If you assume, as most people do, that Lenny Dykstra used steroids, then the fact that all those muscles and pounds seemed to vanish as quickly as they appeared, was hardly a mystery. Sadly, a decade-and-a-half later, watching the former Phillie shed what little remains of his self-respect and reputation is no less unsurprising, no less disturbing.
By now you're familiar with Dykstra's descent to Lindsay Lohan-like levels of self-destruction. When the bells tolled at midnight, the luxurious lifestyle he'd assembled after his playing career – the $18.5 million mansion, the $400,000 Maybach roadster, the Gulfstream jet – all turned back into pumpkins. At 48, he's lost his marriage, his fortune, his dignity.
He's been indicted for allegedly stealing and selling items from his bankrupt estate. He's apparently abused and cheated those who worked for him and with him. He's been forced to hock the memorabilia he amassed in a sensational career. A limousine driver who ferried him around Manhattan for little compensation and considerable headaches tells a story of how Dykstra, unshaven, unwashed, in the same clothes he'd been wearing for three days, had to sleep in an all-night Kinko's and borrow $15 for a sandwich and two cans of Red Bull that he immediately mixed with vodka and gulped down.
As an All Star-caliber ballplayer, Dykstra's talents hid the faults. And like the talents, the faults were enormous, San Andreas-like. He was rude, crude, coarse and completely self-absorbed, traits you'd see displayed – often simultaneously - if you watched him for more than five seconds. Walking from the clubhouse to the dugout, say, he'd unleash streams of tobacco juice on whatever the floor surface happened to be, curse like a sailor and ignore anyone who dared try to enter his ego-inflated bubble. At the height of his success, he treated the world as if it were created to serve him – and he treated it badly. He berated waiters, casino dealers, emergency-room nurses, gardeners, the women he met on the road.
And yet, on those rare occasions when you got beneath the surface with him, there was something impishly appealing about Dykstra. He liked playing the role he created. "The Dude" was a dedicated but dumb baseball lifer with California sensibilities and not much sense. It was all an act, of course. He was smart, much smarter than he let on, much smarter than those of us who snickered at his behavior and thought we knew him.
Back in the mid-'90s, when I was the Inquirer's Phillies beat writer, I liked Dykstra. I was the reporter for what he called "the big-dog" paper and, solely because of its circulation numbers, he sometimes made time for me when he'd blow off others. In other words, he used me. But I'd like to think I used him too. His quirkiness made good copy. Ride with him in his 12-cylinder Mercedes, visit him at his restored Devon home ("Dude, you've got to see the bathroom!"), cover his "Tonight Show" appearance and you invariably walked away with some great stories – only some of which were suitable for a family newspaper. He liked the character I'd portray in my stories. And he consumed those stories voraciously. Years later, Dykstra would quote me, verbatim, a line I'd written about him. He knew such favorable publicity didn't hurt in his quest for that fat new contract he wanted and eventually got. He also knew I had an MVP vote.
I wish I'd been honest, brave and smart enough to portray the real Dykstra back then, the one whose life, we all sensed then, was headed for the same kind of ugly smashup he and Darren Daulton had with that Main Line tree after John Kruk's bachelor party. Instead, I focused on the quirks and the talents, overlooking or ignoring the faults and shortcomings.
Maybe the closest I ever got to revealing the real Dykstra came in a 1994 story on his childhood. Talking to his parents, it became clear that whatever it was that made him a great ballplayer might also have contained the seeds of his self-destruction.
"There are lots of kids - bigger kids, stronger kids - who love the game and are successful early," I wrote then. "Yet most of them never pick up a bat after high school. Something more, something inside Dykstra created the fierce drive that has turned him into a wealthy baseball superstar. And unless his parents are mistaken, that secret lies in his childhood, too.
"It probably began, they said, when the older kids in his Garden Grove, Calif., neighborhood wouldn't let him play because he was too small; when coaches looked at that undersized, skinny, towheaded youngster and told him he had no future in baseball; when opposing players mocked him, and when, as the only freshman on Garden Grove High School's baseball team, he was forced by teammates to pick up their dirty socks and sweaty athletic supporters from the locker-room floor."
A recent photo of Dykstra leaving a New York courthouse revealed a great deal. Graying, his tie slightly askew, his hair and clothes slightly disheveled, a long strand of red licorice dangling from his lips, he looked like the spoiled, troubled kid that, at his core, he's really always been.
I like Lenny Dyskstra. Even now. But it's difficult to envision his redemption. Once he was one of baseball's greatest spotlight players. Now he's trapped in the unremitting glare we direct at fallen stars. You can only hope he'll manage to slip into the shadows before the light goes out for good.