In a 1994, ten-year-old Dan Herman stepped to the plate during a Little League championship game in Mount Laurel, NJ. The score was tied. Smaller than most of his teammates, and not as fast, Herman was not exactly a star athlete. The pitcher threw him a fastball. Herman swung his bat, connecting solidly, and watched the ball sail over the outfield fence.
Seventeen years later, the amazement in Herman’s voice is still palpable. He had hit the game-winning homerun. As he rounded the bases, teammates chanted, “Nails! Nails! Nails!”—the nickname he had appropriated from his favorite major leaguer, Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, who had just led the hometown Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series.
Dykstra, now 48, epitomized gritty determination more than any ballplayer of his generation. His cockiness and competitive zeal were legendary. Boys throughout the greater Philadelphia metropolitan region idolized him.
For Herman, the connection was even greater. In 1991, at age 7, he went into a sporting goods store near his father’s office. By chance, Dykstra was there buying a pair of tennis shoes. The impression that a star athlete has on a young boy can be enormous. Herman, in awe, approached his hero.
“He changed my life,” Herman said. “He told me, ‘Listen man, you’re only seven years old. You can be president some day.’” The baseball player’s words seemed like prophecy; it was as if young Herman had been granted license to succeed. “It didn’t matter if I wasn’t the biggest kid or the strongest kid. I was going to be just like Lenny. I would work really hard, harder than anyone else, and be successful.”
Now 27, Herman is indeed something of a success. While going to college at Penn State Altoona, he was paying $500 a month in rent for a room in a beat-up house. The house was only worth $30,000. He convinced others to help him buy the property, then rented out rooms to fellow students. He parlayed the investment into other real estate ventures. Eventually, he founded Chinga-Chang Records, a hip-hop label. Today, he classifies himself as a self-taught entrepreneur.
“I’m not a millionaire yet,” he says. “But I’m close.”
In the days leading up to the publication of this article, I asked Herman to send me some photos. His Little League photo (top of the page) was among the ones he shared. “That’s the one my mother hopes you use,” he told me.
His offhand comment touched me. Herman is a grown man. I imagined the conversations that he and his mother must have had, leading to her endorsement of the photo.
Marilyn Dykstra, Lenny’s mom, no longer speaks to her son.
After retiring from baseball, Lenny established a chain of high-end car washes that he eventually sold for $38 million. Improbably, he gained a reputation as a high-flying financial guru. He touted investment strategies on CNBC, where Jim Cramer sang his praises, and published newsletters that were eagerly read within the day trading community.
By 2009 however, Lenny’s finances unraveled. He had an insatiable appetite for luxury goods of any stripe and could not rein in his spending habits. A series of bad investments and insanely stupid decisions cut into his income. He was hemorrhaging money. He summoned Dorothy Van Kalsbeek, his personal accountant, to a Camarillo, California airport hangar, where he dropped a huge black duffel at her feet.
“It was enormous,” Van Kalsbeek says. “And it was stuffed.”
The bag was stuffed with unpaid bills.
Jeff Pearlman, a reporter who has followed Dykstra for decades, wrote about the encounter in a recent Maxim article. “Do me a favor,” said Dykstra, his spirits as low as his credit rating. “Go through these and tell me where I’m at.”
Van Kalsbeek eventually told him what he expected: he was broke.
At 6 a.m. on March 23, 2009, Dykstra was stranded at a Cleveland airport. He called his mother. He had only spoken to her once in the previous three years.
“Mom. I need money,” he said.
Moderately-priced commercial flights did not appeal to him. He wanted to charter a private jet. This is why he needed his mother’s money.
As Kevin Dykstra, Lenny’s brother, later told ESPN Magazine:
“[Lenny] had no money. He’s on the phone, crying to my mom, saying he has got to get home and he’s in Cleveland, Ohio. He asked my mom to put up her credit card for 23 grand. That is just sick, dude. The whole family is mad and she’s all sad, saying he caught her off guard. She was asleep. He was crying to her, man.”
Dykstra never repaid his mother. That is why Marilyn Dykstra no longer speaks to her son.
Few one-time celebrities have behaved as badly as Dykstra, who now resides at a swank Hollywood Hills drug rehab facility while awaiting sentencing on grand theft auto charges. Google Lenny and you’ll find stories of him bouncing checks to prostitutes, maxing-out friends’ credit cards, and defrauding his brothers. Soon, in separate cases, he will face charges of indecent exposure and embezzlement.
As Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Alex Karkanen said, “He has scammed everybody he knows.”
Dykstra’s former personal assistant, a single mother, claimed that Dykstra never repaid her for $7,300 worth of office supplies and business expenses he had charged to her credit card.
“Ninety percent of my day was spent on the phone, consoling people who were owed money,” the assistant said. “Jet company owners, printing companies, people trying to put food on the table, landscapers … it was all day, every day. I’d get calls at 6 a.m., [people] screaming at me, cursing at me.”
That wasn’t the worst thing about working for Dykstra.
“He ogled my then 11-year-old daughter’s chest with no shame when I worked for him… He is the most disgusting form of life walking the earth.”
America being America, every B-list celebrity has an entourage of apologists and enablers. In this, Dykstra is no exception.
A few years ago, Dan Herman became one of Dykstra’s people. Or, more precisely, he became his business manager. He booked appearances for Dykstra at lucrative autograph shows. He built websites, facilitated Twitter feeds, and plotted strategies to restore Dykstra’s credibility, an especially daunting task given the swirl of lurid allegations. He even contributed $30,000 towards Dykstra’s bail fund. He was, if you will, committed to the man.
“I was the one guy who would go to the press and on radio stations to defend Lenny when everyone else was calling him a creep.”
Responding to a paid escort’s account of Dykstra snorting cocaine, Herman told a Miami radio audience, “Lenny doesn’t do cocaine. If he was snorting anything, it was Adderall.”
In Herman’s eyes, his hero could do no wrong. “I grew up watching him play baseball. I really believed he was innocent.”
Dykstra played his last major league game in 1996. In his prime, some people considered him the best lead-off hitter in the history of the game. His best season was in 1993, when he led the National League in runs, hits, walks, and at-bats while propelling the Phillies to the World Series.
As fantastic as his career was, he was equally known for his off-the-field recklessness. In 1991, driving home drunk from a bachelor party, he crashed his red Mercedes into two trees, nearly ending his life and that of teammate Darren Daulton. He gambled, legally and illegally, prompting Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent to officially reprimand him. He got into a brawl with a Pennsylvania state senator, who objected to Dykstra’s loud, foul-mouthed behavior at a restaurant where both were lunching.
“I’m going to drop you, dude,” Dykstra yelled at the state senator.
Outspoken rude behavior was one of his defining traits.
Jeff Pearlman related another incident in The Bad Guys Won!, his chronicle of the New York Mets’ 1986 championship season:
“Once, a bunch of the Mets spent a couple of hours at a collectibles show in New Jersey. Dykstra signed hundreds of items, rarely glancing up from behind his sunglasses. Near the end of the session, a Roseanne Barr look-alike handed him a baseball. Dykstra snapped. ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘you are too fuckin’ fat for me to sign this thing for you!’ Security was called in to escort Dykstra to his car.”
Today, Dykstra remains a guilty pleasure for the mainstream media. He is the fallen idol who once led the life of a rockstar. The American Dream gone off the rails. A spectacular flame-out.
Last week, The New York Daily News interviewed Dykstra at his drug rehab center. “[He] said his demons were wine, vodka, pain pills, party drugs and the rush he got blowing through his millions.”
As Nickleback sang in their smash song, “Rockstar”
“’Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars
Livin’ in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars
The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap
We’ll all stay skinny cause we just won’t eat”
A month after the video was shot, Dykstra bought the Gretzky home for $18.5 million. It would prove his undoing. The mortgage terms were not favorable. He was launching a high-end print magazine, an insanely expensive proposition that further strained his finances. Four months after buying the house, he failed to make a $260,000 payment to his magazine’s printer, the first of many financial obligations he would be unable to meet.
Though he tried to patch himself up with a slew of stop-gap loans, he would never again regain solid financial footing. Creditors repossessed his $400,000 black Rolls Royce Phantom, his $370,000 Maybach, his $53,000 Porsche. So too went his $2 million Gulfstream jet.
In his July 2009 bankruptcy filing, he declared debts of $50 million against less than $50,000 in assets. Acutely conscious of all status indicators, he listed one of his most valuable assets as a $10,000 purebred German shepherd.
If I were to interview Dykstra, I’d ask how it felt to take possession of the Gretzky house. Most of the Gretzky furniture and fixtures conveyed with the house. Click on the photos in the preceding two links, especially if you who get a thrill from real estate porn. By all accounts, the home was one of the showcase properties in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan region, its craftsmanship and attention to detail unparalleled. Bricks were custom-colored, the interiors decorated with silk, wools, and chenille.
As I write this, my ten-year-old son prattles in the next room about Robin Van Persie, the Arsenal striker who currently leads the English Premier League in goals. He does this quite often, weaving a running commentary of Van Persie’s soccer exploits: “Van Persie chests down a cross at the top of the penalty box from Aaron Ramsey, weaves around three defenders, and strikes a brilliant volley for another brilliant goal!”
Whenever I intrude upon his Van Persie fantasies, he becomes quiet: This is his guilty pleasure.
Still, there is an innocence to what he imagines about his hero. My son doesn’t know that, growing up, Van Persie was a legendary trouble-maker in his Rotterdam school. He doesn’t know about the rape allegations that landed him in jail for two weeks and threatened to end his marriage. To my son, Van Persie is simply someone who kicks a soccer ball extraordinarily well.
When I first interviewed Dan Herman, I expected him to be as sleazy as Lenny Dykstra. Call me cynical, or call it guilt by association, but it came as something of a shock to realize that Herman is fundamentally decent.
Why would a normal person put up with Dykstra’s obscene shenanigans?
It wasn’t the money. Though Herman may have been one of the few people not to actually lose money because of his acquaintance with Dykstra, neither did he make a lot of money. Jail stints, drug use, and moral turpitude compromised Dykstra’s income potential. At best, he was a problem client who failed to show up at many of the card shows and personal appearance gigs Herman booked for him. At worst, he was a nightmare: someone who could not be convinced that responsible behavior might actually have positive commercial consequences.
I keep trying to imagine how my son would react if Robin Van Persie were to reveal to him some prophecy of greatness. What would the impact be? Ten-year-old boys can be amazingly innocent and impressionable. Would my son carry the moment with him for the rest of his life, or would he shrug it off like the advice (Don’t procrastinate! Brush your teeth!) I give him?
(In fairness to Van Persie, he seems to have changed his life around rather nicely and might now actually be a worthy role model.)
Herman ended his association with Dykstra a few Saturdays ago. He had booked him to fight former Oakland A’s slugger Jose Canseco in a pay-per-view Celebrity Fight Night event. Promoters pre-paid (in cash) a hefty portion of Dykstra’s $15,000 appearance fee, yet Dykstra was a no-show.
“Now that I’m looking back at it, I believe [Dykstra] had no intention of fighting,” Herman said. “In the back of his head, he was thinking that they’d give him the money and not bother to ask for it back. He was just going to take their money and run.”
Celebrity Fight Night participants are generally overweight, down-on-their-luck ex-celebs fighting to recapture a toehold in the public eye. Kato Kaelin. Joey Buttafuoco. Coolio.
The crowd was not impressed. They booed.
At a certain moment during the Octomom-Amy Fisher bout, something clenched in Herman’s gut. He was seated, ringside, in a crowd of rockstar wannabes, all of them living a cheap, artificial dream. “It suddenly dawned on me that everything around me was false,” he said. “It was like sitting in this medieval English freak show. I had devoted the last few years of my life [to Dykstra], who I suddenly realized was as bad as everyone said. I was a downed power line. All my energy, all my talents were being wasted. It all came to me that everyone was right: Lenny had conned me too, just like he conned everyone else.”
Rarely does a homerun or touchdown change what we know or value about the world. Nor, for the vast majority of us, are the skills we learn on the playing field directly translatable into real-world job skills. Yet sports can provide a lasting sense of accomplishment. Especially for the young.
Four years ago, Herman was promoting a DJ Premier/Kool G Rap/Haylie Duff record. Lenny’s people heard a radio interview and contacted him. At the time, Lenny’s fortunes were just beginning to derail. Connections were made, a friendship formed. “I really wanted to get [Dykstra] on the comeback track,” Herman said. “He had meant so much to me. It would have made me feel good to give something back to him.”
With the benefit of hindsight, he now believes that his Dykstra reclamation project was somehow connected to reclaiming some earlier version of himself.
Asked what he’d tell Lenny today, Herman chooses his words carefully.
“You are the biggest disappointment I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I want to remember you for what you were rather than what you actually became.”
What was Lenny?
“The coaches awarded me the game ball,” Herman says, thinking back to his long-ago Little League triumph. Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. Championship game. Score tied. The fastball. The swing. The game-winning blast.
Hearing him talk about it now, you can almost see the ball whistle over the fence.
“That was something,” he says.
For a brief moment, in his ten-year-old world, he was a rockstar.