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An MVP Season : Dykstra Comes Back From Misfortune and Becomes Catalyst for Philadelphia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lenny Dykstra was determined to have an “in your face” season.

If the gambling, the car wreck, the injuries of the last two seasons had distorted perceptions of who he is and where he was headed, he was determined to “put the focus where it belongs.”

Well, dude, as Dykstra would say, the Philadelphia Phillies’ leadoff hitter and center fielder has done that and more.

“If you took Lenny out of our lineup, we’d be battling the New York Mets,” teammate John Kruk said.

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The Mets, of course, are buried in the National League East cellar, while the Phillies clinched the division title Tuesday.

And Dykstra is having the season of his life.

“You don’t think of a leadoff man carrying a club, but he has,” Manager Jim Fregosi said.

Carried it to the extent that Dykstra might be more than the most valuable Phillie. He might be the league’s MVP.

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“It depends on how you define it,” Fregosi said. “If the award really went to the most valuable player instead of the best player, it would have go to Lenny. I mean, on the basis of numbers and athleticism, Barry Bonds is clearly the best player. But as great as Bonds is, I don’t see how a player can do more for a club than Lenny has.”

All he did Tuesday night was go four for five with three runs batted in and two runs scored as the Phillies wrapped up the National League East title with a 10-7 victory over Pittsburgh.

Dykstra leads the major leagues in runs and the league in hits, walks and at-bats. He is third in the league in on-base percentage, doubles and total bases, and ninth in steals. He has a .310 average and Rickey Henderson-type power numbers for a leadoff hitter: 19 homers and 66 RBIs.

In addition:

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--He is only the third player since 1958--Tony Gwynn and Pete Rose were the others--to reach base 300 times in a season on hits, walks and hit by pitches.

--His 139 runs are the most in the National League since Chuck Klein of the Phillies scored 152 in 1932, and only Henderson, with 146 in 1985, scored more in that span.

--He might become the first National Leaguer and only the second player in either league to lead his league in both at-bats and walks, an unusual parlay considering that walks aren’t counted as times at bat. Burt Shotton of the 1916 St. Louis Browns was the only other player to do it.

If all of that doesn’t represent value to the Phillies, there is also this:

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Injuries forced Dykstra to sit out 177 games in 1991 and ’92. The Phillies were 72-105 in those games, and 76-71 when he played. Dykstra has not sat out a game in the Phillies’ rise from last to first, their 94 victories exceeded only by Atlanta and San Francisco.

“Look, dude, it would be awesome to win the MVP, and if you want to look at where we came from--I mean, isn’t that what the MVP is all about?--I think you can make a case for me very easily,” Dykstra said.

“You can also make a case for Barry Bonds and for David Justice and Ron Gant. Everyone likes to be recognized for their personal statistics, and I’m no different, but the most important thing is winning the division. Winning puts everything in order.

“I mean, when you win, dude, people say, ‘Hey, great to see you, how are you doing?’ When you don’t, it’s, ‘Where were you last night? How late were you out?’ ”

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Dykstra has heard the questions and felt the heat.

He wrapped his new Mercedes roadster around a tree while driving under the influence of alcohol in the early morning of May 6, 1991, almost killing teammate Darren Daulton and himself.

He spent the ’91 season on probation by then-Commissioner Fay Vincent for participating in illegal Mississippi poker games, in which he lost $78,000.

An article in Philadelphia magazine in January portrayed him as arrogant and abusive to fellow gamblers, dealers and other employees of an Atlantic City casino while running up baccarat losses of $50,000 during one winter night.

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“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m a saint,” Dykstra said. “I’m not going to tell you I’m the nicest person in the world. But I also don’t think I’m a bad person or the most evil in the world.

“I’m a human being and I’ve made mistakes like everyone else. Some of them have been costly in a lot of ways, but I think that when you’re young, successful and in the spotlight, you tend not to realize how much of what you do reflects on everything else you do. I try to think about that now. I took a hard look at the stuff that was written about me last winter and realized I had to do a better job of separating right from wrong, when to say things and when not to, when to do things and when not to.”

Still . . .

“I’ve given $40,000 to charity in the last two years, but what does that mean?” he said.

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“I can stand out by the dugout and sign a hundred autographs, but the guy who doesn’t get one is still going to think I’m a jerk. I have control over that but I don’t, and I can’t let what that one guy thinks bother me.”

Lee Thomas, the Phillies’ general manager, has become confidant and friend to Dykstra and has consistently stressed the benefits of improved image and better behavior.

Thomas is aware, as are most others here, that Dykstra continues to visit nearby casinos, that those casinos even send a helicopter for him at times.

“A lot of players come into Philadelphia and go to Atlantic City,” Thomas said. “It would only be a concern if it affected Lenny’s performance and relationship with the team, but I haven’t seen that. I have no reason to think it’s out of hand.

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“I mean, he’s as good an offensive player right now as he’s ever been. It’s as if he’s playing a pickup game on Sunday. He simply means everything to our offense.”

After batting .325 with a league-leading 192 hits in 1990, Dykstra suffered broken ribs and a broken collarbone and cheekbone in the auto accident. He suffered a broken left arm when hit by a pitch thrown by Greg Maddux on opening day of 1992, returned to the disabled list because of a hamstring pull in June and ended his season in August when he suffered a broken left hand diving into first base, characteristic of a hell-bent style that might be hereditary.

His uncle and grandfather, Tony and Pete Leswick, both played in the National Hockey League, and Dykstra can remember how he would sneak into Anaheim Stadium as a youngster growing up in Garden Grove and practice crashing into the outfield fence, figuring he would have to be more aggressive to overcome questions about his size.

At 30, the 5-foot-10 Dykstra is no longer running a one-man demolition derby.

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“He still makes all the plays, but he doesn’t run into fences anymore,” Thomas said. “If that’s helped keep him healthy and in the lineup, I’m all for it.”

And Dykstra was all for burying the frustration of the last two years, he said, and responding to the critics with his best season.

“I’ve never worked harder than I did last winter,” he said. “I knew it was important on a personal basis to get everything back in order, but it went beyond that. I felt the team was ready to step up to the next level and I knew it would be counting on me. I knew I had to perform, dude.”

Said Kruk: “We’ve gotten greedy. We’re disappointed if he gets only a couple hits and scores only one or two runs.”

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Said Fregosi: “The thing most people don’t realize is that Lenny is a very intelligent hitter. He responds to the situation. If we need a double, he gets it. A walk, he waits it out.

“He’s probably had as many quality at-bats as any player I’ve ever seen. There have been times when a pitcher has had to make 25 or more pitches to him through three at-bats, which is a big reason we haven’t been shut out and we’ve had only one complete game against us.”

The Phillies are vying with the Detroit Tigers for the major league lead in runs, and Dykstra said: “It’s almost taken for granted that the team depends on me, and I have no problem with that. I think everybody feels we’re going to score when I get on base and that’s the way it should be. When I don’t and we don’t, I feel like it’s my fault.”

He also said he was proudest of his daily consistency.

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“I never thought of myself as the basic little leadoff guy,” he said. “I always said I could put up Tim Raines-type numbers, but they didn’t believe me in New York.”

Although he never batted worse than .270 in his four full seasons with the Mets and had a .328 average for 20 playoff and World Series games, Dykstra seldom shook his platoon role.

The Mets ultimately responded to his trade requests by packaging him with Roger McDowell in a deal with the Phillies for Juan Samuel in 1989.

Dykstra is now coming up to the final year of a potential four-year, $9.6-million contract, and the Phillies are certain to pick up his $2.6-million option, as well as negotiate a multiyear extension.

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He would also receive a $200,000 bonus for winning the MVP award, and teammate Pete Incaviglia thinks he should.

“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen with my own eyes,” Incaviglia said, apparently merely one of many whose eyes have been opened this season by Dykstra.

On the Run

A look at top single-season leaders in runs scored since 1970:

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Player, Year Runs Rickey Henderson, 1985 146 Lenny Dykstra, 1993 142 Billy Williams, 1970 137 Paul Molitor, 1982 136 Willie Wilson, 1980 133 Paul Molitor, 1991 133 Tim Raines, 1983 133 Bobby Bonds, 1973 131 Rickey Henderson, 1986 130 Pete Rose, 1976 130 Wade Boggs, 1988 128 Rod Carew, 1977 128 Lou Brock, 1971 126 Ron LeFlore, 1978 126 Carl Yastrzemski, 1970 125 George Foster, 1977 124 Tim Raines, 1987 123 Rafael Palmeiro, 1993 123 Joe Morgan, 1972 122 Barry Bonds, 1993 122 Dwight Evans, 1984 121 Cal Ripken, 1983 121 Don Baylor, 1979 120 Lonnie Smith, 1982 120


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