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The eponymous owner of Lenny Dykstra's Car Wash Corp. is proudly showing off his three-acre compound at the traffic-clogged heart of Simi Valley, Calif., 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Dykstra is a little paunchy at 41, but he still has that cocksure strut so familiar from his days patrolling centerfield for the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies from 1985 through '96. Nursing his eighth or ninth coffee of the day, Dykstra blows into a waiting room of the 16-bay auto-repair center to point out its gleaming green-marble countertops and rich cherrywood cabinetry. "That's solid cherry, not veneer," he says. The skin on those stylish black chairs? "Real leather," he says, stroking one of the seat cushions.
After rearranging the chairs and straightening the stacks of cups for the complimentary coffee, Dykstra heads outside and traverses the blacktop to the car wash, stopping twice to pick up stray bits of trash and stuff them into his pocket. Under the broiling summer sun dozens of workers apply a final bit of sparkle to the modest chariots of middle-class Simi Valley while the customers wait on comfy chairs in a lushly landscaped shaded area, leafing through the hundreds of current magazine titles and sipping the free coffee or water. "Spring water," Dykstra emphasizes, "not tap." A large man-made waterfall feeds a small reflecting pool. Next to the waiting area are two air-conditioned offices, rented out by real estate and mortgage brokers. Dykstra calls these "cross-market earning centers," jargon he has picked up by habitually listening to audiotapes of various business tomes.
Dykstra rolls into the convenience store that is attached to the car wash and dominated by a 600-gallon saltwater fish tank, alive with dozens of exotic beauties. A pair of foot-and-a-half long Australian smooth-back hound sharks knife through the water. "Dude, those sharks cost $350 each, and we had to wait a year to get them," he says. Next stop is the restroom in back, Dykstra's pride and joy. He pops open the door to reveal creamy marble counter-tops, glittering Kohler fixtures and expensive artwork. Breathing in the cinnamon-scented air, Dykstra offers his verdict: "Big league."
To hear Dykstra—whose toughness as a ballplayer earned him the nickname Nails—coo over the swank stylings of his car wash is as mind-bending as finding scented candles near the registers rather than Skoal and Penthouse. Dykstra was an electric presence on the field and a three-time All-Star, but he is remembered less for the numbers on his baseball card than for his scrappy style. Working a thick chaw, sporting a scraggly mullet and a perpetually dirty uniform, he was a fan favorite who played hard and partied harder, cultivating the image of a fun-loving character who teetered on the brink of out-of-control.
Dykstra is proud of his career, but unlike a lot of former jocks, he has moved on. He says he has turned down numerous entreaties from big league clubs—among them the Mets, Reds and Athletics—to work in the front office or manage in the minors. The car wash-auto repair business, he says, is his ticket to a stable family life. Dykstra met his wife, Terri, in 1984 while he was playing Double A ball in her hometown of Jackson, Miss. They were married a year later. Dykstra adopted her son Gavin, now 23, and Lenny and Terri have two other boys: Cutter, 15, and Luke, 8. "For the 16 years when I was playing, it was all about me, me, me," says Dykstra, who is still a spring training instructor for his beloved Mets. "So the day I retire, I'm going to put my family through that again? For what? To prove I could be a manager at the major league level? Bro, I know in my heart I could be a winner, but I don't want it to be about me anymore."
It is impossible, however, to separate the ballplayer from the entrepreneur. On the field Dykstra was a leader and a winner. He was one of the Mets' spark plugs when they won the World Series in 1986. He carried a band of alley-cat Phils to the Series in '93, then batted .348 and hit four home runs against the Toronto Blue Jays. "He still plays to win," says Darrell Talbert, chief operating officer of Lenny Dykstra's Car Wash Corp. "Lenny goes into meetings with bankers and builders, and he just blows them away with his preparation, his knowledge and, most of all, his passion."
The flashy complex in Simi Valley, opened in 1999, is only part of Dykstra's burgeoning empire. He owns two other upscale car wash-auto repair complexes in Corona, Calif., 50 miles southeast of L.A, He built the first of those complexes in 1993 after a title search on the property led him "to a little old lady who'd been sitting on the land for, like, 40 years." He knocked on the door and handed her a check, saying, "Hi, I'm Lenny Dykstra, and I'd like to buy your land for a million dollars." Says Dykstra, "Her knees buckled. I thought she might croak on me."
Today Lenny Dykstra's Car Wash Corp. employs 325 people, and on a weekend day up to 2,500 customers pass through the three properties, paying $24.99 for a Grand Slam wash, $32.95 for a quick lube and much, much more for a full range of repairs. At one Corona site Dykstra is building a Conoco-Phillips 76 gas station and convenience store. The accoutrements of that facility are going to be even more over-the-top than the car washes. (Staffers refer to the project as the Taj Mahal.) Dykstra is pouring $3.5 million into the facility, about twice the typical cost of a gas station—convenience store. At the entrance to the property will be an eight-foot volcano spewing water. The centerpiece of the store will be a pastry case that was handmade in Italy for $20,000. "It's just a glass case to hold doughnuts, right?" says Talbert. "Not to Lenny. Everything has to be the best of the best."
Dykstra, who is the sole investor in his company, justifies his expensive tastes by saying, "Where would you rather stay, the Ritz-Carlton or Motel 6? It's all about creating an environment that people will want to come back to." His business philosophy is apparently working—Dykstra says all three of his properties are operating in the black. He attributes that partly to "excellent freeway frontage," but he also intuitively understands the needs of his customers. Dykstra's properties provide more than just a clean car or a quick lube. They are the last vestiges of civility for many crazed motorists at the beginning or end of their famously nightmarish SoCal commute.
Dykstra started investing in real estate after he signed a four-year, $25 million contract in 1993. "They call it real estate for a reason, okay?" he says. "Because it's real." ( Dykstra might talk like Jeff Spicoli, but, Talbert says, "it's all an act. He's got a different rap for every occasion. Bottom line, the guy's got a brilliant mind.") Dykstra decided to get into car washes and auto repair because "I wanted to get into a low-risk business that couldn't be replaced by new technology." He's weary, however, of being defined as a car-wash guy. "I'm proud of the car washes," he says. "They pay the bills and provide jobs for a lot of my extended family, but I know there's something bigger out there, something that will take me to Pluto."