Dykstra’s race cards, clarified

2020-06-02 LennyDykstra

Lenny Dykstra hitting his game-opening  home run against Oil Can Boyd in Game Three of the 1986 World Series; fellow Mets legend Keith Hernandez is seen on deck.

The New York State Supreme Court may have ruled Lenny Dykstra libel-proof, in granting his 1986 Mets teammate Ron Darling’s request to dismiss Dykstra’s defamation lawsuit. But one question before the house post mortem remains—is or was Dykstra an actual racist?

Darling’s book 108 Stitches cited Dykstra having hollered racial epithets at Boston Red Sox pitcher Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd before leading off against Boyd to open Game Three of the 1986 World Series. Boyd himself doesn’t remember hearing them, though he also admits that hearing about them in due course disturbed him, especially since he’d played with and liked Dykstra when the pair were once in Japan.

The justice who ruled in Darling’s favour last Friday, Robert D. Kalish, cited several  instances of Dykstra using racial insults in years following his baseball playing days and during the business activities that ultimately exploded in Dykstra’s face almost repeatedly.

Darling’s and Dykstra’s African-American Mets teammates, including pitcher Dwight Gooden, and outfielders Kevin Mitchell and Darryl Strawberry, don’t remember hearing Dykstra hammering Boyd racially before hammering a leadoff bomb in that game, either. But Darling, himself a former pitcher, didn’t limit his criticism of Dykstra to the World Series incident, and Kalish observed as much in writing his dismissal opinion.

Kalish didn’t rule singularly on the grounds that Dykstra was or is a demonstrable racist or at least leaned toward racial insults in an actual or alleged effort to rattle Oil Can Boyd or any opponent. (I should have made that point a lot more clear when writing about the ruling on Monday.)

What Kalish ruled was that Dykstra’s overall reputation collapsed so profoundly that libeling or defaming him is legally impossible. A man who delivers himself into that kind of clutch as Dykstra ultimately did deserves a certain degree of pity.

It’s likely, that Darling mis-remembered Dykstra awaiting his turn at bat to open Game Three. as you’ll see in due course. It’s also likely, that Dykstra was so reckless a young man that any thought of him using race to try rattling a black pitcher he was about to face, since he was a young man who’d do just about anything for an edge including living on and over it, made sad enough sense.

Dykstra’s complaint against Darling and 108 Stitches may have specified that the reference “forever branded [him] a racist,” as Kalish noted. But it didn’t necessarily limit itself to that question alone. On Monday, I cited what I was certain was the money quote that tripped Dykstra’s litigious trigger, which began with the racial epithet accusation but continued thus:

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?

Kalish made a point of citing Dykstra’s entire calamitous post-baseball life even when alluding to or specifying race issues:

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. 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 roll of Dykstra’s racial bombs during his post-baseball business collapse  remains troubling enough to have Dykstra branded as a racist long before Darling wrote his book:

In a 2009 GQ magazine article, Dykstra’s former employee Kevin Coughlin . . . wrote about his time working for Dykstra and asserted that Dykstra would use the terms “darkies” and “spearchuckers” to refer to African-American athletes featured in Dykstra’s magazine the Players Club . . . These claims were also reported by other media outlets such as ESPN.com, the New York Daily News,and the Philadelphia Inquirer . . . Moreover, in a 2013 book, Dykstra’s former magazine editor for the Players Club Christopher Frankie . . . detailed his account of working with Dykstra and asserted that Dykstra described Willie Mays as “his field n—-r,” Venus and Serena Williams as “baboons,” and Celtics coach Doc Rivers as a “spear-chucker.” In his book, Frankie tells the story of how Dykstra allegedly said that the staff at the Carlyle Hotel “had been offended when [Dykstra] loudly used the word ‘n—-r’ in the lobby and had booted him out” . . .  Dykstra undisputedly has never brought a libel suit against Coughlin, Frankie, or other media outlets for such reporting . . .

The aforementioned Christopher Frankie account is Nailed: The Improbable Rise and Spectacular Fall of Lenny Dykstra. It’s sickening enough to learn Dykstra could call a Hall of Famer against whom every center fielder since is judged—who tangled with racism surprisingly and bitterly when trying to buy his first San Francisco home, and who tended lovingly to his Alzheimer’s-stricken second wife until her death seven years ago—his “field n—-r.”

In the aforementioned GQ article (“You Think Your Job Sucks? Try Working for Lenny Dykstra”), Coughlin recalled taking a phone call from Dykstra about possible Players Club cover subjects, with Coughlin’s wife hearing the convo on speaker. Dykstra said, “Nobody can call me a racist—I put three darkies and a bitch on my first four covers.” When Coughlin replied, “What was that, Lenny,” Dykstra answered, “I said I put three spearchuckers on the cover!”

In Macho Row, William C. Kashatus’s splendid, candid, and often troublesome chronicle of the 1993 Phillies, for whom Dykstra was a critical element, Kashatus reviewed Dykstra’s issues with PEDs (actual or alleged), his marital collapse, and his “increasingly erratic” behaviour after his Players Club collapse and his divorce: “He used offensive terms when speaking about blacks, women, and homosexuals.” (Coughlin recorded that Dykstra dismissed a particular suggested Players Club page layout as “faggy”—even as the gay page designer was within earshot in the room.)

Kashatus also made a point of citing Dykstra’s 2016 memoir, House of Nails, including this passage: “While at times [my] brash, arrogant style served me well in the game of life, it was eventually instrumental in my undoing.” An undoing that finally made Dykstra libel-proof in the eyes of the New York State Supreme Court.

When Jeff Pearlman wrote The Bad Guys Won, his engaging and too-revelatory 2004 review of the 1986 Mets, he recalled Boyd’s pre-Game Three boast, “When I first looked at the Mets, I saw they had good power in the middle. But I feel I can master those guys.” Pearlman also exhumed that former Met Tom Paciorek, by then a Texas Rangers outfielder attending the Series as a commentator, chatted before the game with Mets Keith Hernandez (first baseman) and Wally Backman (second baseman) with a little extra counsel about facing the Red Sox’s slender righthander:

Paciorek knew Boyd well, and his advice was sound: “When you guys start the game, just keep screaming shit at Oil Can from the dugout, because he’s got rabbit ears,” Paciorek said. “He hears everything and it really gets him frustrated. He’ll start hanging shit, and then he’ll start looking at you. He’ll point at you when he strikes someone out. If that happens, you’ve got him.”

Hernandez didn’t have to be told twice. As soon as Boyd strolled to the mound to start his warmup pitches, the assault began. The players kneeled on towels lined up in front of the dugout’s top step, just to be as close as possible. “Hey, Shit Can! Is that all you’ve got!? C’mon, throw harder than that, you pussy! Hey, Shit Can! You’re nothing!”

In House of Nails, Dykstra remembered telling his wife, Terri, before the game,  that he “was going to try to go yard with one of Oil Can’s garbage batting-practise fastballs in my first at-bat.” Boyd remembers leaving a slider out over the plate enough for Dykstra to send into the corner right field seats. Pearlman recorded the Mets’ bench jockeys hollering “Shit Can! Shit Can!” as Dykstra rounded the bases.

The Mets scored four in that first inning. Boyd pounded the mound’s rosin bag, paced around the mound, and glared toward the Mets dugout as the first-inning merry-go-round went ’round. The Mets went on to win the game, 7-1.

Dykstra wasn’t exactly the only wild, crazy, and reckless dude on the notorious 1986 Mets, whose clean contingent membership might be countable on one hand. The bad news further is that he is threatening a future day of reckoning for those Mets he swears done him dirty. (When you [fornicate] with Nails, you get the [fornicating] hammer, you hear me?)

The Mets may not have been innocent, and Dykstra may be trying to remake and remodel his life at last.** But Dykstra making a threat like that may yet prove pot calling out kettle. “Careless” may be the best way to describe Dykstra when all is said and done. Carelessness carries its own stains and inflicts them upon more than just the careless.

Ron Darling may have misremembered Dykstra pre-Game Three, but he didn’t write the overall script that made Dykstra legally libel-proof. And, very much to my regret, I’d forgotten Pearlman’s Game Three descriptions when sitting down to write on Monday.

At the very least, it appears that neither Dykstra nor any other Met played race cards trying to rattle Oil Can Boyd, unless you think a mere juvenile play on his nickname carries more sinister undertones. I owe it to Dykstra (and to you, gentle readers—all ten of you) to say that much, at least.

———————

* In House of Nails, Dykstra revealed he spent six figures to hire private investigators to dig into umpires’ lives and used embarrassing information thus exhumed to convince umpires to give him more favourable pitch calls at the plate. In 1992-93, as a Phillie, when he said he began using such expensively gathered intelligence, Dykstra saw a 6.5 point spike in his rate of bases on balls.

An analysis of whether Dykstra could have been held legally liable for such efforts and acts appears at FanGraphs, by Sheryl Ring.

** Dykstra told a story in House of Nails that I hope to God is true: When his youngest son turned eighteen, his baseball pension reverted to him under the terms of his divorce agreement. It amounted to $6,000 a month, money Dykstra certainly could have used considering his notorious business collapse.

Dykstra wrote that he thought about it hard, then called for and received legal documents to sign ordering the money to continue going to his former wife, Terri, for the rest of her life. “Why should she be penalised for my transgressions?” he wrote. “She did not contribute to my downfall . . . She’s a wonderful person who certainly did not deserve the fallout caused by my actions.”

If that’s true, it indicates that even Dykstra is not beyond redemption.

 

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