I’m a lifelong New York Mets fan. Outside of Tug McGraw, the screwball-throwing reliever who was the heart and soul of the Ya Gotta Believe ’73 team, Lenny is my favorite all-time Met. On an ’86 team loaded with stars (Strawberry, Gooden, Carter, Hernandez, Darling), it was his scrappy play and clutch post-season hitting that was instrumental in winning the World Series. And yes, in typical Mets fashion, they traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies.
When it came to sizing up ballplayers and game strategy, Lenny was brilliant. Off the diamond however, maybe not so much. I still remember how he tried to pick up vee-jay Martha Quinn when being interviewed on MTV. He lived life recklessly, famously wrecking a Mercedes in a drunk driving accident after John Kruk’s 1991 bachelor party—in the process nearly killing himself and catcher Darren Daulton. He turned State’s witness in a case against a Mississippi gambling emporium, but his Atlantic City gambling escapades were legendary. Rumors of recreational and performance-enhancing drug use dogged him throughout his career. After Phillies’ losses, he sulked alone at bars.
Like many people, I assumed he was a “dumb jock” (an unfortunate stereotype), so I was shocked to learn in a March 2008 New Yorker article that he had made it big in the business and financial worlds. He had opened a chain of high-end car washes in California, which he leveraged into a fortune that was ultimately pegged at $58 million.
Sixteen months later, in July 2009, Lenny filed for bankruptcy. His petition for bankruptcy protection indicated he was $50 million in debt. The guy was supposed to be a financial genius—but do the math: could one guy really blow through $100 million so fast?
A July 9 2009 CNBC interview was even more shocking: for eighteen minutes, he rambled and mumbled—at times coherently, other times not. To my untrained eye, he appeared to be under the influence. Though he readily acknowledged agreeing to the very dubious financial arrangement that led to his bankruptcy, he appeared to believe himself a victim of some vast conspiracy to rid Lenny of his wealth.
Okay. So being the putz that I am, I sent Lenny an email advising him to seek help. Therapeutic help. I told him about an alcoholic family member whose life became “so much calmer, better, after he tried going sober.”
At the end of the email I wrote,
“If you're still reading this, you're probably thinking, [screw] this guy named Kocz. But I sincerely wish you the best.”
Much to my surprise, he wrote back a nice email thanking me for my concern.
Lenny’s life fell apart during 2009. His wife divorced him. He was forced to vacate his residence. Car dealerships repo’d his rides. Player’s Club, the magazine he was launching, went under—which was a shame, because it featured some of the very best photographic printing I’ve ever seen in a magazine. Friends and family disowned him. Suing Lenny became a cottage industry, as did writing about his troubles.
I became obsessed with Lenny Dykstra. No, I didn’t stalk him, but I read everything I could find about him. I read hundreds if not thousands of newspaper, magazine, and internet articles about him. And I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of pages of legal filings related to the lawsuits that, like fleas to an old mutt, leap up wherever he goes. I tracked down old friends of his to ask their recollections. And beat baseball reporters.
And I contacted Lenny again.
You would think that a gregarious jock would have had lots of friends in high school, but Lenny was baseball obsessed, to the point where he’d practice for six hours each day. The story goes that he only had one friend in high school—and that was because he needed someone to play catch with.
[Lenny later hooked that friend up with a job in one of his car washes—and when he caught that friend stealing from him, he fired him.]
I once asked Lenny, via email, if the story about having only one friend was true.
In typical jock fashion, he wrote back, “YES, AND I STILL HAVE ONLY ONE FRIEND - MY RIGHT HAND.”
Who but Lenny emails in boldface CAPS?
My response was equally crude: “I thought you were left-handed ;)”
I got to admit, it was pretty cool emailing cracks and whatnot with Lenny. He’s one of those over-sized glammed up and game Americans I wrote about last week whose life seems too fantastical to be real. In 1983, the Lynchburg Mets (then the New York Mets’ A-level minor league farm team) played an exhibition game in Shea Stadium. Lenny hits a homerun his first time at bat. Can you imagine? He’s in the low minor leagues, far removed from big league attention, yet his very first at bat in the ballpark where he would become famous is a dinger! Is that uncanny or what?
As a fiction writer, I struggled philosophically with how to come to grips with a phenomenon such as Lenny Dykstra. When one begins writing fiction, one is inevitably cautioned against creating over-sized characters for fear that readers will find them too fantastic to be believed. Imagine writing about that Shea homerun. Would it seem schmaltzy? sentimental? Would readers believe it?
More than anything else, I think this fear of not being believed is why so much contemporary literary fiction is “small.” “Small” as in featuring more under-sized characters than over-sized Dudes.
Last year I started writing about Lenny, creating a (very) thinly veiled roman à clef centered around the Lenny-like character’s purchase of an over-sized mansion that would be his undoing. At the time, I was in-between projects. An agent had agreed to represent another novel I had written and, while I waited for her suggestions on revisions for that novel, I wrote about 12,000 words of Lenny. And I swear, that work was really fun. Then my agent got back to me about the previous novel, and I abandoned Lenny to work on three successive rounds of revisions.
It wasn’t just the revisions that got in the way of the Lenny project. I struggled with how far to stray from real events. More problematic was how I should portray the Lenny-like character—if you believe even a tenth of what’s written on the internet about Lenny, you begin to understand that he might have some very unsavory moral and ethical issues. Could I risk creating a more sympathetic character than the real-life Lenny might be?
Until I got that email last week hitting me up for money, I hadn’t heard from Lenny in thirteen months. Last year, his emails were boastful. He told me how he was going to “shock the house” and prevail in his many legal battles. He would be on top again, “... so just remember: NAILS NEVER FAILS!”
(Again: what’s with the boldface caps? and the itals?)
The tone in last week’s email* was, uh, more subdued. If he were to be released on bail while awaiting trial, he’d likely have to wear an ankle monitor. He’d be confined to a substance-abuse rehabilitation center to receive treatment for unspecified issues. It would be a better place for him, the email said.
It’s hard to believe it takes some people so long to hit bottom, isn’t it?
No, I haven’t responded to the email. If you believe even a tenth of what you read on the internet about Lenny, he used to bet a couple thousand dollars each time he’d go golfing with teammates—and keep in mind, he was a notoriously poor golfer. Right now, raising three children, things are a bit tight for us. A couple of thousand dollars would pay for a month’s rent, insurance, food, and gas money—well, maybe not the gas given how prices keep going up and up.
The email prompted me to look again at what I wrote about Lenny, and I was surprised to see much of it was very good. I sent a chunk off to one journal hoping they might run it as a story. Who knows?
The first novel (which has nothing to do with Lenny) is now on submission with various editors. Yesterday, I emailed the first 55 pages of a new project to my agent. My goal is to finish a draft of this new novel by early/mid-September. Maybe then, after this new project is done, I’ll go back to the Lenny novel. For what it’s worth, here’s how it began:
He has trouble sitting in place for longer than ten minutes. Two hours in a movie theater is an excruciatingly painful experience, no matter how funny the movie. No amount of popcorn, heavily buttered, can lighten his mood. Because of his incredible caffeine intake—most days, he drinks six or more liters of Coca-Cola—he is forever running off to go to the bathroom.
When he speaks, thoughts collide.
He will start off talking about his stock winnings for the day, for he is a day trader who monitors the market closely. The slightest uptick will cause him to spasm at his keyboard. Yet in conversation he can not for long maintain his focus. He will quote Warren Buffet, the Omaha investor justly noted for his financial wisdom (“Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful”), which will cause him to reminisce about baseball or the pepperoni pizza and cheese fries that he devoured for lunch. At a certain point he will inevitably remember that he is twenty minutes late for a very important meeting (and make no mistake: all his meetings are very important). If a laptop is handy, he will stream videos of himself for visitors while simultaneously toggling to check his email account.
“But, ‘bro, those cheese spuds were fucking awesome. We’re talking serious cheddar.”
His credit card-sized RAZR, on which he receives personal calls, will ring. Though he employs a variety of ringtones—most drawn from 1980s pop songs—to identify the callers, he will nonetheless inspect his RAZR to further assess the caller’s identification. And then, without answering it, will slip his RAZR back into his pocket and say, “Wow, I can’t believe that loser’s still calling me.”
Slight in frame but pudgier now, he no longer resembles a man with an athletic past. He slouches and, from certain angles, can be mistaken for a hunchback. No razor or—from the looks of his unkempt hair—shampoo has touched him for maybe five days. Most times, his speech is hard to discern, for he speaks quietly and often in a mumble. When he was younger, he had a speech impediment. A lisp. Kids would laugh at him because of this lisp. He could not shake that lisp. Kids called him names because of his lisp—they were not the sort of names that an adolescent boy with heterosexual inclinations would want to be called. When teachers called on him to answer questions in class, he spoke quietly so as to not call attention to his lisp. Garbling his words became another way to mask his speech impediment. That lisp is gone now, but the garble remains.
He will pop open another Coca-Cola, guzzle it. Then he will excuse himself to go to the can, and when he returns moments later, will appear more jittery than before. His head will bob as if to the beat of a song that only he can hear. His right eyelid suffers from an involuntary twitch, such that it appears he is winking at you for no discernible reason.
It’s not that bad. I ought to switch it to past tense though—250+ pages of present-tense might be a little too much. Or maybe I should just put everything in BOLDFACE CAPS, huh?
*Actually, the email was sent by “Dorothy Van Kalsbeek for Lenny Dykstra” (Van Kalsbeek is Lenny’s longtime personal assistant and book keeper), but it came from Lenny’s personal email address. I guess Lenny couldn’t send it personally, with, what, being on lock-down and all.