Monday, February 11, 2013

The Mets That Got Away: Lenny Dykstra

There are some players who are so good in high school, they're considered can't-miss prospects.  These are the players who are scooped up in the first round of the draft and given hefty signing bonuses, all before they've set foot on a professional baseball field.  Because of their reputations, these players don't always have to put up eye-popping numbers in the minor leagues to advance from one level to the next.

But there are also players who are bypassed multiple times by every team, eventually taken in the middle-to-late rounds.  More often than not, these players have flaws that prevent them from joining the can't-miss prospects in the earlier rounds.  These players also have to prove themselves repeatedly in the lower minor league levels before even getting a sniff of a promotion.  One such player was drafted by the Mets in the 13th round of the 1981 June amateur draft.

In the early rounds of the '81 draft, the Mets selected Terry Blocker and John Christensen, neither of whom made a significant impact in the major leagues.  Their fifth round pick was used on Steve Phillips, who had a far greater impact on the team as its general manager than he did as a middle infielder.  And of course, a fairly decent starting pitcher named Roger Clemens was selected in the 12th round (he decided to go to college instead of signing with the Mets, presumably to hone his bat-throwing skills).  But it was the Mets' next pick after Clemens that eventually opened everyone's eyes.  It's too bad that he opened more eyes as a division rival than he did as a Met.

Small in stature, but tough as nails.  That was Lenny Dykstra.

Leonard Kyle Dykstra was the 315th overall pick in the 1981 draft.  A skinny kid from California whose first word out the womb was probably "dude",  Dykstra was an outfielder who played the game with reckless abandon and extreme confidence.  If an outfield fence wasn't dinged up, it was because Dykstra hadn't played on that field.  If a future Hall of Fame pitcher faced him, Dykstra would nonchalantly claim that he would "stick him".  These were the intangibles that caught the eye of scout Myron Pines and led Frank Cashen to select Dykstra on draft day.

Although Dykstra's slight body wasn't built for hitting home runs, he possessed a wonderful eye at the plate and an exceptional ability to steal bases.  After hitting .261 with 15 stolen bases in 48 games as an 18-year-old, Dykstra stole his way onto the team's radar in 1982.  Playing for Shelby in the South Atlantic League, Dykstra batted .291 in 120 games for the Mets' Single-A affiliate.  However, he had a .425 on-base percentage and stole 77 bases in 88 attempts.  Both figures were second in the league.  One year later, Dykstra was second to no one.

In 1983, while playing for Lynchburg in the Carolina League, Dykstra led the league in batting average (.358), on-base percentage (.472), hits (188), walks (107), triples (14), runs scored (132) and stolen bases (105).  Despite hitting only eight home runs, Dykstra managed to finish fifth in the league with 81 RBIs and sixth in slugging percentage with a .503 mark.

Dykstra's production dropped off in 1984 playing for AA-Jackson.  But his "down year" still resulted in a .275 batting average, .372 on-base percentage, 53 stolen bases and a league-leading 100 runs scored.  Dykstra advanced to AAA-Tidewater to begin the 1985 campaign, but less than a month into the season, he received his first call-up to the Mets, replacing the injured Ron Gardenhire on the 25-man roster.  It didn't take long for Dykstra to make an impact in the major leagues.

With Mookie Wilson getting a few days off to recover from a nagging shoulder injury, Dykstra was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time on May 3, 1985, batting leadoff against the Cincinnati Reds.  Facing three-time All-Star Mario Soto, Dykstra struck out in his first at-bat before hitting a two-run homer off Soto the next time he faced him.  Dykstra's debut was a success, as the centerfielder went 2-for-5 with two runs scored and a stolen base in the Mets' 9-4 victory.  Dykstra would go 5-for-12 in the three-game series at Riverfront Stadium, but was sent back down to Tidewater after appearing as a pinch-runner later in the week against Atlanta.

Over the first three months of the season, Dykstra rode the Tidewater-to-Shea shuttle several times.  As a member of the Tides, Dykstra performed splendidly, batting .310 with 44 runs scored and 26 stolen bases in 58 games.  As a Met, Dykstra struggled, batting .242 with only four runs scored and three steals in 12 games.  But after the Mets defeated the Braves in a memorable 19-inning affair on the Fourth (and Fifth) of July, the post-game fireworks weren't the only thing set to explode.

In the Mets' 16-13 victory over Atlanta, Dykstra played all 19 innings, going 3-for-9 with a run scored and two RBIs.  With the scored tied in the 18th inning, Dykstra hit a sacrifice fly that gave the Mets an 11-10 lead.  Dykstra's run-scoring fly ball would have represented the winning run, but Braves relief pitcher Rick Camp decided to give Chief Noc-A-Homa and the dozens of fans still in attendance an unexpected thrill with a game-tying home run in the bottom of the 18th.  Dykstra may have lost a game-winning RBI, but gained a starting job.  And once he became an everyday player, the runs started piling up.

Over his next 19 starts, Dykstra served as the team's catalyst.  He scored 21 runs, collected 11 RBIs, stole five bases and made outstanding contact, striking out only seven times in 102 plate appearances.  More importantly, the Mets went 15-4 in Dykstra's starts and averaged 7.1 runs in those games after averaging only 3.4 runs in their first 75 games.  For the season, Dysktra batted .254 and reached base at a .338 clip.  Although he only had 236 at-bats with the Mets in 1985, he scored 40 runs and stole 15 bases.

In 1986, Dykstra went into spring training trying to win an everyday job with the Mets.  Once again, he got his chance because of a teammate's misfortune.  A gruesome eye injury suffered by Mookie Wilson during a rundown drill put the six-year veteran on the disabled list.  Center field was now Dykstra's position to lose, and he made sure to take advantage of the opportunity.

Dykstra played in 78 of the team's first 85 games, batting .347 with a .420 on-base percentage.  He also started driving the ball more, collecting 25 extra-base hits in his first 216 at-bats.  His eye at the plate continued to be impeccable, as he drew more walks (28) than strikeouts (26).  And as he did in 1985, Dykstra continued to contribute to a plethora of Mets victories.

The Mets won 58 of the 78 games in which Dykstra played through July 17.  For the season, they were 100-47 when Dykstra played and 8-7 when he didn't.  Dykstra finished his first full season in the majors with a .295 batting average, 77 runs scored and a team-leading 31 stolen bases.  He was also one of six Mets to garner MVP consideration, finishing 19th in the vote.  Dykstra only hit eight homers during the regular season, but during the postseason, he ratcheted up the power in several key situations.

Touch 'em all, Lenny.  You'll never hit a bigger home run.  (But you sure tried.)

In Game 3 of the NLCS against Houston, Dykstra's two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth gave the Mets their first postseason victory at Shea Stadium since Game 5 of the 1973 World Series.  Dykstra also hurt the Astros in Game 6, starting a three-run rally in the ninth inning with a long triple.  In the 16th inning, Dykstra gave the Mets a 7-4 lead with an RBI single off Jeff Calhoun.  The run-scoring hit proved to be the difference in the Mets' 7-6 pennant-clinching victory.

After the Mets dropped the first two games of the World Series to the Boston Red Sox at Shea Stadium, Dykstra led off Game 3 with a home run at Fenway Park.  Dykstra followed in the footsteps of Tommie Agee and Wayne Garrett, who both homered to lead off Game 3 of the World Series, with Agee accomplishing the feat in the 1969 Fall Classic and Garrett doing it in 1973.  Dykstra also broke open Game 4 by hitting a two-run homer in the seventh inning the following night.

The Mets went on to defeat the Red Sox in seven games to win the franchise's second World Series championship.  In 13 postseason games, Dykstra batted .300 (15-for-50) with three homers, six RBIs and seven runs scored.  The man known as "Nails" hammered the Astros and Red Sox to the tune of a .540 slugging percentage.

The 1987 season began with the newly-acquired Kevin McReynolds in left field, leaving center field to both Dykstra and Mookie Wilson.  Neither player was particularly pleased with the situation, but they accepted manager Davey Johnson's decision (well, Mookie did) and played hard whenever they found themselves in the starting lineup.  Dykstra, in particular, got off to a hot start.  Lenny played in 45 of the team's first 53 games, starting 32 of them.  In those games, Dykstra batted .326 with a .391 on-base percentage.  His 19 extra-base hits in 141 at-bats contributed to an uncharacteristically high .560 slugging percentage.  Unfortunately, that was higher than the team's winning percentage at the time, as the Mets struggled to keep their team - particularly their starting pitchers - healthy and on the field.

The Mets eventually got hot as the summer continued, pulling to within striking distance of the first place St. Louis Cardinals.  The team suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Cards on September 11 when Roger McDowell allowed a game-tying two-run homer in the ninth inning to Terry Pendleton, followed by a tenth inning meltdown by Jesse Orosco.  But even after the deflating defeat, Lenny Dykstra did whatever he could to keep the team in contention until the season's final week.

From September 13 to the day the Mets were officially eliminated from the playoff race, Dykstra carried the team on his back.  He started all 16 games the Mets played during that stretch, batting .349 with ten doubles, a homer, 11 RBIs, 17 runs scored and four stolen bases.  But not even a player as tough as nails could prevent the Mets from giving up their division crown to the Cardinals, as New York finished the year three games behind the eventual National League champions.

Despite his platoon role, Dykstra had a tremendous season in 1987.  He played in 132 games, batting .285 with 37 doubles, 10 home runs, 43 RBIs and 86 runs scored.  His 37 two-base hits set a new club record for left-handed hitters, a mark that would not be surpassed until 1999, when John Olerud (39 doubles) and Robin Ventura (38 two-baggers) passed him.

It was more of the same for Dykstra in 1988.  Kevin McReynolds and Darryl Strawberry were the everyday corner outfielders, leaving Dysktra and Wilson to split the duties in center field.  Dykstra performed well under those circumstances in 1987, but suffered from it in 1988.

Although the Mets won their second division title in three years, Dykstra struggled for most of the season.  His .285/.352/.455 slash line from 1987 fell to .270/.321/.385 in 1988, causing a 100-point drop in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).  Also, his 19 doubles were barely half of his 1987 total and his 57 runs scored in 126 games were far less than the Mets had come to expect from their leadoff hitter.

Despite his subpar season, Dykstra turned his game up a notch in the postseason, batting .429 (6-for-14) with three doubles, a homer and no strikeouts in the seven-game NLCS against the Dodgers, but the Mets fell short of their ultimate goal, losing the series when Orel Hershiser pitched a complete-game shutout in Game 7.  After the unexpected loss, the team was ready to make changes.  One of those changes ended up becoming the death knell for the mid-to-late '80s Mets.

On June 18, 1989, the Mets traded Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Phillies for Juan Samuel.  Samuel was a two-time All-Star and a Silver Slugger-winning second baseman for the Phillies before becoming a Met.  But the Mets didn't start him at second because Mets w√ľnderkind Gregg Jefferies was already there.  Rather, Samuel became the team's new centerfielder, effectively (or ineffectively) replacing Dykstra and causing Mookie Wilson to spend more time on the bench.  Samuel, to put it bluntly, couldn't carry Dykstra's dirt-covered jock strap.

The Mets let their soul go, replacing him with Juan Samuel and his Soul Glo.

In 86 games with the Mets following the trade, Samuel hit .228 with three home runs and 28 RBIs.  His .300 slugging percentage was the lowest of any Mets everyday player.  That means it was lower than Barry Lyons' percentage (.340) and lower than Kevin Elster's figure (.360).  Heck, it was even lower than the slugging percentage posted by notorious singles hitter Dave Magadan (.393), who beat Samuel by nearly 100 points!  And let's not even get started with Samuel's play in the outfield.  Fortunately, the Mets realized the error of their ways, trading Samuel to the Dodgers six months after they acquired him.

The trade of the popular Dykstra to Philadelphia meant that Lenny was now going to be an everyday player for the first time in his career.  Like Samuel with the Mets, Dykstra also went through a period of adjustment in 1989, hitting .222 with 27 extra-base hits for the last-place Phillies.  But the Phillies remained patient with Dykstra, and by the following season, they had an All-Star on their hands.

In 1990, the 27-year-old Dykstra had his best season to date.  His .325 batting average was fourth in the National League and he led the league in both hits (192) and on-base percentage (.418).  Dykstra also finished in the top ten in doubles (35; 7th place), walks (89; 4th) and runs scored (106; 5th).  Dykstra became an All-Star for the first time in 1990 and finished 9th in the NL MVP vote despite playing for a sub-.500 team.

Injuries kept Dykstra from repeating his success in 1991 and 1992.  He played in only 63 games in 1991 and 85 games in 1992.  But despite playing in fewer than a full season's worth of games over those two years, Dykstra combined to hit .299 with 31 doubles, nine homers, 54 stolen bases and 101 runs scored.  One year later, Dykstra was fully healthy for the first time since 1990 and he embarked on a season for the ages.

In 1993, the Phillies won their first NL East title in ten years.  Philadelphia had many key contributors to their success, but none of them posted a season like Lenny Dykstra.  Dykstra set a major league record with 773 plate appearances (a record since surpassed by Jimmy Rollins).  He also led the league in at-bats (637), hits (194), walks (129) and runs scored (143), becoming the first National League player since Chuck Klein in 1932 to score over 140 runs in a single season.  But being the first National Leaguer in over 60 years to score that many runs wasn't the most impressive achievement for Dykstra in 1993.

As mentioned before, Dykstra led the league in 1993 with 194 hits and 129 walks.  In doing so, he became only the fifth player in major league history to pace his league in both categories.  Dykstra joined Billy Hamilton (179 hits, 102 walks in 1891), Rogers Hornsby (227 hits, 89 walks in 1924), Richie Ashburn (215 hits, 97 walks in 1958) and Carl Yastrzemski (183 hits, 95 walks in 1963) in this exclusive fraternity.  It should be noted that all four players are in the Hall of Fame.

Dykstra's historic year with the Phillies (he also set career highs with 44 doubles, 19 home runs, 66 RBIs and 37 stolen bases in 1993) continued in the the National League Championship Series and the World Series.

In 12 games against the Braves and Blue Jays, Dykstra batted .313 and reached base 27 times for a gaudy .450 on-base percentage.  Dykstra also socked six homers, collected 10 RBIs and scored 14 runs for the National League champions.  In the World Series alone, Dykstra smacked four homers, stole four bases and slugged .913.  He would easily have been the World Series MVP had Joe Carter not sent the Skydome into a frenzy with his title-winning home run in Game 6.  (Dykstra also had to settle for second place in the NL MVP vote, as he was the runner-up to Barry Bonds.)

Dykstra did not make the All-Star team in 1993 because of a slow start (he was hitting .265 as late as June 5), but he was selected to play in the Midsummer Classic in each of the following two seasons, including his only All-Star start in 1995.  However, just like the 1991 and 1992 campaigns, injuries curtailed both seasons.  Dykstra was held to 84 games in 1994 and 62 games in 1995.  He did not perform nearly as well as he did in 1993 when he was healthy enough to play, batting .269 with seven homers and 42 RBIs in 569 at-bats over the two seasons.  However, he did manage to hit 41 doubles, score 105 runs, steal 25 bases and walk 101 times over the same time period.

In 1996, Dykstra was limited to only 40 games and he missed the entire 1997 season due to injuries.  Although Dykstra was only 33 years old when he played his final game in the majors, he still put up a number of fantastic seasons for both the Mets and the Phillies.

Dykstra ranks 36th on the all-time Mets leaderboard in games played.  However, he's in the top thirty in batting average (.278; 17th place), on-base percentage (.350; 18th), doubles (104; 26th), triples (17; T-18th), runs scored (287; 27th) and stolen bases (116; 7th).  He ranks so highly on the team's all-time lists despite never holding a firm grip on an everyday job in 4½ seasons in New York.  His numbers are even better as a Phillie.

A total of 58 players have played more games in a Phillies uniform than Dykstra did (Lenny took the field 734 times as a Phillie), but Dykstra still ranks highly on the team's leaderboard in batting average (.289; T-40th), on-base percentage (.388; 7th), OPS (.810; 31st), hits (829; 46th), total bases (1,211; 44th), doubles (177; 36th), walks (459; 24th), runs scored (515; 36th) and stolen bases (169; T-16th).  Keep in mind that the Phillies have been in business since 1883 and have employed almost 2,000 players, while the Mets have yet to employ 1,000 players through the 2012 season.

In 12 years in the big leagues, Dykstra was a three-time All-Star and won a Silver Slugger Award in 1993.  He also received MVP votes in three seasons, including two top ten finishes (1990, 1993).  But as good as he was in the regular season, he was even better in the postseason.

Dykstra only reached the playoffs three times in his career but is still considered to be one of the best postseason hitters of all time.  In 32 games, Dykstra hit .321 with a .433 on-base percentage.  He also had a .661 slugging percentage and a whopping 1.094 OPS.  (For the record, Reggie Jackson - who was known as Mr. October for his postseason prowess - had a .527 slugging percentage and .885 OPS in 77 career postseason games.)  Almost half of Dykstra's 36 postseason hits went for extra bases, and 10 of them left the park.  Not bad for a player who surpassed ten home runs in a single season only once in his 12-year career.

Lenny Dykstra was always in the spotlight playing for two large-market teams in New York and Philadelphia.  Unfortunately, he has remained in the spotlight during his post-playing days, and not for reasons he would like. 

After running a successful car wash business for nearly a decade, Dykstra was sued by a former business partner in 2005, who accused him of steroid use and betting on baseball games.  It would not be the last time Dykstra was named in a lawsuit.  Dykstra also spent much of his money on extravagant cars, the stock market and other business pursuits.  All of his post-baseball success was only temporary.  By 2009, Dykstra was bankrupt, divorced and living on the street.

He may not have money, a wife or a permanent address.  But at least Lenny Dykstra has his Twizzlers.

Two years later, Dykstra's problems with the law continued.  In no particular order, he was:

  • Arrested on suspicion of grand theft for trying to buy a stolen car.
  • Accused of embezzling funds from a bankruptcy estate, trying to hide or sell almost half a million dollars worth of items without permission from the trustee.
  • Accused of sexual assault by his former housekeeper. 
  • Charged with indecent exposure after luring women to his house via an ad on Craigslist. 

Everything came crashing down on Dykstra in 2012, as he was sentenced to six months in prison for bankruptcy fraud.  Dysktra had already been serving three years for auto theft and nine months for lewd conduct.  He expects to be released from prison in June 2013, twenty years after his landmark season with the Phillies and more than a quarter century after he endeared himself to Mets fans.

Like Tug McGraw before him, Lenny Dykstra was beloved by both Mets fans and Phillies fans and helped both teams to a World Series appearance.  But unlike McGraw, Dykstra didn't remain a hero to his fans after his playing days were done.  Sadly, McGraw succumbed to his demon when cancer took his life in 2004.  Lenny Dykstra is still paying for the demons that took away his livelihood.

In 1985, Dykstra was a skinny kid who thought he was the best player on the field.  His "you can't stop me" attitude helped him win a World Series with the Mets and a National League pennant with the Phillies.  But Dykstra was eventually stopped by the law and his vices.

The Mets let Dykstra get away in 1989.  Then Dysktra let his life get away 20 years later.  Sometimes it's best to hold on to what you have.  It's a heck of a lot better than not having a hold on anything.

Note:  The Mets That Got Away is a thirteen-part weekly series that spotlights those Mets players who established themselves as major leaguers in New York, only to become stars after leaving town.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 7, 2013: Nolan Ryan
January 14, 2013: Melvin Mora  
January 21, 2013: Kevin Mitchell 
January 28, 2013: Amos Otis
February 4, 2013: Jeff Reardon

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