PHILADELPHIA -- Lenny Dykstra had something to prove before his first full season as a Phillie. In New York, he had been a platoon player; he came here determined to show the world he could play every day.
Dykstra arrived at his first Phillies spring training camp in 1990 a new man -- bigger, stronger. And show the world, he did. He hit .325, led the National League with an on-base percentage of .418 and earned a starting center-field job in the All-Star Game.
Dykstra proved he could survive a full baseball season. He proved he could handle left-handed pitching. There's no telling what he might have accomplished these last two seasons -- if only he had stayed in one piece.
The irony is, the man who worked so hard to build himself up for the annual 162-game grind is about to close out a two-year stretch in which he has spent more time on the disabled list than on the playing field.
Last season's car accident was only part of it. Dykstra, a tobacco-chewing, headfirst-diving, all-out-all-the-time throwback to another era, suffered a broken collarbone running into an outfield wall in Cincinnati; a broken wrist when he was hit by a pitched ball at the Vet; a pulled muscle when he tried to beat a close play at first in Chicago, and, on Saturday night, a broken finger when he dove into first base in successful pursuit of an infield hit in New York.
If he doesn't play again this season -- and it seems certain he won't -- Dykstra will have missed the staggering total of 176 games in the last two years. To say that the Phillies miss his bat, his speed, his glove, his presence, is to belabor the obvious. In the 148 games he has played in 1991 and '92, the Phillies are four games over .500; in the 130 games he has missed, they are 28 games under .500.
"I don't think I've ever seen a season with so many broken bones," Phils manager Jim Fregosi said before last night's rainout at the Vet. "It's unbelievable."
Broken bones . . . bad backs . . . twisted ankles . . . aching shoulders . . . pulled muscles -- it is unbelievable what's happening to the men who play this game.
The Phillies aren't the only team to see their season ruined by injuries. The Mets, who weren't playing all that well when they were healthy, have been hard hit. Ditto the Red Sox.
It's amazing that the Reds are as close to first as they are. At various times, they've lost the services of Barry Larkin, Rob Dibble, Chris Sabo, Tom Browning, Jose Rijo, Hal Morris, Glenn Braggs and Reggie Sanders. Morris, who missed winning the National League batting title by .001 last year, will come off the disabled list on Friday, at which time Sabo, who hasn't been right since his ankle was banged up in the second game of the season, is expected to go back on it.
Under the circumstances, it's no surprise that Reds manager Lou Piniella has given the epidemic of baseball injuries considerable thought. He has some interesting, if controversial, theories.
"I think the main fault with the conditioning programs today is that they expect players to show up the first day of spring training in shape to play," Piniella said. "That entails a lot of work during the off-season -- weights, Nautilus, running, diet. In baseball, you play 162 games, [plus] 30 or so in spring training. I think your body needs rest. I think players should use spring training more as a way to condition themselves."
It used to be that way. Now if a player shows up for spring training overweight, management screams and headlines blare. Remember the stories about John Kruk's excess weight in March? Now he's fighting for a batting championship. Maybe Piniella has a point.
Of course, a man can suffer a broken bone no matter what shape he's in.
Why does somebody like Dykstra, who has worked so hard to get into top shape and who plays the game to the hilt, get banged up so often? Perhaps, Piniella suggested, it's possible to play the game too hard.
"I think that all the weight training makes the athletes feel strong, makes them feel quicker," Piniella said, "but I think it gives them this aura of invincibility that they can't get hurt.
"When you play this game, you have to play under control. When you feel real strong and you feel real quick, sometimes I think, in the back of your mind, you get the feeling, 'I'm in such good shape, I feel so damn good, I'm not going to get hurt.' In this game, you have to play under some type of restraint."
How do you tell a Dykstra-type player to "play under some type of restraint?" The answer is simple: You don't. You watch him challenge outfield walls and dive into bases -- and you hold your breath.
"Those are the people that have more of a tendency to get hurt," Piniella said. "They play with that reckless abandon. You like to see it. The fans like to see it. But it just so happens that type of player is a little more injury-prone.
"You keep running into walls, invariably you'll get hurt. You keep sliding headfirst into bags, invariably you're going to get hurt. You keep leaping for the bag off-balance, sooner or later you're going to turn an ankle. You try to keep running over catchers, you might do it once, you might do it twice, but the third or fourth time, you might get it."