Former Phillies star Lenny Dykstra haunted by greed and ego
Back when Lenny Dykstra was a head-first ballplayer pumped up on steroids, thumbing his nose at convention and the world, many believed his epitaph would have been written by now. But he has other plans.
His cellphone rang, and Lenny Dykstra sprang from his seat like an outfielder in pursuit of a deep fly ball. While mumbling in profane little bursts, he dropped a second phone onto a picnic table, slapped shut the lid on a laptop that was playing a video of a New Age philosopher he admires, removed the baseball cap he had bought at Target, ran a palm through his now-gray hair, and began parading rapidly through the side yard of the Merion Station physician who helped him kick an opiate addiction.
"Sometimes," Jim Berman said as he watched his longtime friend and patient, "even when you're no longer using the drugs, you still illustrate the same behaviors that make people think you are."
It has been more than a decade since he kicked opiates, the former Phillies all-star said recently during a long and rambling interview at Berman's home. In so many other ways, though, he appeared to be the old Dykstra, the perpetually restless, crude, self-involved spark plug of the pennant-winning 1993 Phillies who rudely bulldozed anything in his way, whether it was a catcher, an autograph-seeker, or a business associate.
But now, after bankruptcy, divorce and three years in a California prison, where he discovered books and lost three teeth, a strikingly different persona occasionally surfaces, that of a contrite and introspective 54-year-old who hopes to forge a new life from the messy detritus of a previous one destroyed by greed and ego.
"My first chapter couldn't have gone better," Dykstra said, "the big leagues and the money. The second chapter, that was rough. My third chapter hasn't been written yet. I still haven't decided what my epitaph's going to be."
When he was a headstrong, head-first ballplayer pumped up on steroids; taking handfuls of pills before, during, and after games; and thumbing his nose at convention and the world beyond the narcissistic bubble he inhabited, many believed Dykstra's epitaph would have been written by now.
"I know I'm lucky I'm not dead," he said. "But I'm not the a–hole I once was. When you went through what I went through, every day I'm above ground is a good day. I'm happy. I've got no time to blame people."
One of the best and most enigmatic Philadelphia athletes during the 1990s, a decade that was rife with them — think Allen Iverson, Eric Lindros, and Randall Cunningham —Dykstra last month briefly returned to the city where he was a Phillies star for 7½ seasons because of this belated self-salvaging process.. He needed "a gut check" from Berman, an addiction specialist he has been seeing for a quarter-century.
"He's my doctor, but we're friends," Dykstra said. "He saved my life. He stuck with me when I was unfixable."
As the interview made clear, the repairs are ongoing. Observing that process, watching this compact, complex mass of energy try to tame his demons can be as compelling as it was seeing him play.
Like the current version of the Phillies, the team he played for from 1989 through 1996, he has hit bottom and requires a major rebuilding. Both have ambitious plans to accomplish that. In Dykstra's case, he'll again make a lot of money, atone for past sins, and find a comfortable normalcy.
He claimed he has weaned himself from the need for a Mercedes and $30,000 bottles of wine, though not yet his unchecked lust. He has learned to content himself with watching Mets games with real friends or chatting online with the virtual ones his social media fascination has won him.
"I don't need private jets and mansions. I [had sex with] royalty," he said. "I'm OK being normal, even though normal for me is different. I'm still funny. I live life going hard. But before, there were no boundaries. I lived the way I played, and we all know what happened."
‘Addicted to fame’
Despite his best intentions, one often has to look hard and long to detect evidence of Dykstra's transformation.
While he said he no longer treats women disrespectfully, he can be breathtakingly demeaning in conversations with or about them. He still peppers almost every sentence with obscenities. He can be selfish, tactless, and money-obsessed.
"Yeah, I ain't perfect," Dykstra admitted, a cigarette between his lips. "I still [screw] around. But I'm not the person you knew in that clubhouse. That person walked in there like there was a new … sheriff in town. That was all the drugs I was on. I'm not running people down anymore."
Despite the vulgar "valley boy" pose, Dykstra is, as Berman noted, "not dumb at all." Whether he's smart enough to remake his tattered life remains to be seen. But there are revelatory moments when Dykstra displays traits that rarely surfaced during his tumultuous career — affection, honesty, a curiosity about others.
"I didn't find God in prison," he said. "I'm looking. I'm waiting. 'Come on … where are you?' But I'm just trying to live right and treat people how I want to be treated. That's the difference in the me you knew then and now. Just because I played baseball doesn't make me better than anyone."
He lost a fortune in the 2008 crash but vowed to make another. "I've always known how to make money," he said. Until then, he has earnings from his 2016 autobiography, House of Nails, and his relationship with Rebound Finance, a company that helps consumers reestablish credit. He also said he has had serious talks with Hollywood producers interested in basing a film or TV show on his life. And among the many other projects he said he's pursuing is a "secret business plan for Uber."
How successful he will be depends to a large extent on whether he can convince wary family, friends, and the entrepreneurs he hopes to cultivate that his rehabilitation is sincere. That will be difficult for someone with his sordid history, Berman noted.
"There's Lenny, and there's the truth, and then there's somewhere in between," Berman said. "He's far from a model citizen, and he's got a track record that's horrific. He got addicted to fame, fortune. and adulation. But he's incredibly resilient, and he's really trying to get back on his feet."
To do so, the doctor said, Dykstra has had to stop blaming everyone else for a downfall anyone who knew him foresaw.
"Jim has helped me see that I can't control the past," Dykstra said. "But I can learn from it. I still [screw] around and joke around, but there's a lot of humility there now ."
Humility doesn't come naturally to someone who once signed a $30 million contract with the Phillies, was a successful stock trader, magazine publisher, and car-wash operator, and owned Wayne Gretzky's mansion, a private plane, and a fleet of luxury cars.
In 2008, his net worth was estimated at $58 million. But that soon vanished in a dizzying flurry of bankruptcies, lawsuits, criminal charges, and divorce.
"After the drugs, money became my drug," he said. "Then in '08 the whole thing came crashing down. It's almost like that Icarus dude that flew close to the sun and was warned not to. I kept getting closer and closer to the sun. I was greedy. I wanted more, more, more."
He now owns a Linden, N.J., fixer-upper he got in a short sale arranged by a friend. "Dude, I cut the grass there!" he said.
At Berman's, Dykstra said he had "$150 in my bag." His outfit — polo shirt, khakis, sneaks, and hat — came from Target. He has come to rely on the kindness of those who, like the local physician, never deserted him.
"He can be charming," Berman said. "He has people that still love him. He'll probably never have to spend a dime to eat for the rest of his life."
‘I put on a disguise’
Still as antsy as ever — he suffers from "wicked ADHD," Berman said — Dykstra is in the midst of a third chapter that has been marked by a peculiar odyssey. He frequently crisscrosses America in the same seemingly random way he used to ramble around a clubhouse.
One June afternoon, he was in California in the Bel Air Country Club card room posting a rudimentary online video report on a Mets loss. The next night, he filed another from a Rite Aid where he was getting a blood pressure test. He has done the reports from South Dakota, where, spurning opiate pain killers, he began the process of replacing the missing teeth. He has filed them from Knoxville, Atlanta, Malibu, Beverly Hills, Manhattan, and New Jersey, from "the Sultan of Brunei's mini-mansion," and from "a friend's utility room."
Those videos, many highly critical of Mets manager Terry Collins, have earned him thousands of social media followers. He considered doing similar postgame Phillies reports until the last-place team's ongoing funk dissuaded him.
"What's up with them?" he asked about his former team. "They ought to make them play in skirts next year."
Once notoriously difficult with the public, he now answers the queries of anyone who reaches out to him online, a lineup that includes such disparate celebrities as porn star Ron Jeremy and squeaky-clean singer Donny Osmond. "I admire the way you've lived your life," Dykstra tweeted to Osmond.
He has videoed himself giving brief "commencement addresses" that advise high school and college graduates how to get ahead. He has even posted on Twitter this quotation from an ancient Jewish sage: "Rabbi Joshua said the evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of one's fellow man drives a man from the world."
He listens to New Age philosopher Sam Harris' soothing meditations on life and death. Having read Harris' book in prison — the first book he ever read — Dykstra has read plenty more since, from spy novels to true-life crime stories and banking tomes. He speaks decently about his ex-wife, Terri, who divorced him in 2009, and his sons. And he notes the debts — both spiritual and financial — he owes them all.
"My family didn't deserve all that happened," he said. "I think about that every day."
As part of the divorce settlement, Dykstra ceded his big-league pension to his wife.
"That's $6,500 to $7,000 in cash a month," he said. "Dude, I could use the money. But why should my transgressions make her suffer? She suffered enough. This will give her stability for rest of her life."
In typical fashion, though, before he agreed to give her the money, he tried to get her to agree to have sex with him once a month. She turned him down.
His most pressing debt is owed to his son Cutter. When the youngster netted $400,000 as Milwaukee's second-round pick in 2008, Dykstra talked him into investing it in his Players Club magazine, a venture that, along with the cash, disappeared a year later.
He vowed to pay his son back with money he anticipates from the lawsuit he filed, for an unspecified amount, alleging that he was brutally beaten in jail by Los Angeles County sheriff deputies in 2012.
"I've never told anyone this before, because I was ashamed. But the first thing I'm going to do when I make some cash — and I will when I settle that lawsuit — is pay Cutter back. I promised him that," Dykstra said. "I didn't lose the money on purpose, but that doesn't matter."
Cutter and his actress wife, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, have a 3½-year-old son, Beau, Dykstra's only grandchild. Cutter's younger brother, Luke, a seventh-round pick in 2014, is playing high-A ball with the Cardinals organization.
"My relationship with my kids is great, always has been," Dykstra said. "And I thank Jim [Berman] for that."
Dykstra dedicated his book, which climbed as high as No. 11 on the New York Times list of best sellers, to the doctor.
"He saved my life," Dykstra said. "With opiates, there's a fire inside that's unexplainable. I wanted to get off them [when he was with the Phillies], but I was afraid I was going to lose my money. So I put on a disguise. Jim helped me understand what I was going through."
During the interview, one of Berman's neighbors began cutting the lawn, the mower noise obscuring the conversation. Dykstra jumped up and moved menacingly toward the man as if he were charging a mound. Midway there, perhaps questioning his instincts in a way he seldom did, he stopped and turned around. It was an apt metaphor for the task he faces in creating a more thoughtful, less-volatile Lenny Dykstra.
"Before it was always a touchdown I wanted," he said. "I'm OK now with a first down, just moving the chains slowly down the field. I don't need to throw the bomb anymore."