Sunday, December 02, 2012

The rise and fall of Lenny Dykstra-Jim Baumbach

Sun., Dec. 2, 2012, Newsday back cover, "The Rise and Fall of Lenny Dykstra," Jim Baumbach

"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.""...

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