PHILADELPHIA -- There was a different feeling at Veterans Stadium last night. In the Phillies clubhouse. In the dugout. On the field. In the stands. In the air.
It had nothing to do with the arrival of the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers, or the first appearance here in more than two years of semi-native son Orel Hershiser.
It had everything to do with the return of Lenny Dykstra.
"It's important for our ballclub," said Philadelphia catcher Darren Daulton. "If he's ready to play -- and nobody wants him to go out there if he's not ready -- you're looking at one of the best leadoff hitters in the game."
Dykstra disproved the notion that he was coming back prematurely. Two months and nine days after a alcohol-related automobile wreck nearly cost Dykstra his career, if not his life, the 28-year-old outfielder returned to the top of the Philadelphia batting order last night.
His presence put some much-needed life in a barely-breathing team. His first hit -- a single to left field to lead off the sixth inning, which was followed by a head-first steal of second -- started the rally and scored the go-ahead run in a 9-8 victory before a crowd of 31,262.
"On the field is where I belong, it's where I feel my best," Dykstra, who added another single in five at-bats, said at a post-game news conference. "I don't worry about nothing. I don't think about nothing. I just play. That's what they pay me to do."
The question whether he had fully recovered from his injuries, in particular a broken collarbone and fractured cheekbone, were answered by the way Dykstra played. The question of how vital he was to the Phillies was answered in the way they came back from an early 6-1 deficit.
"I think this club plays a little different with the guy in center field," said Phillies manager Jim Fregosi. "He amazes me."
But there are other questions to be answered. Will the events of the past few months, and the morning of May 6, make Dykstra finally grow up? Those who know him well think that the manchild who calls himself "Dude" has finally gotten a wake-up call for life.
Said Phillies second baseman Wally Backman, who has known Dykstra since they were New York Mets teammates in the mid-1980s. "He knows he made some mistakes. The best part about it is that he can do something to turn things around. A lot of people aren't as fortunate as he was."
Dykstra has spoken very little publicly about the accident, when he and Daulton were involved in a single-car crash coming back from teammate John Kruk's bachelor party at a suburban restaurant. Dykstra's sports car swerved off the road and hit a tree, throwing both unbelted players from the car.
Dykstra thought others were making more of his accelerated comeback than he was, telling the Philadelphia Daily News in yesterday's editions: "Everybody is acting like this is the day! This is the day! But I haven't faced live pitching in over two months. This will be one game out of a lot of games left in the season. You have to look at the big picture."
It is something that the Phillies are hoping Dykstra does. Two months before the accident, Dykstra was placed on a year's probation by commissioner Fay Vincent after admitting he lost $78,000 in a poker game in Mississippi during the off-season. Dykstra's probation is only related to the gambling charge.
Dykstra, who still faces a June 25 arraignment on the DWI charge, has taken his first step toward changing his public image by agreeing to donate $200 for each hit he gets the remainder of this season and in 1992 to a local children's hospital for cancer research.
Asked before last night's game if he had talked with Dykstra, and if he thought Dykstra learned from the events of the past few months, Fregosi said: "I've had conversations with him on a personal front. Hopefully, he has learned from it."
Daulton, who suffered a fractured orbital bone and has twice been on the disabled list, declined to talk about what he thought Dykstra might have learned from the accident. But Daulton knows how the near-tragic event changed his life.
"It's been a humbling experience," said Daulton, who was struggling (.184 batting average coming in) before his first career grand slam helped the Phillies' comeback. "It kind of picks up your faith a little more. It's made me a little stronger."
Dykstra was greeted warmly by the crowd last night, but it wasn't until after his first hit that the cheers grew noticeably louder. One of those applauding Dykstra's comeback was former Mets and current Dodgers pitcher Bob Ojeda.
Said Ojeda: "Let's turn the page and move forward. There have been a lot of people who obviously never made a mistake in their lives who've criticized him. But let him show that he can change his life. I'm happy he's come back."
So, too, are the Phillies.