Orange County’s Lenny ‘Nails’ Dykstra went from being a wealthy, audacious baseball superstar to a flat-broke con man and clumsy sexual predator. How did it come to this?
by Patrick J. Kiger / illustrations by Jeffrey Smith
Early last year, twenty something Ohio State grad Aaron Plaat moved to California and landed a job that seemed like a dream come true: chauffeur and assistant to former Major League Baseball superstar and Garden Grove native Lenny “Nails” Dykstra.
“He really was looking not just for a driver, but for a right-hand man,” Platt recalls. “He had a lot of things going on, a couple of companies he was working on, meetings with lawyers, a lot of errands.”
What the former New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies center fielder-turned-wheeler-dealer didn’t have, oddly, was a fixed address. He was in the throes of a divorce and a 2009 bankruptcy that had cost him the $17.5 million mansion he’d purchased from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky.
Each morning around 7, Plaat would pick up Dykstra at a Los Angeles-area hotel or wherever he’d camped out the previous evening. That was another odd thing about Nails. He didn’t have a car, at least one for which he had title. For a guy who just a few years ago had listed his personal wealth at nearly $60 million and leased a Maybach worth more than a starter home, he couldn’t afford a rental. So Plaat obligingly paid for a rented Cadillac out of his own pocket.
All day, and late into the night, Platt would drive Dykstra around. Nails didn’t have an office, so he did all his business in the back seat, talking on his cellphone and pecking away on a laptop with a cellular modem. A few times, they stopped at the Beverly Hills home of actor Charlie Sheen; Dykstra had boasted on a radio show that he was helping Sheen with his “locker-room rap” for a sequel to the 1989 film “Major League,” and one of his business associates also was trying to market an electronic cigarette called the “Nico-Sheen.” But Sheen never actually invited his old buddy in.
He also recalls that, although Dykstra wasn’t in the same shape as he’d been in his playing days of the 1980s and ’90s, he still had the same frenetic drive of his youth. “For as little sleep as he got, he was full of energy,” the driver says. “He still carried himself like a champ.”
Sometimes, when Dykstra wasn’t preoccupied with work, they’d hang out, and the athlete-entrepreneur would share his accumulated wisdom. “I learned about the way Lenny conducts business,” Plaat says. “He told me, ‘Go whale hunting. Don’t go for small deals.’ He never did anything small.”
Turns out, Nails dispensed those bits of wisdom in lieu of a salary, and after a few months, Platt reluctantly parted ways with his mentor. He was as shocked as anyone when Dykstra was arrested soon after. “When I read that article about him holding a knife on that woman … well, let’s just say that’s not the Lenny I knew.”
A year after Platt took the job,the 49-year-old Dykstra was awaiting sentencing in a Los Angeles courtroom, in March 2012, after pleading no contest to multiple state charges of grand theft auto and filing a false statement in a scheme to use fake paperwork, straw-man purchasers, and identity theft to obtain luxury cars. His puffy face and body were a shock to anyone who remembers the lean, sinewy 1986 World Series hero for the Mets who posed bare-chested for a poster that undoubtedly adorned the bedroom walls of many Queens schoolgirls.
Back then, he was a fearless player who, despite his unimposing stature, became a larger-than-life legend when the game was on the line, sacrificing his body to make spectacular plays and summoning an almost preternatural power to slam home runs.
But that was then. In a rambling plea for leniency, Dykstra said he was in drug rehab, and apologized to Terri, the woman who divorced him after 23 years, and to their two sons, Cutter, 22, and Luke, 16, both up-and-coming baseball players themselves. “I’m doing everything in my power to be a better person,” he said. While he admitted he’d done things he wasn’t proud of, he maintained that he wasn’t the monster he was made out to be: “Am I a criminal? No.”
Judge Cynthia L. Ulfig, who rejected Dykstra’s last-minute move to withdraw his no-contest plea, was unimpressed. “Mr. Dykstra might not believe he is a criminal, but his actions have been criminal,” she said, sentencing him to three years in prison. He was immediately taken into custody and sent to the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
An additional nine-month sentence was tacked onto his prison time in April after he pleaded no contest to lewd conduct and assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors said he’d run a Craigslist ad seeking a housekeeper and forced a series of women who’d answered it to massage him. As part of the plea, he was barred from using social-networking sites.
Dykstra, who did not respond to a written request for an interview, also faces a far more serious risk in a federal trial for bankruptcy fraud, obstruction of justice, and other charges. It was scheduled to begin June 5, after this magazine went to print. If found guilty of the federal charges, Dykstra could be sentenced to up to 80 years in prison.
It’s a brutal tumble for a man who had it all. In New York, where he once was the toast of the town, tabloid headline writers now ridicule him as “Lienny” Dykstra,a reference to the army of creditors who reduced his two mansions, his private jet, and even his 1986 World Series ring to vanished memories. Dykstra not only managed to squander his fortune, but also his athletic fame, and the public and media good will that he worked so hard to earn with his fearless persistence and baseball prowess. Where he once seemed destined for Coopers-
town, he’s now descended instead to a subterranean pantheon, a hall of shame for once-great athletes now known mostly for their debauchery, rule-breaking, and criminal records. Dykstra became an inept con artist and, late in his downward arc, an equally clumsy sexual predator. Arguably, he did as much damage to himself as he did to the victims of his swindles, possibly more.
But how does a man who had such great gifts, so much potential, and so many opportunities, end up like this? How much of it is his fault—and how much of it is ours?
Dykstra was the adopted son of a telephone company worker, a working-class kid who shared a room with brothers Brian and Kevin. But he always wanted something grander. “I wanted to be rich, even though I didn’t know what that meant,” he told The New Yorker in 2008, when he was riding high. “I grew up in a shit hole—Garbage Grove, that’s what it was.”
While Dykstra has little love for his hometown, he respected his dad, whom he once described as “the biggest influence in my life.” According to various newspaper accounts, the late Dennis Dykstra coached him in the Elks Park Little League, persuaded him to become a center fielder instead of a pitcher, and taught him to play hard. Not that young Lenny needed much urging. He was so intense about the game that he had a friend throw pingpong balls at him so he could track their rotation with his eyes. Dykstra figured that if he could do it with those tiny orbs, a baseball would look huge by comparison.
Like many kids growing up in 1970s Orange County, he slept beneath a Nolan Ryan poster, and idolized slugger Rod Carew. But unlike the others, Lenny—who was the best player at Garden Grove High from his sophomore year on and who played on three teams each summer—wasn’t satisfied just to daydream about being an Angel. It would be a few years before he would receive his nickname, “Nails,” for his toughness and intensity, but even then he had too much audacity to wait for gratification.
One Christmas Day, when Dykstra figured the ballpark’s security guards were taking a holiday, he and a few friends grabbed balls, bats, and gloves, drove to Anaheim, and jumped the fence for a little impromptu batting practice.
“The grass was so nice, even in the winter,” Dykstra later recalled in a ghostwritten 1987 memoir, “Nails: The Inside Story of an Amazin’ Season.” “I was never on a field like that before.” But the part he liked best was slamming his body into the padded outfield fence—“just like Fred Lynn,” the star Boston Red Sox center fielder who would play for the Angels in the early 1980s.
Dykstra’s baseball reverie was interrupted by an amplified voice from a police helicopter. He and his friends grabbed their gloves and scattered, leaving the balls and bats behind. Almost all of them were caught, but Dykstra hid in some bushes and got away.
At Garden Grove High, Dykstra was so obsessed with baseball that he wore his uniform to class, and had to be chased off the field at the end of practice, his coach, Don Drake, recalled in 1990. He was so intense that he’d try to beat the pitching machine, crowding closer and closer to it until he was whacking balls from 20 feet away. “People were always telling him, ‘You’re too short to do this, you’re too short to do that,’ ” Drake explained. “And that just pressed a little button in him.” Other jocks might have partied a little, but Dykstra was a straight arrow. “It was like I thought of only one thing,” Dykstra recalls in his 1987 memoir. “Mr. One-Dimensional. Baseball and only baseball.” He played football, too, but mostly used it as an outlet for his inner rage. “I loved giving cheap shots,” he wrote. “I used to tackle the ball carrier, then get on the bottom of the pile and twist his ankle. Make him hurt.”
Dykstra signed a letter of intent to play for Arizona State, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I wasn’t really smart,” he wrote. What he really wanted to do was turn pro. The problem: He was a Doberman in a Chihuahua’s body—plenty ferocious, but easy to dismiss as all bark. Just before the 1980 draft, he was invited with other Southern California prospects to a showcase workout, where Mets scout Harry Minor mistook him for a ball boy.
He’d yearned all his life to play for the Angels, but on draft day, the team ignored him. In the end, Dykstra had to endure waiting until the 13th round, when the Mets selected him 315th as an afterthought. As his brother Brian later recalled to a reporter, young Nails was livid. “ ‘Fuck the Angels.’ That was his attitude from that day forward.”
When the Mets called Dykstra up from the minors in May 1985, he proved the scouts wrong. In Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball,” baseball front-office whiz Billy Beane, who came up through the minors with Dykstra and played with him briefly, recalls Dykstra’s off-the-charts self-confidence. Once, before a game, the two players watched the opposing pitcher warm up. “Lenny says, ‘Who’s that big dumb ass out there on the hill?’ And I say, ‘Lenny, you’re kidding me, right? That’s Steve Carlton. He’s maybe the greatest left-hander in the history of the game.’ ” Dykstra was unfazed. “I’ll stick him,” he said, with zero fear of Carlton’s 100-mph fastball. To Beane, Dykstra was a “psychological freak” with no concept of failure, who was “perfectly designed, emotionally, to play the game of baseball.”
Originally envisioned as a backup, Dykstra eventually pushed out the ailing Mookie Wilson and became the Mets’ regular center fielder. In a sport that’s endlessly overanalyzed, Dykstra’s blithe disregard for nuances was a breath of fresh air. “I pretty much see it and hit it,” he once explained to a reporter. “Why make it hard, man?” The secret of his success against pitchers: “I think I can’t be beat up there. It’s me or him, and I think I have the better chance.”
Fans loved the ordinary-looking everyman who seemed to almost slip surreptitiously onto the field, just like he did as a youth in Orange County, then proceeded to show up all the towering physical prodigies around him. He became famous for getting his uniform dirty, and for his generally unkempt appearance—habitual stubble, hair that seldom saw a comb, and tobacco juice dribbling onto his chin. One sportswriter called him “a real-life, rough-cut cross between Pigpen and Bart Simpson.” He was an irreverent rogue who once extolled the virtues of weight training and vitamins on a radio show in Los Angeles, all the while smoking a cigarette.
But what they really loved was the astonishing overachiever who somehow willed his body to win. Dykstra put that ferocious drive on display for a national audience in the 1986 postseason. Though Nails—“almost 5-11” in his own words, and then a slim 160 pounds—hardly was known as a power hitter, he slammed a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Houston Astros, 6-5, in Game 3 of the National League Championship. After his team dropped the first two games of the World Series at home to the Boston Red Sox and was in danger of being swept, Dykstra again responded, blasting another home run in his first at-bat in Game 3 in Boston, one of four hits he got in leading the team to a 7-1 victory that turned the tide and helped make the Mets MLB champs. “Some assholes think I’m too small to hit any home runs,” he glowered in his 1987 biography. “I call bullshit on that.”
Overnight, Dykstra was a fan and media favorite. In the 1986-87 off-season, he garnered $100,000 in endorsements, more than he made in salary from the Mets. That poster of Dykstra—bare-chested and smudged with dirt—sold 15,000 copies. David Letterman and the TV game show “Hollywood Squares” invited him to be a guest. He did a commercial for the soft drink Slice with then-Angels rookie first baseman Wally Joyner, who’d achieved the kind of stardom with Dykstra’s hometown team that Nails had always craved. But Dykstra consoled himself: “I guess I caught up with him, because I’m in the commercial, too,” he wrote in his memoir.
After being traded to the Phillies in June 1989, Nails continued to excel. In 1990, he led the majors in hitting in the first half of the season, and finished a close second to Chicago’s Andre Dawson among outfielders in the All-Star voting. In a town infamous for its boo-birds but also for its habitual embrace of gritty, audacious jocks, his hard-charging style and irrepressible energy made him a civic treasure. He’d been a star in New York, but he was Philly’s franchise player. “Lenny puts people in the seats,” Phillies general manager Lee Thomas said in 1991. “There’s no doubt about that. Whether you love him or hate him ... there aren’t many players who put people in the seats anymore.”
Dykstra’s charisma made it easierto overlook the less alluring side of his personality. The same petulance that led him to dig in defiantly when Nolan Ryan threw at his head got him into trouble off the field. While at spring training in Florida with the Mets, he racked up several speeding tickets the local police obligingly fixed, and reportedly yelled obscenities at a crossing guard who tried to get him to stop for schoolchildren. By cheering him as he went to extremes on the field, had we also empowered his inner demons? When confronted with hints of a dark side, did we look the other way?
In March 1991, he was summoned to testify at the federal gambling trial of a Mississippi businessman, where he admitted to losing $78,000 at the poker table. Two months later, speeding on the way back from a bachelor party for teammate John Kruk in suburban Philadelphia, he slammed his red Mercedes 500 SL into two trees, breaking his rib cage, collarbone, and cheekbone. To reach Dykstra’s blood alcohol level, one newspaper article calculated, a man his size had to down the equivalent of eight shots in a single hour.
The Phillies, who already knew about his gambling, didn’t punish him, and then-baseball commissioner Fay Vincent put Dykstra on a year’s probation in exchange for a promise that he’d give up gambling. The MLB’s investigator, John Dowd, told the Associated Press in 2005 that Dykstra was “drowning in debt”—but had not bet on MLB games. “The only difference between Pete [Rose] and Lenny was that Lenny was honest with us,” he said. On the drunk driving accident, he got away with a three-month suspension of his license, and made a video for schools in which he warned of the dangers of driving while intoxicated.
“I’m not the crazy, out-of-control dirtbag that people think I am,” he later insisted to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
His 1993 season was a big leaguer’s dream. He played in 161 of the Phillies’ 162 games, leading the league in runs (143), hits (194), walks (129), and at-bats (637). He also batted .305 and hit 19 homers, drove in 66 runs, stole 37 bases, and led the team to its first National League pennant in a decade, hitting a game-winning homer in the 10th inning of the fifth game of the league championship against Atlanta. In the World Series loss to Toronto, he hit four homers. The Associated Press picked him as the best center fielder in the game, and he finished second to Barry Bonds in the National League’s vote for MVP. In the off-season, the Phillies signed Dykstra to a five-year, $27.5 million contract.
It was his last good season. Even before Dykstra’s body began to show wear and tear, his public persona took a drastic decline. A few months after the Series, he went to lunch at a restaurant in Philadelphia’s ritzy Main Line and, according to published accounts, nearly came to blows with a state senator after the politician asked him to tone down his vociferous profanity. His longtime agent, Alan Meersand, quit on him, saying that Dykstra was “everything I don’t want my son to grow up to be.” Meersand recently told Orange Coast: “I fired Lenny Dykstra on Jan. 19, 1994, and I have the fax to prove it. I don’t want anything to do with him, period.” He offered no further comment.
Others looked skeptically at the vein-popping musculature that Dykstra developed in the mid-’90s, leading to whispers that he used steroids, which had been banned by MLB in 1991. Indeed, in the 2007 probe of performance drug use in baseball conducted by former Sen. George Mitchell for the MLB commissioner, Dykstra is mentioned prominently. In 2000, Dykstra admitted to MLB executives, including Kevin M. Hallinan, senior vice president for security, that he used steroids, saying they helped him “keep his weight up” during the season, and eliminated his need to work out.
But his burgeoning body failed him. From 1994 on, Nails was beset by injuries, including a bad back that required surgery in 1996 and forced him to miss a season and a half. The Phillies front office reportedly tried to persuade him to retire, but Dykstra wouldn’t have it. He was making a comeback attempt in the spring of 1998 when a doctor told him that he risked serious injury if he played more baseball. At 35, Nails was done.
Dykstra left the sport with a lot of money and a promising post-athletic second act. In 1993, he started the first of his carwashes in Corona, where drivers could admire a collection of baseball memorabilia while their rides got detailed. But Dykstra the businessman had a ruinous flaw. He loved spending on lavish accoutrements, and was oblivious to controlling costs. He dreamed of building at a Corona intersection the “Taj Mahal of gas stations” that included a convenience store with mosaic floors, black granite countertops, cherry-wood cabinetry from Italy, and skylights.
After the early 2000s tech-stock crash, Dykstra discovered that the millions in his retirement accounts had dwindled to just a few hundred thousand dollars. A cooler head might have changed investment gurus; Dykstra decided to become one. Despite his lack of education or background, he bought a computer and started trading stocks. In 2006, he sold one of his carwashes for $11 million, and then a year later unloaded the other two for $43 million. After paying off debt, he still reportedly walked away with millions.
Dykstra underwent a startling metamorphosis into a professional investor who traveled by private jet and wrote an advice column for TheStreet.com, a prominent financial website. In 2007, Forbes magazine editor Randall Lane, who at the time worked for a company that published magazines aimed at the Wall Street elite, was surprised to get a call from Dykstra, who wanted to discuss a business opportunity. As Lane later recounted in his 2010 book “The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane,” he met Dykstra at New York’s Coco Pazzo restaurant. Nails flipped around his ever-present laptop to reveal the logo for his new venture, The Players Club, which would capitalize on professional athletes’ high-rolling lifestyles, and their difficulty in maintaining them once their playing days were over. Part of the venture would be a glossy magazine distributed in pro teams’ locker rooms. In addition to reporting on luxury accoutrements and other athletes’ financial success stories, the magazine would tout Guaranteed Cash Flow, a financial plan that would invest players’ money while they were still in the game, with the goal of creating an income stream to augment their pensions. To hype his new image, Dykstra led the media on tours of the mansion he’d acquired from Gretzky.
It was vintage Nails. He’d become a baseball superstar through audacity and hustle, so why couldn’t he become the Suze Orman or Malcolm Forbes of jockdom? But magazine publishing and investing turned out to be trickier than eyeballing the spin on a curveball. The magazine went under after a few issues, and Dykstra’s career as an investment tout began to crumble after Forbes revealed in 2008 that Nails himself was buying information from another analyst.
As his schemes fell apart and former business associates began hitting him with lawsuits, Dykstra found himself in over his head. In February 2009, his Gulfstream II jet was impounded in Cleveland after a creditor accused him of failing to pay for $228,000 in interior renovations, mostly for installation of a high-end entertainment system.
In July 2009, Dykstra filed for bankruptcy, claiming $24.6 million in assets and estimating he owed $37.1 million to dozens of creditors, ranging from credit card companies and printers of his defunct magazine to a $900,000 debt owed to Index Investors, a Laguna Beach-based real estate firm. In addition to the $12.9 million mortgage on Gretzky’s former mansion, Dykstra’s debts also included $367,000 to a finance company for the leased Maybach he’d returned, a $75,000 hotel tab at The Carlyle in New York, and $18,000 in country club dues. The wreckage of his businesses left him with a single source of income: his Major League Baseball pension of $5,700 a month.
According to a complaint filed against Dykstra in federal court, the attorney serving as bankruptcy trustee eventually discovered that things weren’t on the level. Not long after the bankruptcy filing, Dykstra allegedly had filled a U-Haul truck with chandeliers, a grandfather clock, and other furnishings from his mansion—wares that were supposed to be sold along with the home to pay creditors—and taken it all to a Los Angeles consignment store, where the owner told investigators that Dykstra asked how much he might be willing to pay for them. At a subsequent bankruptcy hearing, according to court documents, Dykstra claimed under oath that his housekeeper’s son had stolen them.
But it was hard for Dykstra to explain away other items on Craigslist and eBay, including $3,200 worth of his own sports memorabilia, and a custom-made mahogany desk touted in the ad as having belonged to Dykstra. In a July 2010 email written by Dykstra to assistant Victorya Moreno, the ballplayer allegedly proposed that she sell the gold bathroom fixtures from the mansion, and that they could split the estimated $20,000 in proceeds. (Moreno declined, and eventually quit after Dykstra failed to pay her salary.) In the course of a year, investigators say, Dykstra either stole or destroyed $400,000 in property that no longer belonged to him.
Mansionless, Dykstra was compelled for a time to camp out in an office inside a Camarillo airplane hangar. (Avantair, the company from which Dykstra leased the space, later voided the contract because he didn’t pay the rent.)
By late 2010, Dykstra’s affairs had taken an even more bizarre turn. He had launched a new business, Home Free Systems, which prosecutors say existed only to generate phony pay stubs and other paperwork that Dykstra and his associates could use to obtain luxury cars from dealerships. In one instance, Sports Illustrated reported, Dykstra allegedly persuaded a 35-year-old model whom he’d met at a party to lease a Porsche 911 from a Newport Beach dealership using phony documents that indicated she was a $120,000-a-year sales manager for his company, and then to give the car to him. In another instance, a credit repair consultant who’d been asked to help Dykstra ended up having his identity stolen.
Meanwhile, according to a later indictment, Dykstra began using a pseudonym to place ads on Craigslist for a housekeeper. When women responded, investigators said, Dykstra would show them his baseball memorabilia and then tell them that the job also required them to give him rubdowns. He allegedly held a knife on one in July 2010 and forced her to massage him.
By early last year, the Los Angeles Police Department and federal investigators were on Dykstra’s trail. But even as he worked the car scam, he tried to keep up the façade that he was the same brash, hard-driving Nails who once charmed baseball fans.
The illusion fell apart in April 2011. LAPD detectives showed up to arrest Dykstra in Encino, where he was living at the time, and found cocaine and ecstasy, along with synthetic human growth hormone, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. He was charged with five counts of attempted grand theft auto, eight counts of filing false financial statements, four counts of identity theft, three counts of grand theft auto, and three counts of possession of a controlled substance. He faced up to 12 years behind bars, and his bail was set at $500,000.
In September, his former accountant, Robert Hymers, pleaded no contest to one count of identity theft, and a friend, Christopher Gavanis, pleaded guilty to filing a false financial statement. The walls were closing in. Prosecutors added a “white-collar enhancement” to Dykstra’s charges, ensuring that he’d have to serve his time in state prison, rather than Los Angeles County Jail, where he might be released early due to overcrowding. He pleaded no contest, and then, at the last second, tried backing out. But the judge wouldn’t have it.
Regardless of how the federal charges turn out, the bankrupt, disgraced Nails seems stranded on the base paths of life. But to his erstwhile driver-assistant Aaron Plaat, he’s still Lenny, the convivial former superstar who, when he found out that Plaat was furnishing an apartment, tried to help. “He took me to a storage unit and gave me his air mattress and a coffee maker,” Plaat recalls. That’s why Plaat says he’s planning to offer Dykstra’s old baseball warm-up jacket, a gift from Nails, to the highest bidder on the Internet: “When I sell it, I’ll be cutting a check to Lenny in jail.”
To order a print or digital copy of the July 2012 issue, click here.
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine.