Dykstra’s race cards, clarified

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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.


Bill Buckner, RIP: The injustice of it all

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Bill Buckner with Mookie Wilson: bound by the Grounder Heard ‘Round the World, the two struck up a genuine friendship in the years that followed.

Bill Buckner tried to continue living in Massachussetts after his playing career ended. Then, playing catch with the youngest of his three children one fine day, the boy threw one back to his father and the old man missed it.

“That’s ok, Dad,” the boy is said to have told him. “I know you have trouble with grounders.”

Buckner couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. Especially since the boy was born two years after Buckner’s hour of infamy in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. The kid had heard only too much about his father’s unintended mishap, and Buckner finally had enough.

An outdoorsman at heart, Buckner packed up his family and moved to Idaho, where the former first baseman dabbled in real estate, ranching, and auto dealership. He died today at 69 after a fight with Lewy body dementia, one of the most grotesque dementia variants, and long after he finally made peace with Red Sox Nation.

It was a peace he shouldn’t have had to make in the first place.

Forget that Buckner shouldn’t even have been kept in Game Six when it went to the bottom of the tenth with the Red Sox leading. Forget that the Red Sox at one point came down to one strike away from winning that Series. Forget everything except the one thing one man above all others on the field or in Shea Stadium that night remembered.

“Hey,” Buckner consoled himself as he walked off the field after Mets third baseman Ray Knight shot home with the winning run. “We get to play the seventh game of the World Series.”

And, forget for now the absolute best case scenario for the Red Sox if the ball didn’t skip past but hop into Buckner’s downward-extended mitt. Wilson had the play beaten at first. Buckner played back far enough that even on healthy ankles he couldn’t have outraced Wilson to the pad. Pitcher Bob Stanley running over to cover on the play was behind Wilson at least a full stride.

It would have been first and third and Howard Johnson—a switch hitter on the threshold of becoming one of the National League’s home run kings—coming up to bat. And the Mets might still have forced a seventh game.

Forget all that for now. As Thomas Boswell wrote indignantly enough after the eventual suicide of another 1986 postseason goat, Angels relief pitcher Donnie Moore, who’d unintentionally helped the Red Sox reach that Series in the first place, “what some people are saying, and many are thinking, is that this ‘goat’ business isn’t funny anymore.”

Moore threw Dave Henderson a nasty forkball with the Angels a strike away from going to the ’86 Series. Henderson somehow sent it over the left field fence to tie a game the star-crossed Angels lost in extra innings. Buckner’s misfortune happened to be failing while doing his best with what he had in the uniform of a team even more so star-crossed, then and for years yet to remain, that Peter Gammons waxed thus in a Sports Illustrated essay, “Living and Dying with the Woe Sox,” published 3 November 1986:

[W]hen the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs, 41 years of Red Sox baseball flashed in front of my eyes. In that one moment, Johnny Pesky held the ball, Joe McCarthy lifted Ellis Kinder in Yankee Stadium, Luis Aparicio fell down rounding third, Bill Lee delivered his Leephus pitch to Tony Perez, Darrell Johnson hit for Jim Willoughby, Don Zimmer chose Bobby Sprowl over Luis Tiant, and Bucky (Bleeping) Dent hit the home run.

Boswell conferred eventual absolution upon Buckner, his manager John McNamara, plus Tom Niedenfeuer, Don Denkinger, Pesky, Gene Mauch, the 1964 Phillies, the 1978 Red Sox, the 1987 Blue Jays, “and every Cub since World War II” as well as Moore:

You, and countless others who get branded as “goats” in sports, didn’t do anything wrong. We know it, though we almost never say it. Just once, let’s put it in words: The reason we don’t forgive you is because there’s nothing to forgive in the first place. You tried your best and failed. In games, there’s a law that says somebody has to lose.

Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.

Whomever were the unknown Red Sox fans who told Bill Buckner’s kid his old man had a little trouble with grounders probably didn’t know and couldn’t have cared less about the toll such a public failure takes on a man who’d been a solid major league player for sixteen seasons through that World Series, with 2,464 major league hits to that point, not to mention a reputation as a student of the game.

Buckner may have been crazy to even think about playing with his ankles turned to cardboard as they were that fall (commentators waxed almost daily about the special high-top shoes he wore all postseason long), but others admired his courage for even thinking about it, never mind trying. Until he ambled over trying to field Wilson’s roller up toward first, bent down, and watched in horror as the ball skipped through his feet.

Never mind that after rain delayed Game Seven by a day, Red Sox lefthander Bruce Hurst continued his mastery of the Mets until the middle of the game, when—after Sid Fernandez worked two and a third relief innings and shut the Red Sox down cold in those innings—Keith Hernandez shot a pair of runs home and Gary Carter sent the tying run home to end the night for Hurst who finally ran out of fuel.

Never mind Ray Knight leading off the bottom of the seventh with a line homer and two more coming in. Never mind the Red Sox clawing back to within a run before Darryl Strawberry provided a much-needed insurance run with a leadoff skyrocket in the bottom of the eighth, or Jesse Orosco’s faked bunt sending a six-hop single up the middle to send home the eighth and final Met run. Or Orosco striking out Marty Barrett to end the Series.

For years to come it was all Buckner’s fault. Well, maybe it was manager McNamara’s fault, for letting sentiment overrule baseball and letting Buckner go back out to the field to have his warrior there when the Red Sox won it, instead of making his usual move and sending Dave Stapleton out for defense.

Almost three decades later a Mets manager, Terry Collins, let sentiment overrule baseball and let a gassed Matt Harvey go out to try to finish the Game Five shutout he’d started in the 2015 World Series. It cost the Mets a chance to send a World Series to a sixth game. But Collins owned the mistake, and still does. McNamara didn’t own it in 1986, and he still may not own it now.

Buckner once watched history made on his dime, sort of, being in left field for the Dodgers and running futilely to the track when Henry Aaron sent Al Downing’s service into the left field bullpen to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. In the 1986 World Series Buckner made the kind of history nobody wants to make and nobody tries to make.

If it happened in another uniform (except maybe the Cubs’, and possibly the Phillies’), he probably wouldn’t have suffered a sliver of the slings and arrows fired his way afterward. “When that ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan, “hundreds of thousands of people did not just view that as an error, they viewed that as something he had done to them personally.”

Buckner couldn’t bring himself to be part of the festivities when the Red Sox chose to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1986 pennant winner. But on Opening Day 2008, after the Red Sox won the second of their (so far) four 21st Century World Series, there was Buckner, walking out from under a huge American flag hanging over the Green Monster.

He had tears in his eyes when he walked to the mound and threw out a ceremonial first pitch to his old Red Sox teammate Dwight Evans. “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media,” Buckner told reporters later. “For what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.”

Not long before that, Buckner paid a visit to Shea Stadium. He spotted Mookie Wilson, then a Mets coach, on the field and hailed him. “Mookie,” Buckner called out puckishly, “what do you say you hit me some grounders?” Wilson, the human antidepressant, laughed heartily. Buckner’s face split into a mischievous grin. That must have been the same grin Buckner must been tempted to flash when he hit his final major league home run against the Angels, in Fenway Park as a returning Red Sox, on 25 April 1990.

It was an inside-the-park homer.

When Ralph Branca threw the pitch Bobby Thomson hit into the lower deck to win a pennant for the tainted (we now know) 1951 Giants at the end of a contentious three-game playoff, his family priest told the inconsolable Branca that God chose him to carry the burden because He knew Branca was made of stronger stuff. And he was.

“I lost a ballgame but I gained a friend,” Branca once said of Thomson and the friendship that would be soiled only when it was finally revealed, and proven, that Giants manager Leo Durocher did indeed implement a technological sign-stealing scheme to help the Giants deliver their staggering 1951 pennant race comeback.

Buckner and Wilson forged such a friendship, too, even as the pair frequently signed copies of photographs showing the ill-fated play, signings that are said to have been as therapeutic to Buckner as was moving to Idaho. They proved better men than the fools who wanted to make Buckner baseball’s Cain.

“Bill and I have become very, very close,” Wilson told a Philadelphia radio station a few years ago. “We’re really the best of friends. As good a friend as you can have . . . I think I’ve learned more about Bill since both of us have gotten out of the game . . . He is a great, great person. We enjoy each other’s company and we have a lot in common, a lot more than you would think. And it’s just been great.”

Someone should have told Buckner what Branca’s priest once told him. It might have given Buckner a little extra armour against the worst elements of Red Sox Nation and other baseball fans, and even writers. May the Lord accept Buckner into His embrace and grant him in the Elysian Fields the peace he wasn’t always allowed after the grounder heard ’round the world.