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Hitting Cleanup
Alan Shipnuck
July 12, 2004
In a 12-year major league career. Nails was best known for his hard living and down-and-dirty style. So how did he polish up his act? By opening an upscale chain of car washes
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July 12, 2004

Hitting Cleanup

In a 12-year major league career. Nails was best known for his hard living and down-and-dirty style. So how did he polish up his act? By opening an upscale chain of car washes

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Dykstra is not a member of what he calls "the lucky sperm club," which is to say he wasn't born rich. His parents worked for the phone company in Garden Grove, a working-class corner of Orange County. Swinging for the fences in the business world, he has aligned himself with Jay Penske, the son of billionaire Roger Penske, who has made his name in auto racing but made his fortune in trucking. In an attempt to distance himself from his dad's businesses and legacy, the younger Penske is striking out on his own as the president and CEO of Velocity Services Inc., an Internet service provider. He and Dykstra became friends through mutual acquaintances and now have a business partnership. Dykstra is working with VSI to help "many of the nation's largest sports organizations further their brands online," says Penske. "We're talking serious glue," Dykstra says, invoking a favorite euphemism for money.

On a recent afternoon Dykstra swung by a title company in Simi Valley to tidy up the paperwork on a construction loan for $3,048,000. He was so nonchalant when it came time to sign the loan documents he could have been autographing a baseball card. Then he jumped into his gleaming silver BMW sedan and headed for home in Thousand Oaks. Dykstra has one of the more prestigious addresses in Southern California, on the first fairway of plush Sherwood Country Club, the host course of Tiger Woods's off-season event, the Target World Challenge. Driving past the guardhouse of his sequestered community, Dykstra said with a crooked smile, "Ah, the pearly gates."

Sherwood is blighted by plenty of ostentatious Xanadus, but the 9,000-square-foot Dykstra home is classy and understated, the kind of place you find lining the old golf courses in Westchester County, N.Y. The walls are covered with family photos and a six-figure art collection. The few reminders of Dykstra's playing days are ironic, like the poster in Luke's room, a beefcake shot of a young, shirtless Nails oiled up like a lifeguard.

Dykstra was introduced to Sherwood by his golf buddy Wayne Gretzky. The Great One is just one of the many bold-faced names who are members of the club, including two presidents (Ford and the elder Bush), two Academy Award winners (Nicholson and Pesci) and two golf gods (Nicklaus and Woods). Dykstra delights in dropping the names of his rich and powerful acquaintances. He knows how he is remembered as a ballplayer and is desperate to wash, wax and Armor All his image. Part of that means giving back to baseball. In 1991 Dykstra was reprimanded by commissioner Fay Vincent when it was reported that he had lost tens of thousands of dollars in golf and poker games to a Mississippi gambler. Now, Dykstra addresses FBI staffers working with major league baseball, offering a primer on the pitfalls of life in the big leagues. He refused pay when he went to spring training for the Mets this year, and he has laid out $40,000 to fund various Little Leagues in Southern California. "Everything I have is because of the great game of baseball, and I'm never going to forget that," he says.

Much of Dykstra's downtime is spent around a diamond, working with Luke, a shortstop and pitcher, and Cutter, a shortstop. At the boys' games Lenny does not sit in the bleachers behind home plate with the other parents; he goes off by himself beyond the outfield fences. "He doesn't want to take any of the focus off the boys," says Terri. "I'm the one always yelling at the coaches."

The family's competitive vibe comes out on the golf course, where Lenny, Terri, Cutter and Luke sometimes tee it up as a foursome. (On Sherwood's handicap sheet Cutter is a 5.1 to Dad's 10.8.) Sherwood's fairways are like expensive carpet, the tee boxes nicer than the greens at most courses. On a Friday afternoon in June, Dykstra took a spin around the links, displaying a homemade golf swing that plays out in three acts. It begins with a slow-motion takeaway, in which his left elbow shoots skyward so dramatically it looks as if he has dislocated his shoulder. At the top of his swing Dykstra pauses so long he appears to be calcified. Yet his downswing is smooth and powerful. On the 1st hole, he skanked a drive and chunked an approach but saved par with a deft up-and-down. "Story of my life," he said. "I'm just a grinder."

Near the round's end, with golden twilight casting evocative shadows across the course, Dykstra was in a reflective mood. Pointing across a yawning valley to his house, he said, "I can't say it enough—I've been blessed." The next day he watched Luke's all-star game, in which the young Dykstra drove in four runs. The day after that Nails was back at work There were cars to be washed and deals to be made.

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