By Bruce Buschel
Philadelphia Magazine, January 1993
You don’t often see a contortionist wearing a black leather Red skins cap in the baccarat pit playing around with $20,000 at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. You stop and watch. Though seated, his body is arced like a swimmer on a starting block, his chin resting on the large oblong table, his face hidden behind two upright cards, a cigarette burning between two fingers. The guy’s a southpaw. A single stack of orange chips is piled neatly before him—each one is worth $1,000 here at Resorts in Atlantic City. Baccarat players generally shy away from orange chips, even though baccarat is the elegant game of tuxedos and turbans and high-priced cleavage, the game of James Bond and jet-setters on the French Riviera.
You’ll have to pardon this guy’s French: After toying with his two cards interminably, he finally looks at them, is appalled by their markings, leaps to his feet, throws the losing cards high into the air and bellows, “Fuck me! This is brutal! Fucking brutal! Fuck me!”
It’s Lenny F-ing Dykstra. What a mouth on this guy—not just the utterances that pass through it, but the actual physical mouth. Never closed, even when its owner is ruminative or silent, it is the control center for heavy traffic. Things go in (filtered tips of cigarettes and clear liquids and fingers, one or two at a time) and things come out (a stream of profanity and filtered tips and gusts of smoke and fingers and a tongue). His tongue loves his lips. You can’t blame it. They are fine lips, bountiful, shapely, ideal for pursing or pouting. Women receive injections to achieve such lips. On the baseball field, where Dykstra spends the other seven months of the year, they are protected by coats of lip gloss, something with a double-digit SPF rating. While his tongue may flap or jut or merely hang about, its favorite activity is to travel lambently along the upper lip, sometimes leisurely, sometimes scurrying from corner to corner like a dazed lizard.
The croupier collects Dykstra’s three orange chips and passes the shoe—the card dispenser—to the far end of the table to the only other gambler, a bald, mild-mannered fellow.
Lenny the Lips locates his rolling chair, extinguishes his cigarette, watches a brunette exchange his soiled ashtray for a fresh one, lights another Salem with a thin gold lighter and counts his orange wafers: twenty-one. He decides to slide three more onto the space marked banker and offers encouragement to his hair less compadre. “Let’s go, dude. You’re the fucking man. Show me something.” His voice carries like a high fly caught in a swift wind. As the cards skim along the baize, Dykstra releases his face to a se ries of ticks and twitches, freezing his gaping yap as if to address an endodontist. It remains stretched wide until he sees his cards. He likes what he sees. He takes a deep drag. He expels abruptly.
“I love you, dude,” he says to the bald gambler, who nods meekly in acknowledgment. Dykstra compulsively smooths out his slender spire of chips; he keeps adding to the stack like a child testing how high his building blocks will climb before gravity in trudes.
Watching Lenny Dykstra gamble is like having an orchestra seat at a one-character David Mamet tragicomic psychodrama.You enjoy the ride. You know it will end badly.
“We’re on a fucking roll, dude.”
And so are we. Watching Lenny Dykstra gamble is like having an orchestra seat at a one-character David Mamet tragicomic psychodrama. You are appalled and delighted by the language and the largesse, the exposed and tortured soul. You enjoy the ride. You know it will end badly.
A dozen strangers are loitering at the entrance to the pit, watching the littlest Phillie go through his off-season regimen: tossing cards to keep his arm in shape, honing hand-eye coordination by betting, smoking, stacking and drinking simultaneously. He never does nothing. After performing before tens of thousands of screaming-meemies, a handful of hushed spectators won’t inhibit his hyper reverie; degenerate gamblers are in heaven when in action, and Dykstra has been known to wager on tennis and golf and dice and football and poker and the accuracy of his own expecto rated tobacco juice.
The Banker is hot. The center fielder settles into a giddy superstitious spree, talking to himself, taking short circular walks, continually licking those luxurious lips like a nervous ingénue confronting a camera. Everyone knows the outcome of each hand the instant he does. No poker face, he is easier to read than a road side billboard. In baccarat, it doesn’t matter.
The rules of the game are simple. The gambler with the shoe deals two cards each to another participant (Player) and to himself (Banker). The closest to nine points wins. Tens and face cards count as zero, aces as one. A third card may be drawn, if needed. The gambler makes one decision: bet on Banker or Player. You win whatever you bet, dollar for dollar; the casino takes a five per cent fee—vigorish—on Banker wins. In France, the game is called chemin de fer (railroad) because it moves at great speeds, money changing hands every minute, 60 or 70 times an hour. The game requires no talent at all. If you bat .400, you’re a stone loser.
Losing does not concern Lenny the Lips. Having won a dozen hands in a row, the streak hitter keeps ponying up the orange on Banker and the Banker keeps paying. Every so often, Dykstra removes his cap, mops his brow, strokes his thick brown hair, shoos invisible insects from his cheeks, fiddles with the sleeves of his black sweatshirt. The routine is familiar to baseball fans. Each hand is approached with the same intensity as a bases-loaded at-bat. You’d have no trouble spotting him at a masquerade ball. It’s impossible, in fact, to imagine him behaving any differently in any setting at any time.
Santa Ana, California, 1968, Kindergarten. After milk and cookies, Miss Crabapple announces naptime. Little Lenny flits about, nervous as a mayfly. “Lenny Dykstra—it is naptime,” insists Miss Crabapple. “Go tuck yourself,” says little Lenny, who crashes into the blackboard, knocks over the Lego castle, races through the halls spitting milk. Miss Crabapple can only step back and say, “He’s impossible, but he’s so adorable.”
“You’re the best, dude!” yells Lenny across the long table, wagging his index finger and winking. Exhilarated by his success—his tower of orange power has reached $40,000—one forgets about the Mercedes he wrapped around a Main Line tree, forgets about the year probation meted out by the baseball commissioner’s office after Dykstra lost $78,000 to shady crackers in a shady Mississippi poker game, forgets about the busted collarbone and broken wrist and large chunks of the past two seasons lost to self-destruction. But forgetting is the point.
“He puts on a great show,” says a voice in the crowd.
“Better than Cher. I saw her last week.”
“He’s the Wayne Newton of baccarat—the hardest-working gambler I ever saw.” They all laugh.
Laughter comes easily as long as Lenny F-ing Dykstra is winning. He’s breaking no laws, not imbibing like the Babe or scuffling like the Georgia Peach or abusing women, children or imported vehicles. Just a fun-loving jock doing what jocks have always done to fill the long months between games. A competitor needs competition. Perhaps his good fortune foreshadows that of the Phils. You root for him, the cute bugger, somehow finding your own joy in his.
If Lenny Dykstra had a sudden urge for a gigantic wad of chewing tobacco, Merv Griffin himself might whip out the Red Man and shine up the spittoon.
A casino rep in a sharp suit and expensive haircut descends into the baccarat pit. He whispers to Lenny and lays a room key next to his orange stack. Word has reached important ears, and the casino has reacted swiftly, predictably. Merv Griffin’s Resorts doesn’t want Lenny Dykstra leaving any time soon, not with their lucre. They encourage him to stick around. He is a soft player: With patience, and a little flattery, he’ll return his winnings. And more. Last week, he lost a bundle at Caesars. He did not go gently into that good night. But casinos are as tolerant as saints when you’re a high roller at low ebb. They will overlook boorish behavior, the legality of your habits, the source of your money, the date on your birth certificate. They will indulge, acquiesce, coddle. They will, in effect, treat you like a baseball team does. Such enterprises are shamelessly accommodating when you deliver the goods, be they line drives or hard cash. If you bet big enough, casinos will provide suites, Sinatra, credit, champagne, jewelry, cruises, cars, Super Bowl parties, private jets, ringside seats at prizefights. When a renowned high and holy roller had trouble getting away from his wife a few years ago, one casino flew the missus to Paris on a shopping trip; she was bought fancy dresses even as her husband was losing his shirt. If Lenny Dykstra had a sudden urge for a gigantic wad of chewing tobacco, Merv Griffin himself might whip out the Red Man and shine up the spittoon.
After treading water for awhile, two losses turn into four. Dykstra keeps banging away on Banker, though the streak is over. Four losses turn into eight. He avoids Player like the plague. He is betting five thou a pop now. He is not winning. He is walking more and cursing louder and slamming the table. As if to make certain these hexed cards will not be used again, he bends them, tosses them, launches them like Frisbees. The casino is only too happy to pass him more cards for mutilation. After one close loss, he tries to throw the card shoe onto some distant table; it is attached by a chain and boomerangs back. He smacks it like a disobedient dog.
Suddenly, you know all the money will disappear. The orange tree will be chopped down. You know it and the casino knows it and the bald guy knows it and maybe Lenny knows it too. He scales down his bets to two thou. All levity is gone. “Fuck me’s” shower the baccarat pit like hailstones. His facial expressions now appear as painful disfigurements. The roll has taken a new direction, a downward, unstoppable spiral.
Having lost $40,000, the orange mountain is a molehill. The Banker and the Lips have lost ten hands in a row. After ten consecutive curve balls, what kind of hitter would still be looking fastball?
Cards keep coming, coming. Wordlessly, Dykstra bolts for the men’s room. The half-dozen croupiers and dealers step back, giving him a wide berth. It is his third such break in the last 30 minutes. He is not drinking enough to require such frequency. The croupiers roll their eyes, sigh with relief; they relax in his absence. “Always exciting when Mr. Dykstra is here,” confides one. “We see him every other week and we never know what he’ll do next. He’s a real trip.” Maybe Mr. Dykstra uses the lavatory as a meditation room; maybe he punches a stall and splashes his face and feels better; maybe he looks at himself in the mirror and feels worse.
The crowd outside the baccarat pit has grown in size and animation. The identity of the gambler is whispered down the lane.
“That’s right, Dykstra, the guy on TV who warns kids about drinking and driving.”
“Shit—he just lost more money than most people make in a year.”
“Phillies better trade his ass, pronto. This guy’s out of control.”
Mr. Lenny F-ing Dykstra returns. Looks renewed. Lights a Salem.
“Let’s get down to fucking business. All right, dude?”
Down is the key word: down to ten chips. Ten G’s. The once unmanageable stack is very stable. Two chips are placed on Banker. Lenny the Lips deals himself two cards. He throws over a red queen. He throws over a black four. He is given a red eight. He loses. He curses. He rubs out one Salem and ignites another. He pushes another two chips onto Banker.
The bald guy at the other end of the long table, who has held his counsel throughout, now asks softly, with heartbreak in his voice, “What are you doing, Lenny?”
Lenny is taken aback. Way back. Someone has actually spoken to him, said what needed to be said, and you realize how alone Dykstra has been. No wife, no entourage, no buddies. Self-flagellation is a gambler’s best friend.
“Why you wanna show me up, dude?” he beseeches. “Why?”
Dykstra rises now, as does his anger.
“I give a fuck about the money! I know how much fucking money I’m losing. It’s my fucking money! I know how much fucking money I’m fucking losing! I give a fuck! I give a fuck! Fuck you!” It is the first invective aimed at someone other than him self. His rage has turned outward. His body follows. He takes off after the guy, dashing around the table, nostrils flaring, fists clenched, cap flying off like Willie Mays darting for a sinking liner.
If the bald man were lucky, really lucky, if all his planets were in alignment, Mr. Dykstra would land one good portside punch, break the guy’s nose, maybe a jawbone, and the bald man would see stars and then a lawyer. Oh, what glorious litigation! Against Dykstra, against Resorts, the croupiers, the casino commission, Merv! This could have been his greatest night ever at a casino: medical bills, mental anguish, public humiliation, time lost from work, recurring baseball nightmares. Thwack! A one-punch wind fall.
No such luck. Three croupiers jump between the marauding center fielder and the startled gambler, forming a human wall. Mr. Dykstra bounces off the wall. He is quickly restrained by four casino employees, like teammates halting an inchoate fracas with an umpire. It’s an old-fashioned rhubarb; a lot of feckless jostling. Mr. Dykstra regains his composure. He stands there, menacingly, glowering at the top of the bald man’s bare head. Unaccustomed to such physical threats, the poor fellow is scared just this side of cardiac infarction. (That would be another lollapalooza lawsuit, though far less appealing and harder to prove.) His hands and his cards shake visibly. Mr. Dykstra is escorted back to his seat, his squinty eyes fixed on the trembling object of his scorn.
If, at this point, you expect the pit boss to eject the little lout, to wave his right arm and bark a thunderous “You’re outta here!” then you don’t know the rules of the casino league. No reprimands, no suspensions—Mr. Dykstra still has a few thousand bucks on the table, and it would be imprudent to expel him just yet.
“I give a fuck,” Mr. Dykstra keeps muttering, “I give a fuck.” Now thoroughly distracted, chips are wagered and lost without reaction. It’s the bottom of the ninth and no one’s on base and he’s down 47,000 to nothing. Mr. Dykstra slides his last three orange wafers onto Banker. Strike three. Game over.
He ascends from the hellish pit. As he walks by, you want to reach out to him and say, “Hey, Lenny, hey dude, can I do some thing to help?”
You don’t dare.
You already know the answer.
He does too. That’s why Mr. Dykstra bet every last penny on the Banker and not one on the Player. Not one.
Let’s be clear: I was a huge Lenny Dysktra fan. Loved everything about the guy, from his hell-bent talent to his rhino thighs to his masculine lisp. He was adorable, even when cursing a blue streak and leaving tobacco leaves scattered on his lower lip. I wrote about him during the Phillies/Blue Jays World Series:
Lenny Dysktra shakes the moisture from his helmet and eyeballs Al Leiter. Leiter delivers. Lenny swings, swiftly, compactly. Holy shit! Another long shot into the right-field bleachers. Poof, just like that! Dykstra trots around the bases, his face impassive, gazing into some private, parallel universe. As he rounds third, quite business-like, one deliriously tabulates his stats for this game: Four runs, four rbi’s, two homers, one double, one walk, one stolen base, and it’s only the fifth frigging inning of the fourth frigging game of the World Frigging Series. The Babe ever do that? The Mick? Move over, men, here’s the Dude, who just passed Joe D. with his eighth and ninth post-season blasts.
Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, Lenny.
In the offseason before that, I was writing about Atlantic City for Philadelphia Magazine. Most of the stories were as depressing as the town itself, a place made even poorer and bleaker by the legalization of gambling. So it appeared to be a sweet treat when, walking back to my room one night, minding my own business, a crowd gathered at a baccarat table. I followed the action. Lo and behold, it was Dykstra. None of us could take our eyes off him. He was superglue. For the next 60 minutes, I watched the collection and subsequent demolition of a very tall stack of very expensive chips.
Unfortunately, unintentionally, that one hour was a life in microcosm.
After the story appeared, Dykstra denied it ever happened. And then threatened a lawsuit. The lawsuit was the only thing that never happened. I still love Lenny Dykstra.