Dykstra’s Fallen Star
William C. Kashatus
March 8, 2012
Former Phillie Lenny Dykstra continued his long plunge from the heights of baseball this week when he was sentenced to three years in California prison for grand theft auto. It was the latest in a series of legal problems that have beset the one-time All Star since he retired from the major leagues in 1998.
Dykstra’s story is a reminder that superstardom and the wealth that accompanies it are fragile and temporary. Often, the most gifted athletes fall the hardest, unable to adjust to the realities of life outside professional sports.
Dykstra was from another era in baseball, when players were more reckless, carefree, and shamelessly self-indulgent. Fans adored him because he was a cocky, hard-charging risk-taker, known for barreling into second base and playing center field with reckless abandon.
Nicknamed “Nails,” Dykstra took advantage of exceptional hand-eye coordination to become one of the best leadoff hitters in the majors. After a stint with the Mets that included a World Series championship, Dykstra was traded to the Phillies in 1989. He was the offensive sparkplug of the pennant-winning 1993 team, from the preseason through a World Series loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, in which he hit .348, with four home runs and eight RBIs.
But Dykstra embodied some of the worst qualities of the sport as well as the best. A chronic gambler, he was often seen in Atlantic City’s casinos, where he was known to unleash a firestorm of profanity when he lost big.
In 1991, then-Commissioner Fay Vincent put Dykstra on probation after he admitted losing $78,000 playing poker. The same season, after a bachelor party for one of his teammates, a drunken Dykstra crashed his red Mercedes-Benz sports car in Radnor, breaking several bones. The 2007 Mitchell Report said Dykstra also abused anabolic steroids.
Rarely was Dykstra held accountable for his boorish behavior. All was forgiven as long as he donned the red pinstripes and kept the victories coming. The Phillies rewarded him handsomely during his eight years in town, paying him a total of $34.7 million.
After his retirement, Dykstra tried to find another outlet for his competitive drive. He started a chain of successful car washes with a brother in his native Southern California. After he sold them in 2007, he was accused of pocketing $51 million and refusing to pay his brother his share, creating a rift in the family that persists. The next year, Dykstra launched a luxury magazine called The Players Club, and he was soon being hailed as a financial whiz who was providing pro athletes with insightful investment plans. It was a sham; in fact, Dykstra was spending much more money than he was bringing in.
In 2009, Dykstra filed for bankruptcy, claiming debts of more than $30 million and only $50,000 in assets. Federal prosecutors said he then unlawfully hid, sold, or destroyed more than $400,000 worth of items from an $18 million mansion he had purchased from hockey star Wayne Gretzky.
Dykstra’s life was spiraling out of control. Terri, his wife of more than 20 years and the mother of their three sons, filed for divorce. Last year, he was charged with exposing himself to women he met on Craigslist. Police said they also found cocaine, ecstasy, and synthetic human growth hormone at Dykstra’s Los Angeles home when they arrested him on the auto theft charges, which stemmed from fraudulent luxury car leases. He still faces federal bankruptcy charges.
Dykstra’s fall from glory is a reminder of the dangers of pampering athletes. Judged by separate standards, their indiscretions ignored as long as they produce on the field, they are just as quickly forgotten when their careers end. Some adjust. Others, like Dykstra, never do, and the magnitude of their fame can be surpassed by the severity of their collapse. They become tragic heroes, the kind we embrace with guilt over having somehow contributed to their downfall.
I hope Lenny Dykstra can turn his life around, as he told a California judge he is trying to do. Perhaps then he could be of real service as a counselor to pro athletes who succumb to the temptations that diminished him.