Nicknamed “Nails” for his scrappy style of play, Lenny Dykstra did everything all out — he worked hard, played hard, and partied hard. An integral member of the brash Mets of the mid-1980s and the blue-collar Phillies of the early 1990s, Dykstra epitomized the gritty leadoff hitter, blossoming to use power as well as speed in his repertoire.
Dykstra rose through the Mets’ farm system to become their part-time leadoff hitter and center fielder in 1985, and in 1986 won the larger part of the role, thanks to steady fielding, good speed and flashy, fan-pleasing catches. One of the Mets’ “Partners in Grime” along with second baseman Wally Backman, the pesky Dykstra helped ignite the Mets’ offense from the top of the batting order.
Initially known for his slap singles-hitting style, Dykstra always longed to drive balls over the fence, and in the 1986 postseason the California native showed his first flashes of power. In the dramatic third game of the LCS, his two-run ninth-inning homer off Astros relief ace Dave Smith gave the Mets a 6-5 victory. After New York lost the first two games of the World Series, Dykstra’s leadoff homer in Game Three sparked a 7-1 victory, and his two-run dinger off Boston right fielder Dwight Evans‘s glove in Game Four helped the Mets even a Series which they eventually won in seven games.
Dykstra continued to produce for the Mets, but some charged that his post-season power surge had tempted Dykstra to swing too much for the fences. In 1987 and 1988, Dykstra struck out more than he walked for the first time in his professional career. On Father’s Day, 1989, the Mets shipped Dykstra and Roger McDowell to the Phillies for Juan Samuel.
It was the first of many unpopular trades by the Mets. As Samuel bombed in New York, Dykstra took off for the Phils. Bulking up in the off-season, he quickly established himself as an offensive force in 1990, at or near the top of the NL in five major offensive categories. In 1993, Dykstra enjoyed a career year, establishing individual highs in homers, RBIs, stolen bases, runs, and hits. In games where Dykstra scored, the Phils were 69-29 — a large part of the reason the eclectic club (led by the madcap Mitch Williams and the slovenly John Kruk) went from worst to first. Philadelphia lost the World Series in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays, but Dykstra batted at a .348 clip and whacked four homers, including two two-run shots in Game Four.
Throughout his career, Nails pushed himself to the limits, sliding and diving, playing hard baseball. Unfortunately, this led to frequent visits to the disabled list, including four broken bones, four knee surgeries, and a bad back that would eventually take him out of the game for good in 1996.
His off-field problems weighed heavily as well. In March of 1991, Dykstra, a notorious high-stakes bettor, was linked to a gambling probe in Mississippi; just two months later, he broke his collarbone in a car wreck after John Kruk’s bachelor party.
Towards the end of his career, Dykstra, who constantly sported a chaw-stuffed cheek as a player, began campaigning against the use of chewing tobacco. “Copy my hustle. Copy my desire,” he urged in a TV ad. “But, please, don’t copy my tobacco use.” Considered a great managerial prospect during his playing career, Dykstra sought a skipper’s position in the minors after retirement.