They say New Yorkers are the toughest audience in the world.
But like most tough guys, New York has a soft spot for the underdog--the Bowery bum who hits it big in the lottery, the understudy who earns rave reviews at the Broadway premiere, the long shot who comes from behind to win the Belmont Stakes.
Lenny Dykstra, a 23-year-old Garden Grove native without a subtle bone in his compact body, is the latest underdog to steal New York's hard heart.
Playing his own ultra-aggressive game, which some have compared to that of a young Pete Rose, the pocket-sized Met outfielder has emerged from a cloud of blood, sweat and dirt to pull off one of the season's Biggest Apple polishes.
"It's because he's the kind of player who dives into walls," said Met traveling secretary Jay Horwitz. "New York fans appreciate people who play hard.
"When he makes an out, he throws his helmet on the ground or he'll slam his bat down. People identify with how hard he tries. He's not afraid. He's not intimidated by anybody."
Although mired in a 2-for-30 slump, the left-handed Dykstra is hitting .306--sixth in the National League--and is among the leaders in four other statistical categories.
He has also produced some of the most memorable catches of the season, including a dramatic leap in May to rob Cincinnati's Dave Parker of a home run.
So in the middle of a long, hot summer, with most of New York running a Mets Fever, an infectious strain of Lenny Mania has developed.
The symptoms were visible in the stands at Shea Stadium during last weekend's Cardinal series. Females of all ages seemed particularly susceptible.
On Saturday, a woman in a white wedding gown paraded the aisles carrying a sign with the most unusual proposal the 23-year-old has ever received--"Marry Me Lenny."
Thus are trends born. The next day, two teen-age girls appeared in the stands with their own plea--"Adopt Us Lenny."
Dykstra, who recently married and became the father of a 5-year-old stepson, hit a three-run homer instead.
"It was funny," he said of the fan pranks. "I found it amusing. It's a good feeling to know people are behind you and like you."
The other players got a laugh out of it, too.
"We told him he must look better from a distance," said outfielder Danny Heep. "Obviously she hadn't gotten close enough to get a good look at him, or she would have changed her mind."
With his slightly crooked teeth, upturned nose and reddish curls, Dykstra looks like he just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In reality, he's much more likely to have just completed yet another television spot. He has already appeared in a car commercial, a television ad for a Mets beach bag, and a Mets music video.
"You don't see nothing like this in Orange County," he said. "Everything's pretty amazing about New York."
For one thing, the volume of mail. In the course of one summer, Dykstra has received "a ton" of letters, more than he had previously gotten in his life.
While he's trying to conduct normal conversation at the ballpark, a photographer from Sports Illustrated is snapping color photos of his legs, which are several shades lighter than in past summers at Huntington Beach.
"When you're in New York, things like this are a big part of it," Dykstra said. "It can be bad to be in the center of all the bright lights, but the way you get around that is by playing well."
The secret of his civic appeal seems to consist of equal parts true grit, native showmanship and All-American good luck.
Looking back even beyond his career at Garden Grove, in which he set an Orange County high school record with 50 hits in one season, he has played only on winning teams.
Although it didn't look that way, that exceptional fortune continued when he was drafted in 1981 by the last-place Mets and passed up a scholarship to Arizona State to sign.
He tore through the minor leagues. He was named Most Valuable Player in the Carolina League in 1983 playing for Single-A Lynchburg, Va. In 1984, he led the Double-A team in Jackson, Miss., to the Eastern Division title of the Texas League.
After being called up to the Mets and sent down to Tidewater three vexing times in 1985, he made the roster for good this season, just as the Mets became the hottest team in baseball. He took over the center field job after Mookie Wilson suffered an eye injury in the spring.
"Last year, being a rookie, I didn't really know what to expect," he said. "But this season, I came with the idea of playing with the confidence I played with in the minor leagues and saying to myself, 'I can be successful in every game."
Said Met first baseman Keith Hernandez, whom Dykstra considers one of his closest friends on the team, "To me, there's only one Pete Rose. But Lenny's out of that same mold."