The rise and fall of Lenny Dykstra
The members of the 1986 world champion Mets walked somberly through the doors of the Christ Fellowship Church in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., one sunny day last February. Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, Howard Johnson and Wally Backman, names engraved in Mets lore, were there for the funeral of Gary Carter, the team's Hall of Fame catcher, who had died at age 57 of brain cancer.
Lenny Dykstra, who patrolled centerfield, also was among the more than 2,000 mourners.
In Game 3 of the 1986 National League Championship Series against the Astros, Dykstra hit one of the most important home runs in Mets history, a walk-off shot that drove in Backman. At 5-9, small for a professional athlete, Dykstra personified the fire and toughness on a team of fighters. He played all out, all the time. He was cocky and brash.
Many of his former Mets teammates had not seen him in years. All they knew of him were the rumors -- that Dykstra, who had lived in mansions and flown in private jets, was flat broke, sometimes sleeping in hotel lobbies. Now he was under house arrest after being charged with federal bankruptcy fraud -- stealing and selling property that no longer belonged to him -- and he needed the permission of a federal judge in Los Angeles to attend Carter's funeral.
Dykstra's appearance stunned his old teammates. No longer was he the tough guy nicknamed Nails. His once-strong body was bent over. He looked far older than his 49 years.
"His health, it looked like it was in decline," former closer Jesse Orosco said. "He was a little bit slouched over and he was talking a little different."
At times he was incoherent, Backman said. Through the mumbling, "it was hard to even understand Lenny."
Outside the church on a smoke break, Backman said Dykstra told him "that he expected to be dead within five years."
Tomorrow in federal court in Los Angeles, the fall of the former World Series hero will reach a new low. He is scheduled to be sentenced on charges of bankruptcy fraud, concealment of assets and money laundering. When he pleaded guilty to those charges last summer, he admitted in court that he stole and sold items from his bankruptcy estate, concealed items from the trustee such as baseball memorabilia, and never reported the profits.
Dykstra could face up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson to sentence him to 2 1/2 years, explaining in a court filing that they promised "a low-end recommendation" as part of Dykstra's plea deal.
Court filings lay bare Dykstra's drug use. "Defendant's illegal and prescription substance abuse started in his playing days. Defendant admits that he took Dexedrine, Adderall and Vicodin during his playing career and then transitioned to other prescription painkillers such as Percocet when he retired," court papers state. "This in addition to his alcohol consumption, which at times was one liter of vodka per day."
The court papers do not address whether Dykstra had prescriptions for the painkillers he used as a major-leaguer. With prescriptions, the painkillers are not banned in baseball.
This year, Dykstra already has been sentenced to 3 years in prison for grand theft auto and filing a false statement, and 9 months for exposing himself to women he met on Craigslist and threatening one with a knife. The first sentencing took place just over a week after Carter's funeral, which was Dykstra's last public appearance.
Prosecutors in the federal bankruptcy fraud case described Dykstra's conduct in all these cases "consistent with defendant's arrogant world view, that he could do what he wanted, to whomever he wanted, with no repercussions."
Today, Dykstra's post-baseball financial successes -- once heralded on CNBC's "Mad Money" with Jim Cramer -- seem far too good to be true. By last winter, a net worth estimated in court papers at $58 million had evaporated. Dykstra's life after baseball is the story of losses -- financial, personal and, with his sentencing to prison, freedom.
Dykstra, a fan favorite who during games always had a big wad of tobacco bulging out of his cheek, has spent the last 10 months behind bars while awaiting sentencing. Through the Metropolitan Detention Center warden, Dykstra declined an interview request for this story.
Dozens of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of court records show the remarkable journey Dykstra traveled -- from a diminutive teenager in California who dreamed of the major leagues to playing in the World Series, first for the Mets and later the Phillies. The theme that runs through his high school years to the courtroom in Los Angeles is his unwillingness to acknowledge failure -- an asset in baseball. But in real life, it too often led to a disregard for the consequences of his actions.
"What made Lenny Lenny was his recklessness," Mookie Wilson said. Wilson would know. In a 1987 game, Dykstra ran headlong into him in the outfield while going for a fly ball. As determined as Dykstra was to make the play, Wilson held on to the ball. Both collapsed onto the grass.
"He played with a I-could-care-less attitude,'' Wilson said. "I could care less what you think of me and I could care less of the outcome."
They call him 'Nails'
Growing up in Garden Grove, Calif., Dykstra adored California Angels star Rod Carew and vowed that he, too, would become a major-league icon. People in high school told Dykstra he was too small for the majors, but that only fueled his desire.
"Lenny's big saying always was 'if only they knew,' meaning that if only they knew where we would wind up, they'd treat us better," childhood friend Mark Baker said.
Baker is two years older than Dykstra, but they became friends because of their shared priorities: sports, sports and sports. Baker was determined to be a professional bowler. So they helped each other, competing against each other every afternoon in their sports.
It was the bowling alley, not the baseball diamond, where Dykstra's nickname, Nails, was born.
"I got it going pretty good, threw a bunch of strikes, and he was saying I was throwing 'nails,' " Baker said. "From then we just called everything Nails . . . If a girl was good-looking, she became Nails. If you hit a baseball really hard, that was Nails."
Dykstra soon became Nails. His determination had no limits, which the police recognized during a high school Christmas break. According to his memoir, "Nails," published after the 1986 World Series, Dykstra broke into Anaheim Stadium, where the Angels play. He said security officers caught him on the warning track throwing balls to himself off the centerfield wall.
Baker remembers asking Dykstra why he broke into the stadium. "I have to make sure once I'm a pro," Dykstra told him, "that I can catch the ball against the wall."
Dykstra brought that surefire belief with him to a tryout the Mets held in 1981 for high school seniors in Southern California.
Joe McIlvaine, then the Mets' scouting director, remembers one of the scouts at the check-in table looking over Dykstra's small build and mistaking him for a batboy. Dykstra, McIlvaine remembered, responded by staring down the scouts and sternly telling them, "I'm Lenny Dykstra, and I'm the best player you're going to see here today."
McIlvaine said he was impressed by Dykstra's bravado -- and even more by his skills. He wanted to take Dykstra as high as the third round of the draft, but Mets scouts assured him there wasn't much interest in him elsewhere. So the Mets waited until the 13th round.
When it came time to negotiate his contract, McIlvaine said Dykstra demanded that he start at Class A, one level higher than everyone else.
"Some people may call it cockiness, but it was a good kind of cockiness because he 100 percent believed in his ability . . . Lenny could never fail in his own mind," McIlvaine said.
McIlvaine let Dykstra skip rookie ball. The brash kid quickly rose through the Mets' minors, breaking into the majors in 1985. At Shea Stadium, he became a fan favorite for his hustle. His uniform always was dirty.
As Wilson said: "When you live on the ledge like Lenny did -- and I say live on the ledge because he played on the edge, with a reckless abandon -- you wouldn't be surprised if he ran into a wall and broke his arms."
Dykstra etched his place in Mets history on Oct. 11, 1986, when he launched a walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Astros to win Game 3 of the NLCS. Shea Stadium erupted, Mets jumped out of the dugout and Dykstra raced around the bases with his arms in the air. He wrote in his memoir that the home run "changed my life."
Dykstra's homer is considered one of the most important in franchise history. And it wasn't his only big hit during the Mets' postseason run that year. His home run to lead off Game 3 of the World Series in Boston provided a momentum swing for the Mets, who had lost the first two games at home. The team won its first title since 1969 in seven games.
After the Series, Dykstra bought a home in Port Washington, expecting to be a longtime Met. But it didn't work out that way. The Mets platooned him with Wilson during the next three seasons, which angered him. The Phillies traded for him in 1989, an opportunity their general manager, Lee Thomas, said he had been waiting for since watching his performance in the 1986 postseason.
"He was a red-light player," Thomas said. "The minute the TV cameras are on, he knows how to play. He's as good under pressure playing baseball as anyone I've seen."
Dykstra had a monster season in 1993, leading the league in hits (194) and walks (129), batting .305 with 19 home runs and leading the Phillies to the World Series before they lost to the Blue Jays in six games. His performance earned him a four-year, $25-million contract.
Risky behavior to risks
In 1988, while still a Met, Dykstra arrived at spring training looking noticeably more muscular. Each spring thereafter, he looked more muscled. When asked about his new physique, according to news accounts, he cited a new, improved offseason workout regimen, making reference to taking "good vitamins."
Dykstra has denied steroid use in public statements. But according to former Sen. George Mitchell's 2007 report on performance-enhancing drug use in baseball, he met with three Major League Baseball executives in 2000 after he retired and admitted taking steroids throughout his career.
Dykstra's drug use was just one troublesome issue. In 1991, MLB put him on probation after he testified in a federal trial that he had lost $78,000 in illegal poker games.
Two months after being placed on probation, he crashed his Mercedes-Benz 500SL into trees on a suburban Philadelphia road. He and teammate Darren Daulton were on the way home from the bachelor party of teammate John Kruk. Police said Dykstra's blood-alcohol level was .179, well above Pennsylvania's legal limit of .10, and he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Dykstra suffered three broken ribs, a broken right collarbone and a broken right cheekbone. His driver's license was suspended for three months, and he was ordered to take a 12-hour driving course. Daulton missed three weeks of baseball because of a scratched left cornea and fractured left eye socket; Dykstra was out more than two months.
But upon his return, Dykstra made it clear that ramifications of his behavior off the field wouldn't keep him from being reckless on it. Doctors told him he shouldn't slide headfirst because his broken collarbone hadn't mended completely. The first time he had the opportunity, he stole second base with a headfirst slide.
In a Newsday interview a year later, Dykstra said the accident didn't change his view on life or how he intended to live it.
"As far as drinking and driving goes, yeah, I've definitely learned," he said. "But as far as my life goes, no. I've always lived my life the way I wanted to. You only get to play this game for so long. You only have the power for so long. I want to live it to the fullest."
Dykstra's career ended in 1996, cut short by back surgery to correct spinal stenosis, a painful narrowing of the spine that puts pressure on nerves. He was 33.
Master of money markets
By 2003, it had been years since Richard Suttmeier, a stock market analyst, had heard the name. He was stunned when he picked up the telephone at his lower Manhattan office and heard: "Hi, uh, this is Lenny Dykstra."
Suttmeier's mind flashed back to 1986. Dykstra told Suttmeier he had seen him the day before on CNN's financial channel, CNNfn, talking about stocks. He told Suttmeier he wanted to learn how to beat the stock market.
By this time, Dykstra had built his own mini-empire of car washes in Southern California. He knew how to use his name and baseball reputation to his advantage, naming the shops after himself -- "Lenny Dykstra's Car Wash and Auto Detailing" -- and labeling the different levels of washes in baseball terms, such as single, double, triple and home run.
Suttmeier said he and Dykstra spoke for a half-hour. Suttmeier left the conversation convinced that Dykstra was "smart enough to understand" how to successfully pick stocks.
Regular phone calls escalated into strategy sessions over dinner in New York. Other times, Dykstra flew Suttmeier to California, where he was living in a mansion in the Los Angeles suburbs not far from his hometown of Garden Grove. They met in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in March 2004, when Dykstra returned to the Mets to spend a week in spring training as an instructor.
When they were together in New York, Suttmeier took Dykstra to a radio interview with TheStreet.com, the website run by Jim Cramer of "Mad Money." Suttmeier said once the site's producer found out Dykstra was with him, he was invited on the air, too. In August 2005, Dykstra started writing a stock-picking column for TheStreet.com.
"I was known for playing baseball very aggressively, and my trading style is the same -- I'm forever seeking a competitive edge," Dykstra wrote in his first column. "But becoming a winner in the crucible of Wall Street wasn't a goal, a hobby or even a passing interest; for me, it was a necessity . . . The goal of this column is to help you better understand the market and, ideally, make some money."
Dykstra soon began boasting of having a 90-percent-plus success rate at picking stocks, and television networks began using him as an on-air market analyst. Glowing profiles in newspapers and magazines followed, including one in The New Yorker. On HBO's "Real Sports," Cramer called Dykstra "one of the great ones in the business."
Just as he had succeeded in the majors despite being told he was too small, Dykstra again was triumphing in a world in which, by all appearances, he didn't belong.
Those who had known Dykstra soon began to wonder what was going on with him.
"The guy who was interviewed on HBO, that just wasn't the guy I knew," said Baker, the childhood friend. "He got real heavy. Lenny was always in great shape. The stock market thing, for the people who knew him back when, we were like, really? The stock market?"
Wanting it all, and more
The risk-taker in Dykstra now wanted to keep going.
"He always wanted to be first and kept running and running," said Bert Brodsky, a longtime friend of Dykstra's from Port Washington who is a health-care entrepreneur. "One race was done and he wanted to run another race."
Dykstra set his sights on the publishing industry.
His goal: produce a magazine that would cater to professional athletes, delivered for free to every pro sports locker room throughout the country. It would be called The Players Club, and it would connect high-end advertisers with the clientele they most desired.
"Conceptually, it was a terrific idea," Brodsky said. "The average starting salary for a ballplayer is around $500,000. Everybody wants to sell them something."
Brodsky met Dykstra in the mid-1980s when Dykstra was called up to the majors. At the time, Brodsky worked with many of the Mets, finding them homes in Port Washington. He helped Dykstra purchase a home on Pepperday Avenue in 1987.
Looking for a partner with knowledge of the magazine industry, Dykstra cold-called a respected figure in the field, just as he did with Suttmeier and the stock market. This time it was Randall Lane, then the co-founder and president of Doubledown Media, of New York.
According to Lane's book, "The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane," he heard Dykstra's pitch over dinner during the summer of 2007 and was sold on becoming a part of The Players Club project. But almost immediately after they started working together, Lane wondered what he had gotten himself into.
"Nails didn't chart time like the rest of us," Lane wrote, explaining that Dykstra often stayed awake from Monday morning until Friday evening, viewing the five-day stretch as one long workday. Now the editor of Forbes magazine, Lane declined to comment for this story, saying in an email, "I'm going to let the book do the talking."
As Dykstra pursued the launch of his magazine, he also was deep in other deals. He purchased a private jet for $2 million. He sold his car-wash shops for $43 million. And he became enamored of the real-estate prize of his Thousand Oaks, Calif., neighborhood: the mansion belonging to hockey great Wayne Gretzky.
Never mind that Dykstra already lived in a mansion in the same golf-course community. Once Gretzky's home became available, Dykstra told friends he had to have it, saying he could flip it for more than its $17.425 million price tag. His bravado once again was on full display.
Suttmeier said he remembers asking Dykstra how many people he thought would be in the market for the six-bedroom, seven-bathroom home on 6.69 acres. "Tiger Woods will buy it," Dykstra confidently told him. "He plays golf here all the time."
To finance the purchase, Dykstra took out $20.5 million in loans, according to financial records Lane said he reviewed during his time with Dykstra. Lane, in his book, said Dykstra used the extra money to buy a $3.7-million jet -- and then borrowed more money against that.
The more Lane worked with Dykstra on the magazine, the more their relationship faltered. One of their final disagreements was over how much they were going to spend on the magazine's launch party. Dykstra, Lane wrote, wanted the most lavish of parties and won, spending more than $600,000 to host a bash at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan.
Doubledown and Dykstra broke ties a week after the launch party, midway through production of the third issue of The Players Club.
Going off the deep end
Without a partner, Dykstra set out to make the magazine work on his own. Quickly, payroll and staffing became critical problems. By December 2008, after the eighth issue, his staff walked out, said Chris Frankie, the magazine's editor.
Dykstra put the Gretzky home on the market for $25 million, with no takers. Then the bank foreclosed on the house, court records show. His column with TheStreet.com was terminated in the wake of an ESPN story that detailed Dykstra's financial woes. Then the lawsuits started piling up, nearly two dozen coming from every direction -- former employees, vendors, banks.
He also had a falling-out with several family members, including his brothers Brian and Kevin. Both have spoken out in recent years, accusing their brother of leaning on their mother for money to fly cross-country on a private jet. Neither brother returned messages for this story; their mother is deceased.
In 2009, Dykstra's wife of 25 years, Terri, whom he met while playing for a Mets minor-league affiliate in Jackson, Miss., filed for divorce. Efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.
Dykstra filed for bankruptcy in July 2009 to stave off a planned auction of the Gretzky home, saying in court papers he was $12.5 million in the hole, with $24.6 million in assets and $37.1 million in debt. In laying out their case against Dykstra, federal prosecutors say he "stole or destroyed" more than $400,000 worth of sports memorabilia and high-end furniture and vanities from inside the home during an 18-month period. Under Chapter 7 bankruptcy rules, those items were legally the property of the bankruptcy trustee, who would sell them to pay back creditors. Prosecutors say Dykstra sold items to pawn shops, antique stores and on eBay and Craigslist.
Keith Hernandez, the former Mets first baseman who is a broadcaster for the team-owned network, said Dykstra tried to sell him a private jet around the same time. But Hernandez said he "had heard the stories" about Dykstra and "wanted nothing to do with it."
Dykstra's spiral continued at such a rapid pace that in January 2010, he told the Ventura County Star newspaper in California that he was homeless and "fighting for my life."
"He was kind of down and out and things were changing rapidly for him," said Dan Herman, who was Dykstra's publicist in 2010-11. "One day he would have money. The next he wouldn't."
Herman said he counseled Dykstra to stick to the autograph circuit for former ballplayers, believing Dykstra could make a living off his name. But whenever Herman set up a show, he said Dykstra would always come up with a problem at the last minute. He wanted first-class plane tickets. Or more money.
"I would say 40 percent of the time he was Nails," Herman said. "It was the other 60 where he was, like, crazy."
Prosecutors, as well as friends, said Dykstra was abusing drugs and alcohol.
In April 2011, Dykstra's life took a far worse turn. He was arrested by Los Angeles Police on charges that he used false information to lease cars. Court papers say police found cocaine and Ecstasy, along with somatropin, a synthetic human growth hormone, at his L.A. residence. A day later he was indicted on federal bankruptcy fraud charges. Then, in August, he was charged with indecent exposure.
Shortly after the arrests, Dykstra visited a longtime friend's home in the Philadelphia area. John Bolaris, a meteorologist in Philadelphia, had known Dykstra for two decades. Bolaris met Dykstra in his apartment building lobby. He said Dykstra's clothes were covered with food stains, some of his teeth were missing and he had no money. "Dude," Bolaris said, "what's going on?"
Dykstra said he had taken a cab ride overnight from Virginia, where he had been watching his son Cutter play minor-league baseball. He told Bolaris he needed $1,000 to pay the driver and another $2,000 to book a cross-country flight home to California, where Dykstra said he had to report to authorities that evening. Bolaris gave him the money.
"He was a mess," Bolaris recalled. "I let him use my shower. Made him a turkey burger. Gave him some clothes I had from some golf tournament."
When it was time for Dykstra to leave, they hugged and Dykstra cried. Bolaris said Dykstra turned to him and said, "Remember when I thought a thousand dollars was ashtray money? Not anymore."
Can't fall much lower
"In spite of his misfortune, he is still one of us," Wilson said. "There's not an event where we don't get together that we don't ask if anyone has spoken with Lenny, how is he doing?"
Other former Mets teammates from 1986 have distanced themselves from Dykstra. Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda declined to discuss Dykstra, Hernandez quickly ended an interview, and Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry did not return multiple messages seeking comment for this story.
Ten days after the funeral, Dykstra stood inside a Los Angeles courtroom for his first of three scheduled sentencing hearings. He already had pleaded no contest to grand theft auto and providing a false statement in an alleged scam to fraudulently lease high-end automobiles. Dykstra had agreed to a plea deal in hopes of a lighter sentence.
"I have changed," Dykstra told Judge Cynthia Ulfig. "There are things that I have done that I am not proud of. But have I ever committed a crime? Am I a criminal? No."
The judge disagreed.
"Mr. Dykstra may not believe that he is a criminal," Ulfig said, "but his conduct was indeed criminal."
And then the judge sent him to jail, where this Mets World Series hero has been ever since.
On Monday, he'll find out how much longer he'll be there.