If Dykstra's done, he can haul aching back to bank

June 23, 1996|By John Harper | John Harper,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Has Lenny Dykstra played his last big-league game?

Dykstra, whose trade to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1989 came to symbolize the mismanagement of the post-'86 New York Mets, announced Thursday that he will have season-ending back surgery to correct a condition called spinal stenosis.

And then what? At 33, Lenny's no kid anymore. The back surgery, which will entail a shaving of the spinal column, is said to require 12-16 months recovery time. That could wipe out the '97 season.

And while Dykstra said, "I'm definitely not thinking about retirement," he made it clear this is no simple surgery.

"They're saying they can make the back better," said Dykstra, who consulted three specialists, "but they have no idea how much. It's risky, but right now they said my back's like a 50- or 60-year-old's back."

If Dykstra can't play next year, he would be trying to come back at age 35 after nearly two years of inactivity. Given his penchant for gambling and good times, who knows what kind of shape he'll be in by then.

He won't need the money -- not unless he goes overboard at the casino tables. Dykstra will long reap the benefits of the Phillies' giddiness that came with their 1993 World Series appearance.

It was immediately following that Series, during which Dykstra played brilliantly to cap a great season, that owner Bill Giles rushed to give Lenny a contract extension. Signed through '94 at the time, Dykstra signed a four-year extension through 1998 worth a guaranteed $22.5 million.

But because of injuries, he has done precious little since then. He played only 84 games in '94, hitting .273, and 62 games last year, hitting .264. This season, he hit .261 in 40 games before a rib-cage injury sidelined him. The injury kept him from doing his daily exercises, and soon the back condition worsened.

The Phillies aren't feeling so good either. They owe Dykstra $5.7 million this season, another $11 million over the next two seasons, and come 1999 they have a $6 million option on him or have to buy him out for $500,000.

They also owe Darren Daulton $10 million over this season and next, but they announced Thursday that after missing most of the season with a knee injury, Daulton is coming back soon as a first baseman. Gregg Jefferies will move to left.

Ah, the risks of long-term contracts. But you have to wonder what the Phillies were thinking when they extended Dykstra's deal a year ahead of time. Lenny has long been noted for playing as hard off the field as he does on. He nearly killed himself as well as Daulton in 1991, crashing his Mercedes into a tree on the way home from John Kruk's bachelor party.

He has always been injury-prone, and then there is the matter of steroids. Dykstra has made jokes about his remarkable ability to show up every other spring training or so looking like the Incredible Hulk, and it has never become an issue in part because baseball doesn't even have a policy regarding steroids.

You would think the Phillies had to realize Dykstra could pay a price eventually, but Giles loved his all-out style so much that he couldn't wait to reward him for his '93 season. It is much the way Mets fans felt about little Lenny before he was traded in 1989, and indeed he was a delight to watch.

It will be a shame if Dykstra doesn't play again. If the back condition is congenital, as is the official word, it's a bad break. But more than a few people wonder if those "real good vitamins" that Dykstra jokingly credited for his new-found muscle didn't somehow play a role in such a debilitating injury.

That would be a bigger shame.

Best and worst of Oz

Best part about Ozzie Smith's retirement announcement was the highlights it brought out of the closet. That play he made when he was still with the Padres, diving to his left and reaching back to bare-hand a bad hop while in midair is the most spectacular you'll ever see. . . until Rey Ordonez does something better.

Ozzie's a first-ballot Hall of Famer on my score card because his defense had such a lasting impact on ballgames. And he is beloved in St. Louis, largely because he went out of his way to be nice to Cardinal fans, most any time, any place.

If only he hadn't whined so much. At times, Ozzie seemed to be convinced the world was against him. In 1985 he was convinced the media wanted to see the Mets, not the Cardinals, win the NL East, and at times he seemed consumed by what he considered a lack of respect.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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