“Nails Never Fails”

News of baseball player-turned-business mogul Lenny “Nails” Dykstra’s troubles–he filed for bankruptcy protection in California earlier this week–may have come as something of a surprise for readers of Ben McGrath’s March 2008 feature of Dykstra in The New Yorker.

McGrath’s thoroughly entertaining piece made full use of the manic, impulsive, charismatic behavior that has made Dykstra a gold mine of material for writers since he first joined the Mets in the mid-1980s. But the thrust of the article was that despite those traits Dykstra had become, as the sub-head put it, “Baseball’s most improbable post-career success story.” At one point, the story ponders, “It takes some getting used to, the idea that Nails, of all people, could end up serving as an exemplar of the transition from professional athletics to respectable civilian life.”

Not so much, as it turns out. And a few of the elements that get major play in McGrath’s piece–Dykstra’s purchase of hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s former compound, his investment in a start-up magazine designed to provide financial advice to athletes–appear to have precipitated the bankruptcy filing.

In McGrath’s defense, he was hardly the only writer to explore Dykstra’s off-field achievements, and he appears to have caught the former player right at the apex of his dramatic arc, when earlier success with a string of car washes was pushing him into new ventures that were beyond his means. And McGrath himself noted Dykstra’s decline, along with the irony of his hope for a partnership with A.I.G. and his relationship with Jim Cramer, in a post yesterday at The New Yorker’s Web site. Still, the contrast offers a useful reminder: If a story seems too unlikely to be true, that may be because it is.

Re-reading McGrath’s story today, the saddest parts are Dykstra’s ruminations on the importance of family and marriage. The ballplayer was determined to avoid the fate of many of his former teammates, who, McGrath writes, “have ended up broke, or divorced, or worse.” But it appears Dykstra will soon be in that category himself: his wife, Terri, for divorce in April.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.