Heavenly haunt Familiar ghosts were keeping watch as Dykstra careened out of control

May 09, 1991|By Bill Conlin | Bill Conlin,Philadelphia Daily News

PHILADELPHIA -- Billy Martin saw them first. "Ballplayers, I bet," Billy Ballgame rasped, peering down at the 1991 Mercedes sedan erratically traversing the dangerous curves of rural Radnor Township near Philadelphia.

"It's a little early for baseball players," Pelle Lindbergh said in his quaint Swedish accent. "Hockey players would just be going out." It was around 1 a.m. There was no traffic and the two-lane road was dry.

Billy Martin flung a scatological phrase through the gauze of mist. "Yeah, but these guys had a bleeping day game," he said. "Remind me to tell you what me, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford did one year after a Sunday day game with a travel day scheduled for Monday. Hey, Bobby, I almost forgot you were there. You've been awfully quiet."

Bob Moose shrugged. "You know I don't like to talk about that stuff," the former Pittsburgh Pirates righthander said. "It still hasn't sunk in for me. I was so young, and I wasn't a really wild guy. One minute I was leaving a surprise party my wife threw for me, the next, well . . . I was the first one here. I was dead at 29. I never even had a chance to see what life was like after baseball."

The tall, handsome Irishman with the withered left leg joined them, gimping along with his familiar hippity-hop gait.

"Hey, Turk," Martin asked Dick Farrell. "How are the rest of them doin'?"

"That was some damn party," Farrell said. "I heard these guys were doin' some real power drinking, none of that pantywaist stuff. Big-time ballplayer drinking. But everybody's OK. Not much traffic tonight . . ."

Lindbergh laughed. "That's what you thought the night you forgot that in England you're supposed to drive on the left."

There was the soft tap-tap-tap of a dribbled basketball approaching through the night.

Len Bias pumped a fist as he passed them, changing hands each three dribbles, occasionally going behind his back and stutter-stepping.

"At least we had a taste of the bigs," Martin said, waving to the former youngster.

There was a sudden shriek of Pirelli tires on the asphalt. The Mercedes fishtailed wildly off the curve, crossed the oncoming lane and slammed hard into two elms that line the picturesque road.

"No," Bob Moose screamed, "not two more." Sweat lined his forehead.

"Let's go," Farrell said. "We better go down."

The four men opened a gate and vanished into the swirl of mist.

"I died fast," Martin said. "No pain or anything. I sure as hell wasn't feeling any pain when the truck rolled. Then I was $H standing by the side of the road, watching myself bleed, wondering if my friend was OK. I should have driven -- I was in the death seat with no seat belt."

Lindbergh peered through the windshield.

"They're both conscious," he said. "I heard Dykstra say, 'You OK, dude?' Daulton said his chest and left eye hurts like hell. Lenny's holding his ribs and moaning. He said, 'Bleep, dude, we're in trouble.' I never felt anything, never saw the curve or the wall. I must have been going 135. I just hit the wall head-on. I was standing watching myself dead before the sound of the accident stopped echoing in the night."

Farrell grimaced. "My death hurt like hell," he said. "I was in and out a couple of times. When I was back in I knew my back was broken. I guess my skull was fractured, too. It looks like these guys are lucky. They're getting out of the car on their own, limping out. When you're dead, you just walk out unmarked like nothing happened."

Martin shook his head.

"Dykstra's a heller," he said. "Reminds me of myself a little, but bigger, stronger and faster. But he'll try anything at least once, and if he likes it he'll keep coming back to it until it jumps up and bites him, like the poker game in Mississippi. I hate to think of what I would have been like if I had made the money these guys make. I guess I just would have been deader sooner."

The first police car came and the four former athletes who were involuntarily retired from the game of life watched the injured players try to convince the officers they were OK. But it was no good. The shock was wearing off now and the adrenalin rush of fear and apprehension was replaced by the cold throb of pain from their broken bones. The ambulance came and took them to the hospital.

"We never bleeping learn, do we?" Farrell said. "How many jocks is it now between drunk driving, drug overdoses, suicide? Hundreds? Thousands?"

They walked slowly back up to the wrought iron gate. In the distance, there was the soft, rhythmic swish, swish, swish of jump shots being feathered from 15 feet.

"He would have been a great one," Martin said softly. "What an athlete."

Bob Moose was still morose. "I was 29," he said. "Just a couple months older than Lenny Dykstra. My arm was shot, but my life was just starting. At the funeral, I looked down at myself and remembered the old movie line . . . Who said it, Tony Curtis? You know, 'Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.' "

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