Can your reputation go so far beneath even the most grimy sewer that you can’t be libeled or defamed? Asked and answered by a New York State Supreme Court justice last Friday, while throwing Lenny Dykstra’s suit against his 1986 Mets teammate Ron Darling out of court.
Essentially, Justice Robert D. Kalish ruled, in Dykstra v.St. Martin’s Press LL.C., Macmillan Publishing Group, LL.C, Ronald Darling, and Daniel Paisner, that calling Dykstra a misogynistic racist predator thief and embezzler means only that you’ve read Dykstra’s autobiography.
Last year, Darling published 108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game. (Paisner was his ghostwriter.) Among other things, Darling wrote that, when the Mets squared off against Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd in Fenway Park during Game Three of the 1986 World Series, Dykstra—the Mets’ leadoff hitter in the game—hammered Boyd with a round of racial epithets even before facing the slim righthander.
Boyd himself had no memory of Dykstra’s verbal abuse. Neither did two African-American Mets stars, Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. Darling swore the abuse happened and lamented aloud that he hadn’t taken a stronger stand against it at the time. Dykstra was not amused to see it in print, denying every syllable of it, and sued Darling, his ghost, and his publisher and its parent.
This was what Dykstra thought especially would prove the money quote with no value except putting mucho millions into his bank account once he got through with Darling in court:
In Game 3 of the 1986 World Series, though, Oil Can was on the receiving end of the ugliest piece of vitriol I’ve ever heard –in a bar, on a baseball diamond … anywhere. It was right up there with one of the worst, most shameful moments I ever experienced in the game, and one of the great shames of the exchange was that I sat there with my teammates and didn’t do a damn thing about it. In fact, it resulted in a momentum shift that probably turned the Series around for us, and like most of the other guys on the bench, I stood and cheered at the positive outcome . . .
. . . The hero of Game 3 for us was also the asshole of the game –Lenny Dykstra, one of baseball’s all-time thugs. You know how there always seems to be a guy in every organization, in every walk of life, who gets away with murder –murder being a figurative term in this case? That was Lenny. He was a criminal in every sense, although during his playing days his crimes were mostly of an interpersonal nature. He treated people like shit, walked around like his shit didn’t stink and was generally a shitty human being –and, just maybe, the most confident, cocky player I would ever encounter. It was after he left the game, though, that his behavior took a truly criminal turn; he ended up being sentenced to house arrest on a bankruptcy fraud indictment, and he was also up on drug possession and grand-theft-auto charges, for which he received a three-year prison sentence. Not exactly the poster boy for America’s game, huh?
“Based on the papers submitted on this motion, prior to the publication of the book, Dykstra was infamous for being, among other things, racist, misogynist, and anti-gay, as well as a sexual predator, a drug-abuser, a thief, and an embezzler,” Kalish wrote in his opinion.
Further, Dykstra had a reputation—largely due to his autobiography—of being willing to do anything to benefit himself and his team, including using steroids and blackmailing umpires . . . Considering this information, which was presumably known to the average reader of the book, this Court finds that, as a matter of law, the reference in the book has not exposed Dykstra to any further “public contempt, ridicule, aversion or disgrace,” or “evil opinion of him in the minds of right-thinking persons,” or “deprivation of friendly intercourse in society.
The nature and seriousness of Dykstra’s criminal offenses, which include fraud, embezzlement, grand theft, and lewd conduct and assault with a deadly weapon, and notably the degree of publicity they received, have already established his general bad reputation for fairness and decency far worse than the alleged racially charged bench-jockeying in the reference could . . .
. . . Given the aforesaid litany of stories concerning Dykstra’s poor and mean-spirited behavior particularly toward various groups including racial minorities, women, and the LGBTQ community—this Court finds that, as a matter of law, the reference cannot “induce an evil opinion of [Dykstra] in the minds of right-thinking persons” or “deprive him of their friendly intercourse in society,” as that “evil opinion” has long existed.
Now a Mets broadcaster working next to another ’86 Mets teammate, Keith Hernandez, Darling has no illusions about that notorious bunch. With a small group of exceptions, including Hall of Famer Gary Carter, the ’86 Mets were baseball’s Hell’s Angels without the motorcycles. They made the 1934-35 Cardinals’ Gas House Gang resemble a group of lawn bowlers.
“This team was arrogant, always believed it would win it all, never mind what it said on the scoreboard or in the box score,” Darling wrote in 108 Stitches. “Still and all, [Game Three] was a must-win for the good guys, only we didn’t exactly come across as good guys on this.” Having fewer illusions about Dykstra, whose reputation went from merely dubious to downright grotesque after the century turned, doesn’t exactly make Darling an outlier.
With the Mets down to the Red Sox two games to none as the series shifted to Fenway, Dykstra opened Game Three by hitting the righthanded Boyd’s hanging slider on 1-1 over the right field fence. With two on to follow at once, Carter doubled them home, and two outs later Danny Heep singled Hernandez home, and just like that the Mets had a 4-0 lead.
They tacked on two more in the seventh (a two-run single by Carter) and one in the eighth (eventual Series MVP Ray Knight doubling Strawberry home), and the only thing the Red Sox had in reply against Mets starting lefthander Bob Ojeda that night was Marty Barrett singling Dave Henderson home in the third.
To this day Boyd denies he was rattled when he threw Dykstra the home run pitch. “I’m kind of disturbed about [the allegations of racial epithets],” he told a radio interviewer last year. “I’m also kind of hurt about it because I have been around Lenny and I played ball with Lenny in Japan, and he didn’t seem to come off as that type of a person . . . The person I saw, I liked. The person that I talked to, I liked. So I’m quite disturbed about it.”
The worst anyone ever said about Darling in his pitching days was his Mets manager Davey Johnson complaining that Darling—a Yale graduate with a dual degree in French and Southeast Asian history—“was just so goddamned intellectual, he thought he could figure everything out himself.” Darling, who tried to live on the corners until it cut down the sharp movements of his pitches, admitted he wanted to pitch as well as Gooden but “didn’t have his gifts, so I thought way too much.”
Not even his worst enemies thought Darling was reckless at minimum. Not even when he overthought himself into so many high pitch-count games that Johnson was compelled to go to his bullpen more frequently than he desired. Calling Dykstra reckless was the second-biggest understatement in 1980s-1990s baseball.
Darling moved in court to dismiss the Dykstra lawsuit. Citing a 1987 precedent in another publishing case, Kalish ruled that Dykstra had no standing against the doctrine of the libel-proof plaintiff that “bars relief in a defamation action,as a matter of law to a plaintiff whose ‘reputation with respect to a specific subject may be so badly tarnished that he cannot be further injured by allegedly false statements on that subject’.”
All the court had to do was decide whether Dykstra could claim libel or defamation, and he “must have had a reputation capable of further injury when the reference was published. This Court finds that Dykstra lacked such a reputation at the time of publication.” That may have been a far too polite way to phrase it.