Commentary

The lessons in Lenny Dykstra flameout

Beyond the tabloid headlines, his story is sad. Perhaps we should learn from it.

Originally Published: May 27, 2011
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

Given the dizzying, still-accelerating magnitude of the flameout that ex-baseball star Lenny Dykstra has been on for the past two years, this was almost predictable: The man who bailed Dykstra out of jail a few weeks ago, according to a TMZ.com report, was Charlie Sheen, his SoCal pal, sometime business partner and fellow famous person run amok.

Of course Sheen would be the one to come flying to Dykstra's aid after he languished behind bars in California for a week because, as TMZ also claimed, the bankrupt Dykstra couldn't muster the $150,000 he needed to spring himself from the can on his own.

[+] EnlargeLenny Dykstra
AP Photo/Doug MillsThere has never been a doubt about the appeal of Lenny Dykstra's persona as a player.

There may be no two celebrities in America right now whose trajectories parallel each other as much as Sheen and Dykstra. The only problem with the bailout tale? "The Sheen story is not true," says Dykstra's attorney Mark Werksman, who is defending Dykstra in the 13-count, May 6 federal indictment for fraud, embezzlement and lying to a federal officer that led to his arrest. "It never happened. That was some wacky story that TMZ came up with, and it got picked up everywhere. I have no idea where they got it. But Charlie Sheen has no involvement [in Dykstra's release]."

That a Sheen-to-Dykstra's-rescue story could have happened says a lot about the bizarre mess in which the 48-year-old ex-Met and ex-Phillie finds himself these days.

Dykstra used to act as though a $150,000 bond would be ashtray money. That was back when cable TV investment guru Jim Cramer regularly touted him as a stock-picking savant and The New Yorker ran a "who'd have thunk it?" portrait of Dykstra in March 2008 that contributed greatly to his short-lived renown as a postbaseball success. The gist of the magazine's story was the unlikelihood that this spitting, cussing, chaw-loving, occasionally manic little guy who spent 12 years in the big leagues could become an investment genius.

Of course, it turns out Dykstra wasn't. He didn't forge some new identity in his postplaying career at all. If anything, he never stopped being the "Dude," one of the nicknames (the other was "Nails") that Dykstra picked up as a swaggering, wall-crashing center fielder who helped the 1986 Mets and 1993 Phillies get to the World Series.

Dykstra bragged about being worth tens of millions. But the truth is, selling his family-run car washes and quick-lube businesses for $51 million a few years ago wasn't enough for him. Dykstra's business downfall began after he tried to, well, run a business -- The Players Club LLC, designed to help pro athletes live a luxe "trophy" lifestyle. (If you ever wonder how an ex-athlete who made as much money as Dykstra can go broke, read the court filings made during his 2009 slide into bankruptcy. An $18.5 million Hollywood mansion that once belonged to Wayne Gretzky? Two private jets? A $10,000 German shepherd? A $400,000 Bentley? All seized.)

Dykstra rang up a lot of unpaid bills, chased a lot of bad deals, ignored a lot of rules and made a lot of promises he didn't keep during his wheelings and dealings, then found himself the subject of more than two dozen lawsuits. Many of them charge that his greatest success was as a confidence man or moocher. Two of his brothers claimed he'd financially wronged them and their mother.

Dykstra never lost his jock's sense of entitlement that people would just indulge him or look the other way. He never dropped his show-off habits of acting outrageously to get a rise out of people or let them know how utterly fearless and magnificent he was.

"Have I got a 12-inch ... or what?" he told ESPN's Mike Fish about another business scheme he was chasing in 2009 while Fish was reporting on a detailed story that remains the most exhaustive account of Dykstra's meltdown that has been done. Even if there have been plenty of updates since.

In the past month alone, Dykstra was arrested in California for allegedly trying to buy a stolen car. That's in addition to spending that week in jail after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on the criminal charges against which Werksman is defending him. (Among other things, the feds say Dykstra stripped more than $400,000 in fixtures and other property from the Gretzky mansion after it was taken from him and tried to sell the stuff to raise cash.) A woman who answered a Craigslist ad to be his housekeeper also has accused Dykstra of stripping naked and asking her to perform a "massage" on him as part of her job interview.

Dykstra's behavior seems to have become more manic, grandiose, even delusional as time has gone on, too. On May 10, he wrote a column for the New York Post that was supposed to be a self-defense but instead read as though it had been written at Sheen's knee during a break in the actor's widely panned "Violent Torpedo of Truth/Defeat is Not An Option" cross-country tour.

[+] EnlargeLenny Dykstra
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIIn early 2008, Dykstra's new magazine promised to help pro athletes "keep living the dream" in the business world.

Dykstra's column began, "I address the people of the great City of New York " and in it, he claimed he's been wrongly portrayed, persecuted by government officials and past business associates and even "tortured" while in prison waiting to be bailed out.

Just this week, the New York Daily News reported that Dykstra had "sneaked" his way onto the TV set of "Celebrity Rehab" late at night to try an unsolicited "rescue" of former Mets teammate Dwight Gooden, whom an agitated Dykstra feared was being hypnotized by Dr. Drew Pinsky, the host of the show.

"I said, 'Everything's cool, Lenny,'" Gooden recalled.

Werksman says Dykstra will plead not guilty to the federal charges against him, but he declined to make Dykstra available for comment for this story.

"If you can get him to return a call to you, more power to you," Werksman said.

Dykstra would seem to need counseling right now, not just a good lawyer.

But to dismiss him as just more tabloid-style entertainment or another case of a jock's arrested development is too easy. That's especially true at a time when sports is so actively revisiting its attitudes about so many things it used to take for granted -- everything from the brain damage that players incur to in-season paternity leave for baseball players to taking on homophobia.

Dykstra's saga is a good opportunity to ask how sports sometimes encourages someone to become a more successful athlete but a worse human being. And why so many folks inside and outside sports keep tolerating it as though there's nothing anyone can do about it. As though it's all just part of living large. Of having a trophy life.

[+] Enlarge Lenny Dykstra
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesThey loved him in Philadelphia as part of the Phillies' 1993 World Series team.

Dykstra is one of those jocks -- much like Lawrence Taylor -- whose excesses were too often forgiven as somehow laughable, outrageous, admirable or funny, sometimes even after it's clear they were probably on a fast track to self-destruction, maybe even criminal behavior. Instead of an intervention, what they too often get are voyeurs goading them to be even crazier or apologists insisting they're misunderstood.

"Lenny has a heart of gold," Gooden told the Daily News.

Dykstra's story is the same old story about jock privilege and hubris, all right.

But that a magazine as reputable as The New Yorker portrayed Dykstra as positively as it did, or that investors who made millions on their own might entertain Dykstra's pitches, suggests something else: A great many of us inside sports and outside sports set the bar for athletes far too low.

There's some ritual underestimating and overblown condoning going on. When jocks are smart or good at something else, it's often received as a cute surprise. Lenny Dykstra can read a stock prospectus? When a jock acts badly, it's almost expected.

It's going to keep happening as long as little change is demanded from them. Or us.

That's the real takeaway from the Dykstra story in this time when sports is examining so much else.

Not that he's become tabloid fodder or pals with Charlie Sheen.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY

ALSO SEE