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.

 

Phillies say phooey to ’93 Series Game Six

2020-04-10 MitchWilliams

Mitch Williams didn’t run and hide after surrendering the 1993 World Series-losing home run. The Phillies threw him under the proverbial bus anyway.

One of the devices by which baseball’s keeping itself alive during the coronavirus shutdown is assorted networks, YouTube, and Twitter linking to classic games. Allowing that “classic” is in the eye of the beholder a little more often than in the eye of history, you were probably right if you thought at least a few such games might anger more than amuse.

The Phillies aren’t amused that Major League Baseball itself tweeted Game Six of the 1993 World Series. Nobody likes to remember their World Series ending with the humiliation of the other guys’ home run sending those guys to the Promised Land, of course. But there’s a little more to that story than just the Blue Jays’s Joe Carter ruining closer Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams and the Phillies that night.

“Oh, not to be Mitch Williams, now that winter’s here,” Thomas Boswell wrote in a Washington Post column republished in Cracking the Show. “For the rest of us, it’s still autumn. But winter came early for Wild Thing . . . does baseball have eighteen goats to match Williams? . . . When the bullpen phone rang with the Phils leading, 6-5, when Williams saw the top of the gaudiest lineup in baseball awaiting him to begin the ninth, did he want to plead nolo contendere?”

Actually, Williams didn’t want to plead any such thing.

The Wild Thing had to deal with death threats over his blown save in Game Four (the Jays won the game 15-14) reaching him as he arrived home from Veterans Stadium. First he admitted he was terrified enough to spend a sleepless night holding his shotgun. Then he he rejected thoughts of handing the closing role to someone else: “No one’s going to scare me that much,” he answered when asked. “No one will make me hide.”

Nobody did, in fact. Not even after he walked Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson to open the bottom of the ninth with the Phillies up a run and three outs from forcing a seventh game. Not even when pitching coach Johnny Podres visited him on the mound and urged him to use a slide step delivery, instead of his normal, right knee bent to his shoulder leg kick, in a bid to keep the Man of Steal from grand theft second base.

Not even after getting Devon White out on a fly to left, a base hit from Hall of Famer Paul Molitor sending Henderson to third, and Carter checking in at the plate—with yet another Hall of Famer, Roberto Alomar, on deck. Not even when Williams stayed with his pitching coach’s suggestion despite its alteration of his delivery and threw Carter a 2-1 fastball when he had Carter, a low-ball hitter, thinking breaking ball.

“The only reason I hit it fair,” Carter eventually said, “was because I was looking for a breaking ball the whole time. I wasn’t way out in front of the ball. I guarantee you, if I was looking fastball, I would’ve swung and missed or hit a foul ball.” He swung instead into Toronto lore, his three-run homer nailing the Blue Jays’ second straight Series win and hammering Williams into Philadelphia infamy.

Not even facing the press gamely and answering every last question sent to him, however stupid or careless, saved the Wild Thing. “Ain’t nobody on the face of this earth who feels worse than I do about what happened,” he said straight, no chaser. “But there are no excuses. I just didn’t get the job done. I threw a fastball down and in. It was a bad pitch. I’ll have to deal with it.”

In due course, Williams gave the real breakdown. “I knew I made a mistake,” he’d say in due course. “That fastball was down and in, right in Carter’s nitro zone. I wanted to throw it up and away, which I could’ve done if I’d gone with my full leg kick. But the slide step altered my delivery and I ended up rushing the pitch.”

2020-04-10 JoeCarterMitchWilliams

Williams walks off the field after Carter (29) begins his romp around the bases. The pair have since become friends and often autograph this photo together.

Williams’s teammates had his back—at first. “We wouldn’t have been here if it wasn’t for Mitch,” said first baseman John Kruk. “He’s not afraid to take the ball and I like a guy like that on my team,” said center fielder Lenny Dykstra, who might have had the 1993 World Series MVP to put on his mantel (or, all future things considered, put up for sale on eBay) if it hadn’t been for Carter.

Phillies historian William C. Kashatus wrote Macho Row about the ’93 Philthy Phillies, particularly a contingency within the team who lived by their own Code (the upper-case C is Kashatus’s) of solidarity inside and insularity from the outside. Clockwise the cover showed Kruk, Dave Hollins, Darren Daulton, Williams, and Dykstra. It took the figurative equivalent of five minutes after the Phillies finally left Toronto after the Series loss for someone to throw Williams under the proverbial bus.

Actually two someones. Both Dykstra and pitching star Curt Schilling—whose gutsy Game Five shutout got the Phillies as far as to Game Six in the first place—talked to the press showing “concern that Mitch Williams not return to the Phillies” after the Carter bomb, Kashatus wrote. “I love the guy,” said Dykstra. “He’s a great competitor and I’m sure he wants to pitch here again, but for his sake I hope he doesn’t have to . . . he’ll probably never be able to pitch in Philly again.”

That was mild compared to Schilling, who’d made a few World Series waves by sitting on the bench with a towel over his head whenever Williams came into a game and now suggested trading the Wild Thing would be a positive.

“What if we win and go to the postseason again next year?” Schilling asked, then answered. “We’d still be going in with the mentality of ‘Can he do it?’ Mitch was tired at the end of the season. It was a question of whether he was able to. Mitch gave his all every time out there, but, in the big leagues, it’s not a matter of giving everything and wanting the ball. It’s a matter of success.”

Nobody, of course, thought even once to question Podres’s judgment in urging Williams to the slide step delivery even with Henderson on the bases ready to commit high crime at the first known opening. Once a Brooklyn hero for beating the Yankees twice to win the only World Series the Dodgers ever won as the Brooklyn Dodgers, Podres served three more seasons as the Phillies’ pitching coach.

If Podres couldn’t make a second mound visit, the rule being a second visit by either coach or manager meaning the incumbent pitcher having to leave, why couldn’t he send Williams a sign to take the slide step off? Even with Henderson on second?

What’s the worst that could happen from there with the slide step taken off—Carter not missing, not fouling, but maybe hitting a soft fly ball on which even Henderson might not score, maybe even whacking into a game-ending double play that forces Game Seven?

Dykstra and Schilling may have insisted as Kashatus wrote, that Williams not take it personally, but then Williams did indeed get traded, to the Astros early that December. He fumed particularly over Schilling’s remarks at first, the two trading insults for a spell until Williams’s career hit the pit in Houston, Anaheim, and Arlington to follow before he retired.

Come 2008, Dykstra gave a radio interview in which he called Williams a barrel-finding joke. It prompted Williams to talk to the same station the following morning and call Dykstra “the most common sense-void person I’ve ever met in my life. He’s a savant with a bat in his hand. You could have a better conversation with a tree.”

Williams even predicted Dykstra’s long-infamous Players Club venture, giving financial advice to professional athletes, would collapse. Which is exactly what happened, along with enough other financial improprieties including bankruptcy fraud to send Dykstra to the calaboose in disgrace.

Not that it taped Dykstra’s mouth shut when it came to Williams. At a 2015 comedy roast, Dykstra told Williams, “Prison was a [fornicating] fantasy camp compared to playing behind you.” Williams wasn’t exactly caught unprepared, retorting that the only real reason Dykstra still burned over the Carter home run was because it cost Dykstra that ’93 Series MVP.

Schilling ended up going from Philadelphia to become a postseason legend in Arizona and Boston, a qualified Hall of Famer who throve when the games were the biggest, until a combination of his 38 Studios’s collapse and his tendency toward political opinions delivered with threatening tones sank his public image.

The harshest part of that isn’t just that Schilling hasn’t been elected to Cooperstown but that he also caused his parallel reputation for philanthropy to become ignored or at least bypassed. He was fired as an ESPN baseball analyst at a time when he needed the income badly enough after the 38 Studios debacle for which he never shirked responsibility.

Compared to all that, Williams’s life became something of a rose garden for a long enough time. His first marriage collapsed but he’d remarried in 1993. He became a Philadelphia baseball broadcaster who attracted MLB Network into hiring him as an analyst.

Then came an incident while he was coaching one of his son’s youth baseball team’s games. A dispute with an umpire, an accusation that he’d ordered a pitcher to throw at a batter, and another claiming he called an opposing player a feline euphemism for a certain part of the female anatomy. MLB Network fired him when he refused to sign a deal barring him from those games.

Williams sued MLB Network over the firing and Deadspin‘s parent Gawker Media for defamation, and eventually won a $1.5 million settlement in 2017. The Wild Thing couldn’t resist a tweet: “To all of the people that have wondered where I have been for 3 years.today that answer was provided by a court of law#justice.”

He never bought the Phillies saying they traded him to the Astros because they “thought the fans would crucify me the next year. But they underestimated me. They didn’t understand that the fans appreciated that I didn’t run and hide after the World Series or during the off-season. The fans knew I was a guy who fit into their city. They knew that every day I walked out there I gave everything I had.”

That standing ovation with which the Veterans Stadium crowd hit Williams when he returned as an Astro in an interleague game proved it.

A decade before Williams won that settlement, the Mitchell Report and other documents named Dykstra, fellow Macho Rowers Pete Incaviglia, Hollins, and reserve catcher Todd Pratt as using or being connected to actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. “If someone was using steroids on that team,” Kruk insisted, “they were awfully quiet about it. And we talked about everything on that club.”

Speculation abounded, too, about regular catcher Daulton, who eventually admitted during his battle with brain cancer, “Anything I did in the past is my fault. Not my ex-wives’ fault, nor any of my kids’ faults, not baseball, not the media—me, my fault—I did the damage.”

There are indeed reasons why the Phillies today might not be amused to be reminded of Game Six of that ’93 Series. Reasons having almost nothing to do with the standup pitcher who shook off a sleepless, death-threatened night, listened to his pitching coach once too often, and didn’t look for the nearest hideout after one pitch meant disaster.

The guy who’s since forged a pleasant friendship with the man who destroyed his 2-1  fastball and the hope of a Game Seven. The guy to whom Phillies fans gave that standing O his first time back to Philadelphia because he was maybe the only stand-up man in the crowd.

Who’d have thought, when all was said and done, that the Wild Thing was the ’93 Phillie who had the least amount of splainin’ to do?