As an eighteen-year-old, Dykstra joined the Shelby Mets of the Sally League mid-season and made an immediate impact. Despite being younger than most of his competition, Dykstra posted a respectable .261 batting average to go along with 37 walks and 15 stolen bases in just 157 at-bats. Considering his age relative to the league, his plate discipline was very highly-developed, a trait that can often portend future success against stronger opposition.
As a 20-year-old the following season he was promoted to High-A Lynchburg of the Carolina League and showed a devastating combination of patience and speed that would make Rickey Henderson proud. Dykstra drew 107 walks and stole 105 bases (in 128 attempts, an 82% success rate), and posted an astounding .358/.472/.503 batting line. The season would prove to be an outlier in the power department when considering his entire minor league career. The following year he slugged just .389 at Double-A Jackson, though his .372 on-base percentage was still very strong.
He began the 1985 season with Triple-A Tidewater, showing a strong walk rate and little extra-base ability. When infielder Ron Gardenhire was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a pulled hamstring on May 2, the Mets called Dykstra up to take his place on the big league roster. While Mookie Wilson rested a sore right shoulder, Dykstra started three straight games in center for the Mets, picking up five hits in his first twelve at-bats including a homerun in his second big league plate appearance (he struck out in his first).
Dykstra's first big league stint lasted barely a week, as he was promptly returned to Tidewater when the Mets recalled Sid Fernandez on May 11. Dykstra spent the next month in Triple-A before again being summoned by the Mets -- this time for good -- when they sent struggling starter Calvin Schiraldi back to the minors.
Dykstra appeared in 85 games with the Mets in 1985, platooning with Wilson in center field. Facing mostly right-handed pitchers, Dykstra hit a nothing-special .254/.338/.331 over 273 plate appearances. The Mets won 98 games that season, falling just three games shy of the Cardinals for NL East supremacy.
When Spring arrived in 1986, Dykstra was preparing to split time again in center when Wilson was struck in the eye with a ball during a routine baserunning drill. Dykstra got most of the playing time in Wilson's absence, though he was still benched against tough lefties in favor of Kevin Mitchell. For his part, Dykstra saw Wilson's injury as an opportunity.
"Two days ago I was looking at Wilson being ready to play at the start of the season. Now they're counting on me to do the job. Not to pinch-hit or pinch-run or get in the game every fourth day."Dykstra made good on his word, putting together a tremendous season at the plate and hitting .295/.377/.445 as the Mets coasted to their first NL East title in thirteen years. Dykstra's 32.7 VORP was the second-highest among National League centerfielders, trailing only future Met -- and then-Padre -- Kevin McReynolds.
"Last year, I was watching the guys on TV in the minor leagues. Then I was the rookie. Well, that's gone. I feel for Mookie, but I'm not going to lay back. I'll go twice as hard and force [manager] Davey [Johnson] to make a decision when Mookie comes back".
-- New York Times, 5/6/1986
Dykstra was even better during the Mets' 1986 postseason run, hitting .304/.360/.565 in the NLCS against the Astros, including a game-winning two-run homer off Dave Smith in the second game of the series. Of the home run, Dykstra said:
"The last time I hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to win a game I was playing my Strat-o-matic baseball game, rolling dice against my brother Kevin".Dykstra also played a pivotal role in the Mets' ninth inning rally in Game 6, leading off the frame with a triple and eventually scoring the first of three runs that would tie the game and send it to extras. Seven innings later, Dykstra scored Wally Backman with a single that gave the Mets a 7-4 lead in the top of the sixteenth. What seemed like a tack-on run at the time turned out to be the game-winner after Jesse Orosco allowed two Astros to score in the bottom of the sixteenth before striking out Kevin Bass to send the Mets to the World Series.
-- New York Times, 10/12/1986
Dykstra continued his torrent hitting in the World Series, batting .296/.345/.519 in 27 at-bats, including a leadoff homerun in a must-win Game 3 and a second put-away blast that extended the Mets' lead to 5-0 in Game 4. He also contributed a pinch-hit single and a run in a three-run seventh inning of Game 7 that propelled the Mets to the series victory.
With a terrific season under his belt and a World Series ring on his finger, Dykstra arrived at spring training in 1987 as the Mets' starting center fielder and a raise in salary from $92,500 to $202,500. A rough spring left his starting aspirations in doubt, though, and Davey Johnson made it known that Dykstra's hold on center field was becoming tenuous. Johnson put Dykstra on notice:
"What I was really saying is that Lenny oughta get his stuff together. Maybe he was thinking about all the banquets and worrying about selling too many posters."Mookie Wilson did get a bunch of starts against lefties in 1987, but Dykstra shouldered most of the load in center. His production fell off a bit from his '86 numbers, but he still hit a solid .285/.352/.455 and was again one of the better hitters at his position in the National League. The Mets finished with 92 wins, sixteen less than the previous year and three fewer than the NL East Champion Cardinals.
-- New York Times, 3/29/1987
Dykstra bulked up during that offseason and showed up for training camp in 1988 with an extra twenty pounds added to his 5'10" frame. The irony is that his training diligence didn't impress his manager, but rather infuriated him. Further, Dykstra actually had his worst full season in the power department, collecting just 30 extra-base hits (eight homeruns) and slugging a wimpy .385. Though his regular season was less than stellar, Dykstra turned it on in the NLCS against the Dodgers, hitting .429/.600/.857 in 14 at-bats.
Dykstra won his salary arbitration case prior to the 1989 season and was awarded a $575,000 contract, a hefty raise from the $305,000 he made in 1988. Despite the raise, Dykstra had grown frustrated with the center field time-share he was still involved in with Mookie Wilson. After voicing his concerns to management, Dykstra asked to be traded so that he could become a full-time starter elsewhere. The Mets had trade discussions with the Yankees in spring training that would have ultimately shipped Dykstra to the Bronx, but nothing ever materialized from those conversations.
Dykstra hit pretty well to start the 1989 season, batting .270/.362/.415 through June 18. That day would turn out to be Dykstra's last as a Met, as he was sent packing to Philadelphia along with Roger McDowell in exchange for center fielder Juan Samuel. Dykstra was excited about the change of scenery:
"For me, this isn't that sad. This is the time for me to make a move. I'm 26 and I've been here nearly five years. Maybe it's time to show I can hit those left-handed pitchers."The trade would turn out to be a bad one for the Mets, as Samuel hit an incomprehensible .228/.299/.300 in 333 at-bats over the remainder of the 1989 season before getting traded again, this time to the Dodgers for Alejandro Pena and Mike Marshall.
-- New York Times, 6/19/1989
Dykstra was thrice an All Star for the Phillies, finishing in the Top-10 in MVP voting twice, including a second-place finish in 1993 when he hit .305/.420/.482 for the National League pennant-winners. Injuries cut his career short, as he appeared in just 40 games as a 33-year-old in 1996 and retired two years later after a couple of unsuccessful comeback attempts.
Always a fan-favorite at Shea, Dykstra's reputation has recently taken a hit following his inclusion in the Mitchell Report, which alleged that he had used anabolic steroids during his Major League career. If steroids indeed helped Dykstra add muscle following the 1987 season, Met fans can find some solace in the fact that his best years in Flushing actually came before he began his workout regimen. Regardless, Dykstra was terrific for one season as a Met and very good in two others, and he was a key component in the team's World Series Championship in 1986.
Long live "Nails".