Lenny Dykstra was a ballplayer at just the right time. Earlier — during, say, the 1940s or ‘50s — and the media practices of the era, the godding-up of famous athletes and the whitewashing of their flaws, would have allowed him to be painted as a colorful bon vivant, entertaining but harmless. Later — and by later, I mean right now, when anyone, through social media, can eliminate all secrecy from his or her daily existence — and his life and his story would be even darker than they already are.
Dykstra came along in the mid-1980s and retired from Major League Baseball in the mid-1990s, though, and his decade with the Mets and the Phillies afforded him an ideal combination of celebrity and infamy. Sure, the New York tabloids could splash his photo across their back pages with ballpoint-pen-sized exclamation points, and Saturday Night Live could use his penchant for decorating center field with his expectorated tobacco as the inspiration for a cold-open skit. He could, in 1986, hit a game-winning home run in the National League Championship Series for the Mets, and he could, in 1993, be the best player on the most beloved team in Phillies history, and he would always retain that veneer of sentimental prestige that fans ascribe to their favorite sports stars.
Yes, he could have killed himself and Darren Daulton in 1991 when, while drunk, he sent his red Mercedes careening off a Radnor Township road, crashing into a tree. Yes, he could wink-wink away those “special vitamins” that revitalized his career. Yes, he could lose a small fortune in one night playing baccarat in Atlantic City, then try to throttle some poor bystander who dared to wonder aloud how and why someone would be so self-destructive.
But hey, there but for the grace of God goes any of us, right? Those ugly episodes and truths were presented through the filter of our old media machine — a magazine article, a local newscast — which made it easier to pretend that the Lenny Dykstra everyone watched on TV, belly-flopping into second base or claw-catching a liner to the left-center-field gap, was the real Lenny Dykstra after all.
Except Dykstra isn’t that star anymore. He’s 55 years old, and he has spent three years in prison, and his list of alleged legal and moral transgressions is longer than an airplane message banner, and he continues to eliminate any doubt about who he really is and was all along.
Early Wednesday morning, he was arrested in Linden, N.J., for allegedly making terroristic threats to an Uber driver and for possessing illegal drugs, among them ecstasy, cocaine, and marijuana. The driver reportedly told police that Dykstra threatened to kill him with a gun, though police found no gun at the scene, and in an interview with the New York Daily News, Dykstra suggested that he himself was the true victim: “The guy went nuclear on me. He f– kidnapped me and almost killed me going 100 mph. He locked me in his f– car, and he wouldn’t let me out.”
Given that those circumstances are relatively murky, that Dykstra has admitted to battling an opioid addiction, and that his prison stint cost him three of his teeth and whatever dignity he might have had left, it would seem possible to feel a twinge of genuine sympathy for him.
Until you perused Twitter, that is. In the aftermath of the arrest, Dykstra’s feed became a geyser of self-referencing jokes and pop-culture name-drops — the most pathetic kind of brand-building. He quoted song lyrics from Taylor Swift and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. He lobbied to compete in WIP’s Wing Bowl. He posted his own mugshot.
Now, who “he” is, technically, is a matter of some conjecture. Dykstra has previously employed a social-media ghostwriter, and a caller to WIP on Friday took credit for authoring these most recent tweets on Dykstra’s behalf. None of that, of course, mitigates Dykstra’s shamelessness. He may be troubled. He is often devious. But he’s not stupid. He and his enablers are well aware of the gravitational pull he still has on the public, and if the people who claim to be close to him really had his best interests at heart, they would stop seeking attention on his behalf, and he would stop seeking it himself.
The Phillies immediately created as much distance from him as they could, announcing Wednesday that they would not invite Dykstra to their 25th-anniversary celebration next month of the ‘93 National League championship team. They wanted him to stay away, they said in a statement, “in the interest of keeping the focus on the entire 1993 team, rather than one individual.”
The Mets, through a team spokesman, declined to comment on Dykstra at all. Forget the chaos of that early-morning incident in Linden. Those denials had to wound Dykstra even more. When you were in the spotlight long ago, when you can remember a time when every bad decision was just another error that everyone could brush off, you’ll stretch as far as you can to get under that brilliant beam again. Twitter is how a man like Lenny Dykstra makes up for lost time.