Baseball: Dykstra lives up to spitting image: Phillies recover composure to keep World Series alive with win in Game Five

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Kruk, the Philadelphia Phillies' roly-poly first baseman, was asked after the team's 2-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game Five of the World Series how hard it had been to pick themselves off the floor after the previous night's sickening 15-14 loss, he replied: 'Hell, we were pretty happy everyone showed up to play tonight. We might have lost a few troops after a defeat like that.'

It was a typical Phillies throwaway line, disguising the huge mental effort the club had had to mount to put a devastating defeat behind them, shut out the powerful Blue Jays line-up for the first time behind their pitcher Curt Schilling's complete game and give Philadelphia an outside chance of a remarkable comeback victory when the Series resumes in Toronto tonight.

What the 1993 Phillies have is a looseness, a seemingly lackadaisical attitude to a high-pressure sport that both reveals their genuine enjoyment of what they do on the field and masks their ravenous desire to win. It is a very special kind of team spirit, for the glue that holds this collection of very different personalities together is not immediately apparent.

It was actually forged in the early hours of 6 May, 1991, when the club's pugnacious centre fielder, Lenny Dykstra, was driving the catcher, Darren Daulton, home from Kruk's bachelor party. Dykstra had been drinking heavily, and when the emergency services dragged his and Daulton's severely injured bodies from the wreck of their Mercedes, which was wrapped around a tree at Radnor Township, Pennsylvania, they found an alcohol level in his blood of .179.

Dykstra, a junior member of the New York Mets who won the World Series in 1986, had always played hard both on and off the field. Now, as he convalesced, he had time to reflect on the direction he had taken, and came to an obvious conclusion. 'I realised that in one second I could've lost everything I had and everything I worked so hard for. One second and, boom, it could've been gone.'

On the field he still plays 'like a kamikaze pilot', as the Phillies general manager, Lee Thomas, who built this low-budget outfit of oddballs and throwbacks, puts it. But not off it.

A natural team leader, he, Kruk and Daulton form the backbone of the side. From his command post in centre field, he is always fidgeting and chivvying, directing his fellow outfielders to move in or deep, left or right, depending on the batter at the plate. And his at-bats are a sight to behold, crouching forward with knees bent like a playground fighter, fouling off pitch after pitch until he finds one he can make good contact with or the pitcher walks him.

Nobody suffered more on Wednesday, as the Philadelphia bullpen coughed up six late runs in the gut- wrenching 15-14 defeat, than Dykstra. And nobody deserved more to finish on the winning side. His pair of two-run homers, equalling a Series record for one game, helped cement his place in the hearts of the raucous Philly crowd.

Dykstra is a perfect hero for Philadelphia, which despite all the city fathers' efforts to project a new image for the place as a centre of technological wizardry, seems reluctant to forsake its hard, blue-collar past.

The tabloid Philadelphia Daily News greeted the World Series this week with a memorable front page displaying the heads of four prominent citizens with wads of tobacco hanging from their mouths under the headline, 'Chew 'em up, Phils]' This was a reference to Dykstra's habit of keeping a wad of Red Man chaw plugged Popeye-style in his left cheek during games.

Andy Van Slyke, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, once commented on the experience of alternating centre- field duties with Dykstra on the Vet's artificial turf. 'There's so much tobacco juice all over the rug,' he said, 'you can get cancer just standing there. It's like a toxic waste dump.'

Not everyone in Philadelphia is happy with the practice. Walter Annenberg, the Ambassador to the Court of St James in the Nixon era who once told the Queen that a section of the Embassy was off limits because 'it is currently undergoing certain items of refurbishment' has made himself plain on the subject. Annenberg, now a local media mogul, said: 'It's a bit discouraging to me. This is a distinguished community historically and in spirit. The endless spitting is annoying to me.'

But that is very much a minority view here. No one gets a bigger cheer when he runs out on the field, and we are talking about a crowd which, it was once said, would boo Christ if he dropped the cross. Dykstra looks like a bricklayer, all muscular shoulders on a stumpy body, one more reminder of the democratic nature of a sport in which excellence can be achieved by both the tall and the short, the fat and the thin.

The pot-bellied Kruk was once upbraided for smoking by a dignitary at a team charity function during spring training. 'That's a very unathletic habit,' she told him. 'Lady, I'm no athlete,' came his reply. 'I'm a baseball player.'

(Photograph omitted)

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