the water.
"Dude, those sharks cost $350 each, and we had to wait a year to
get them," he says. Next stop is the restroom in back, Dykstra's
pride and joy. He pops open the door to reveal creamy marble
countertops, glittering Kohler fixtures and expensive artwork.
Breathing in the cinnamon-scented air, Dykstra offers his
verdict: "Big league."

To hear Dykstra--whose toughness as a ballplayer earned him the
nickname Nails--coo over the swank stylings of his car wash is as
mind-bending as finding scented candles near the registers rather
than Skoal and Penthouse. Dykstra was an electric presence on the
field and a three-time All-Star, but he is remembered less for
the numbers on his baseball card than for his scrappy style.
Working a thick chaw, sporting a scraggly mullet and a
perpetually dirty uniform, he was a fan favorite who played hard
and partied harder, cultivating the image of a fun-loving
character who teetered on the brink of out-of-control.

Dykstra is proud of his career, but unlike a lot of former jocks,
he has moved on. He says he has turned down numerous entreaties
from big league clubs--among them the Mets, Reds and
Athletics--to work in the front office or manage in the minors.
The car wash-auto repair business, he says, is his ticket to a
stable family life. Dykstra met his wife, Terri, in 1984 while he
was playing Double A ball in her hometown of Jackson, Miss. They
were married a year later. Dykstra adopted her son Gavin, now 23,
and Lenny and Terri have two other boys: Cutter, 15, and Luke, 8.
"For the 16 years when I was playing, it was all about me, me,
me," says Dykstra, who is still a spring training instructor for
his beloved Mets. "So the day I retire, I'm going to put my
family through that again? For what? To prove I could be a
manager at the major league level? Bro, I know in my heart I
could be a winner, but I don't want it to be about me anymore."

It is impossible, however, to separate the ballplayer from the
entrepreneur. On the field Dykstra was a leader and a winner. He
was one of the Mets' spark plugs when they won the World Series
in 1986. He carried a band of alley-cat Phils to the Series in
'93, then batted .348 and hit four home runs against the Toronto
Blue Jays. "He still plays to win," says Darrell Talbert, chief
operating officer of Lenny Dykstra's Car Wash Corp. "Lenny goes
into meetings with bankers and builders, and he just blows them
away with his preparation, his knowledge and, most of all, his
passion."

The flashy complex in Simi Valley, opened in 1999, is only part
of Dykstra's burgeoning empire. He owns two other upscale car
wash-auto repair complexes in Corona, Calif., 50 miles southeast
of L.A. He built the first of those complexes in 1993 after a
title search on the property led him "to a little old lady who'd
been sitting on the land for, like, 40 years." He knocked on the
door and handed her a check, saying, "Hi, I'm Lenny Dykstra, and
I'd like to buy your land for a million dollars." Says Dykstra,
"Her knees buckled. I thought she might croak on me."

Today Lenny Dykstra's Car Wash Corp. employs 325 people, and on a
weekend day up to 2,500 customers pass through the three
properties, paying $24.99 for a Grand Slam wash, $32.95 for a
quick lube and much, much more for a full range of repairs. At
one Corona site Dykstra is building a Conoco-Phillips 76 gas
station and convenience store. The accoutrements of that facility
are going to be even more over-the-top than the car washes.
(Staffers refer to the project as the Taj Mahal.) Dykstra is
pouring $3.5 million into the facility, about twice the typical
cost of a gas station-convenience store. At the entrance to the
property will be an eight-foot volcano spewing water. The
centerpiece of the store will be a pastry case that was handmade
in Italy for $20,000. "It's just a glass case to hold doughnuts,
right?" says Talbert. "Not to Lenny. Everything has to be the
best of the best."

Dykstra, who is the sole investor in his company, justifies his
expensive tastes by saying, "Where would you rather stay, the
Ritz-Carlton or Motel 6? It's all about creating an environment
that people will want to come back to." His business philosophy
is apparently working--Dykstra says all three of his properties
are operating in the black. He attributes that partly to
"excellent freeway frontage," but he also intuitively understands
the needs of his customers. Dykstra's properties provide more
than just a clean car or a quick lube. They are the last vestiges
of civility for many crazed motorists at the beginning or end of
their famously nightmarish SoCal commute.

Dykstra started investing in real estate after he signed a
four-year, $25 million contract in 1993. "They call it real
estate for a reason, okay?" he says. "Because it's real."
(Dykstra might talk like Jeff Spicoli, but, Talbert says, "it's
all an act. He's got a different rap for every occasion. Bottom
line, the guy's got a brilliant mind.") Dykstra decided to get
into car washes and auto repair because "I wanted to get into a
low-risk business that couldn't be replaced by new technology."
He's weary, however, of being defined as a car-wash guy. "I'm
proud of the car washes," he says. "They pay the bills and
provide jobs for a lot of my extended family, but I know there's
something bigger out there, something that will take me to
Pluto."

Dykstra is not a member of what he calls "the lucky sperm club,"
which is to say he wasn't born rich. His parents worked for the
phone company in Garden Grove, a working-class corner of Orange
County. Swinging for the fences in the business world, he has
aligned himself with Jay Penske, the son of billionaire Roger
Penske, who has made his name in auto racing but made his fortune
in trucking. In an attempt to distance himself from his dad's
businesses and legacy, the younger Penske is striking out on his
own as the president and CEO of Velocity Services Inc., an
Internet service provider. He and Dykstra became friends through
mutual acquaintances and now have a business partnership. Dykstra
is working with VSI to help "many of the nation's largest sports
organizations further their brands online," says Penske. "We're
talking serious glue," Dykstra says, invoking a favorite
euphemism for money.

On a recent afternoon Dykstra swung by a title company in Simi
Valley to tidy up the paperwork on a construction loan for
$3,048,000. He was so nonchalant when it came time to sign the
loan documents he could have been autographing a baseball card.
Then he jumped into his gleaming silver BMW sedan and headed for
home in Thousand Oaks. Dykstra has one of the more prestigious
addresses in Southern California, on the first fairway of plush
Sherwood Country Club, the host course of Tiger Woods's
off-season event, the Target World Challenge. Driving past the
guardhouse of his sequestered community, Dykstra said with a
crooked smile, "Ah, the pearly gates."

Sherwood is blighted by plenty of ostentatious Xanadus, but the
9,000-square-foot Dykstra home is classy and understated, the
kind of place you find lining the old golf courses in Westchester
County, N.Y. The walls are covered with family photos and a
six-figure art collection. The few reminders of Dykstra's playing
days are ironic, like the poster in Luke's room, a beefcake shot
of a young, shirtless Nails oiled up like a lifeguard.

Dykstra was introduced to Sherwood by his golf buddy Wayne
Gretzky. The Great One is just one of the many bold-faced names
who are members of the club, including two presidents (Ford and
the elder Bush), two Academy Award winners (Nicholson and Pesci)
and two golf gods (Nicklaus and Woods). Dykstra delights in
dropping the names of his rich and powerful acquaintances. He
knows how he is remembered as a ballplayer and is desperate to
wash, wax and Armor All his image. Part of that means giving back
to baseball. In 1991 Dykstra was reprimanded by commissioner Fay
Vincent when it was reported that he had lost tens of thousands
of dollars in golf and poker games to a Mississippi gambler. Now,
Dykstra addresses FBI staffers working with major league
baseball, offering a primer on the pitfalls of life in the big
leagues. He refused pay when he went to spring training for the
Mets this year, and he has laid out $40,000 to fund various
Little Leagues in Southern California. "Everything I have is
because of the great game of baseball, and I'm never going to
forget that," he says.

Much of Dykstra's downtime is spent around a diamond, working
with Luke, a shortstop and pitcher, and Cutter, a shortstop. At
the boys' games Lenny does not sit in the bleachers behind home
plate with the other parents; he goes off by himself beyond the
outfield fences. "He doesn't want to take any of the focus off
the boys," says Terri. "I'm the one always yelling at the
coaches."

The family's competitive vibe comes out on the golf course, where
Lenny, Terri, Cutter and Luke sometimes tee it up as a foursome.
(On Sherwood's handicap sheet Cutter is a 5.1 to Dad's 10.8.)
Sherwood's fairways are like expensive carpet, the tee boxes
nicer than the greens at most courses. On a Friday afternoon in
June, Dykstra took a spin around the links, displaying a homemade
golf swing that plays out in three acts. It begins with a
slow-motion takeaway, in which his left elbow shoots skyward so
dramatically it looks as if he has dislocated his shoulder. At
the top of his swing Dykstra pauses so long he appears to be
calcified. Yet his downswing is smooth and powerful. On the 1st
hole, he skanked a drive and chunked an approach but saved par
with a deft up-and-down. "Story of my life," he said. "I'm just a
grinder."

Near the round's end, with golden twilight casting evocative
shadows across the course, Dykstra was in a reflective mood.
Pointing across a yawning valley to his house, he said, "I can't
say it enough--I've been blessed." The next day he watched Luke's
all-star game, in which the young Dykstra drove in four runs. The
day after that Nails was back at work. There were cars to be
washed and deals to be made.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RAFAEL FUCHS BUBBLY Dykstra says big league teams have called about front office and minor league positions, but he's happy managing his booming business. B/W PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (INSET) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RAFAEL FUCHS AMERICAN SPLENDOR Dirty cars have afforded Lenny prime property that he enjoys with Luke (left), Cutter and Terri. COLOR PHOTO: PHIL ELLSWORTH CHECK THIS SWING As stylish as the rest of Dykstra's life has become, some things, like his golf swing, remain unrefined.

The car washes pay the bills," says Dykstra, "but I know there's
something bigger out there, something that will take me to
Pluto."

Talbert says it's a mistake to underestimate his boss. "He's got a
rap for every occasion. Bottom line, the guy's got a brilliant
mind."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)