While the 2015 World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets kicked off in dramatic fashion last night, a member of the Mets’ 1986 world championship team revealed some shocking news about himself in a radio interview today. Appearing on “The Herd,” the popular sports talk-radio show hosted by Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, Lenny Dykstra, the former superstar for both the Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies, admitted that he hired private investigators to dig into the private lives of major league umpires during his playing days. According to Sports Illustrated, Dykstra claimed that he paid private investigators $500,000 to obtain information about umpires’ private lives so he could use it to influence the way they called pitches when he was batting in a game. This news shouldn’t surprise anyone who is familiar with Dykstra’s life after his retirement from baseball. Nicknamed “Nails” for his gritty, hustling style of play, the ex-player is also an ex-felon. In 2012, he pled guilty to three felony counts of bankruptcy fraud, concealment of assets, and money laundering. His conviction inspired the indie rock supergroup, The Baseball Project, to pen a song about the troubled ex-major league called “From Nails to Thumbtacks,” which includes the unforgettable line, “when my comeback failed I started hustling even more.” Today, Dykstra revealed that this type of hustling began long before he attempted a comeback.
As Dykstra told it, he routinely hustled favorable calls from umpires by essentially blackmailing them with information that his investigators had uncovered regarding their private lives, including details about some umpires’ sexual orientation. “Their blood is just as red as ours. Some of them like women, some of them like men, some of them gamble. Some of them do whatever,” Dykstra explained without a shred of contrition. He expressed no regrets because the strategy worked, as he smugly asked Cowherd, “It wasn’t a coincidence, you think, that I led the league in walks the next few years, was it?”
Not only did Dykstra admit to conduct that arguably qualifies as cheating and indisputably registers as repugnant, but he actually acted out how he would taunt the umpire during an at-bat. For example, if the umpire had a gambling problem, Dykstra would ask the umpire if he covered the spread the previous night. If the next pitch was called a strike, Dykstra would present the question more emphatically, “Oh, I don’t think you heard me. Did you cover the spread last night?” According to Dykstra, such a question would usually trigger immediate shrinkage in the umpire’s strike zone. As Ian Ziegler of outsports.com notes, there were two closeted gay major league umpires at the time Dykstra played, Dave Pallone and Dale Scott. One can only imagine the appalling questions he directed toward them.
In explaining why the strategy worked, Dykstra callously said, “fear does a lot to a man.” To justify his own decision to exploit the genuine fear these umpires felt, Dykstra espoused an ends-justify-the-means philosophy, punctuated by a disingenuous appeal to family: “Hey man, I had to do what had to do to win … and to support my family.” As Ziegler reminds us, Dykstra did this with reckless disregard for the families and dignity of the umpires he manipulated.
Although the relationship between players and umpires can sometimes turn adversarial on the field, Ziegler points out that major league baseball players and umpires are colleagues in a professional sense. In this context, Dykstra’s conduct amounts to workplace harassment, if not outright blackmail. As a small, speedy leadoff hitter, Dykstra’s main value as a player depended on his ability to get on base. Therefore, Dykstra continued to enrich himself as a ballplayer through what Ziegler calls an unforgivable intrusion into “the private lives of men whom he should have viewed as his colleagues and then blackmailing them.”
Recently, Major League Baseball has made great progress in becoming a more inclusive sport, particularly by hiring gay ex-player Billy Bean for the newly created position of Major League Baseball’s Ambassador for Inclusion. To demonstrate that MLB’s is commitment to inclusion is more than symbolic, however, the commissioner’s office should investigate Dykstra’s claims. In doing so, baseball’s the commissioner should create an environment where the umpires who were victimized by Dykstra can come forward to confirm these home plate conversations that Dykstra boasted about today. Although Dykstra’s chances of getting inducted into baseball’s hall of fame are slim to nonexistent, he should still be ostracized the same way that the game’s known steroid users have been. Furthermore, as Ziegler argues, the commissioner’s office should strongly consider giving “the same lifetime ban to Dykstra that they’ve given to Pete Rose.”
In their song about Dykstra, The Baseball Project end the chorus with the clever line, “you gotta fly high to fall this far” to dramatize Dykstra’s descent from star athlete to convicted felon. We now know that Dykstra had to sink incredibly low to fly that high in the first place.