LEN DYKSTRA : Following New York’s Bouncing Ballplayer

Times Staff Writer

It’s one hour before game time, and the New York Mets are keeping loose. The tense race for the National League East championship hasn’t affected this team’s sense of dugout humor.

The subject of the good-natured needling is Len Dykstra, who, not surprisingly, is not around to defend himself. Dykstra is a blur in pregame. When he’s not taking batting practice, he’s borrowing a fungo bat to hit ground balls to his teammates, or shagging fly balls, or doing sit-ups, or just plain running around. Anything but sitting still.

Dykstra is seen cavorting in left field, while his teammates are poking a little fun at their rookie center fielder.


Said one voice in the dugout, impersonating a restaurant head waiter: “Dykstra party of one, with a high chair . . . your table is ready.”

There were laughs all around, but its intent was good-natured. The Mets, it seems, like Dykstra, almost as much as he likes being a Met. They like the way the 22-year old from Garden Grove has fit into his big-league surroundings, the way he plays with the enthusiasm of a little leaguer, and the way he looks like a teen-ager.

Said Mets’ broadcaster Tim McCarver: “He has such an innocence about him. And that innocence is part of what makes him so much fun to have around. I remember the first time he ever played in Shea. He got into the game late as a pinch runner. The next day, in front of the dugout, I said, ‘Lenny, how are ya?’

“He said, ‘They’ve got to make a move, and I think I might be sent out.’ I told him it was OK, that they’d bring him back. He said, ‘Just when the fans were starting to like me.’

This has been a season of ups and downs for Dykstra: he was first called up from the Mets’ triple-A affiliate in Tidewater on May 3, then sent back down on May 11. He was recalled on June 18, then sent down again on June 28. But when Mookie Wilson, the Mets’ regular center fielder, had surgery to repair a chronic shoulder injury and was put on the disabled list on July 1, Dykstra was up to stay.

Mets manager Davey Johnson was grateful that Dykstra was just a phone call away. “He was just what the doctor ordered when Mookie went down,” Johnson said. “He’s done a great job for us.”


Dykstra is ahead of schedule on both his timetable and Johnson’s, but neither seems to be complaining.

“From my standpoint, I knew I was going to Tidewater from Florida (after spring training),” Dykstra said. “I knew I’d be here in September, but I didn’t picture myself being here as soon as I was. It was unfortunate for Wilson to have an injury. But I’m glad I got the opportunity.”

From the time of his first promotion in May, Dykstra has been good about opening the door and welcoming opportunity whenever it knocks. He played his first major-league game at Cincinnati and homered off Mario Soto in his second at-bat. He hasn’t homered since, but hasn’t forgotten the circumstances that led to his first big-league hit.

“Before my first at-bat, everyone told me how Soto threw so hard, how he was a power pitcher,” Dykstra recalled. “He threw me three straight changeups and struck me out.

“The next time up, I stayed back a little and hit one out. I ended up with two hits and a stolen base.”

Dykstra has appeared in 65 games since that eventful debut. He enters tonight’s series opener at Dodger Stadium with 56 hits in 221 at-bats (.253), 19 RBIs, 35 runs and 11 stolen bases in 13 attempts. Little more than four years after setting an Orange County record with 50 hits for Garden Grove High School in 1981, Len Dykstra has arrived in the major leagues, ahead of schedule.

Dykstra hit .494 as a senior at Garden Grove. He had a 34-game hitting streak that spanned two seasons. He stole 37 bases as a junior, another county record. In a four-year varsity career, he was caught stealing only once.

Baseball consumed him. “When I was in high school, everything I did was geared toward baseball . . . everything,” he said. “The reason I studied hard was to get a scholarship. The reason I wanted a scholarship was so I could play baseball.”

He was offered a scholarship at Arizona State, but professional baseball came calling. A little later than Dykstra had figured, but calling none the less. The Mets selected him in the 12th round of the draft.

“I was being called by scouts nightly and they were saying they were going to take me in the first or second round,” Dykstra said. “They all thought I was going to college, though. When they called me, they’d ask me about it and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I want to go to school. It’s going to take some money to sign me.’ They shied away from me. I guess it’s too bad for them.”

But college just didn’t fit into Dykstra’s schedule. He got the money he was looking for in a signing bonus, and the Arizona State offer was strictly academic.

“I thought I was ready to go into pro ball,” he said. “You know, if I would have gone to college, this would have been my first year of pro ball. I thought to myself: If I want to get into the major leagues, the best way to do it was to get in right now and try to work my way up and hopefully get to the big leagues in my early 20’s. I set a goal to get into the big leagues by the time I was 23, so I’m real happy with the way things have gone.”

Things have gone quickly. Dykstra played for the Mets’ single-A affiliate in Shelby, N.C. in 1981 and 1982, then spent the 1983 season in Lynchburg, Va., another single-A outlet. It was at Lynchburg that Dykstra emerged as a Met of the Future.

In 136 games, he hit .358 with 132 runs, 81 RBIs, and 105 stolen bases. He led the Carolina League in games, hitting, runs, triples (14), walks (107), at-bats (525) and hits (188). He was named the league’s most valuable player, but had to share the team MVP honor. A fellow by the name of Dwight Gooden also played at Lynchburgh that season.

“Lynchburg was my town,” Dykstra said. “I’ll never forget it. That was a dream season. After that season, I really turned into one of the Mets’ top prospects. Lynchburg was a good place for me.”

He was promoted to the Mets’ double-A affiliate in Jackson, Miss. the following season and played well enough to warrant another promotion at the beginning of 1985. Tidewater was the last wrung on the minor-league ladder, and Dykstra didn’t stay there long.

Dykstra was the Mets’ regular center fielder through much of July and August. In recent weeks, however, he has been platooned with veteran Tom Paciorek, whom the Mets acquired in a trade for minor leaguer Dave Cochrane at the All-Star break. Against left-handed pitchers, Johnson has been playing Paciorek in right field and moving Darryl Strawberry to center. Paciorek has responded by hitting .366 (22 of 60) in his last 27 games and has a hit in his last eight starts.

“Originally, I just played Paciorek to get him a few at-bats,” Johnson said. “But he’s just been playing so well.”

For Dykstra, that has meant sitting still in the dugout for six or seven innings--until he’s inserted as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement--when the Mets face a left-hander.

And Len Dykstra has never been much for staying in one place too long.