Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

October 2, 2012

The Nearly Great Present-Day Inmate

Emma Span discusses Lenny Dykstra, including the good, the bad, and the bounced check to an escort.

Justin Adler

The inaugural baseball Hall of Nearly Great class contains 43 players, each with their own captivating careers and stories. Yet among all those included in the new e-book essay collection, only one enshrined member won a World Series title, was lauded as a great investor by Jim Cramer, and currently is bankrupt and incarcerated: the one and only Lenny Dykstra.

And who better to write Dykstra's chapter than someone whose favorite team won 27 World Series, who appeared on an episode of Jeopardy, and has written for Bronx Banter, Baseball Prospectus, and a myriad other baseball sites? Yes, Emma Span.

Emma Span
"He fell apart in such a spectacular way; it's sad, but of course it's also interesting."

Emma Span

Aside from those obvious qualifications, Span, the author of 90% of the Game Is Half Mental: And Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom, chose to write about the man who played like he was at least half-mental because she was fascinated by Dykstra's on- and off-field career. And how can you not be intrigued by a man nicknamed "Nails" with a rap sheet that, as her chapter states, includes "federal bankruptcy-fraud charges, obstruction of justice charges, 'embezzling baseball memorabilia,' and money laundering, as well as illegal drug possession: coke, ecstasy, and Somatropin, a human growth hormone"? Span went on, "He has also been accused, by a professional escort, of bouncing a personal check, and therefore indirectly of writing a personal check to an escort."

In her third interview with Gelf (after these two), Span, discusses Dykstra, other theoretical Halls, and her job with the freshly-minted site Sports on Earth.

Gelf Magazine: Why did you chose to write about Lenny Dykstra?

Emma Span: I just find his story fascinating—the great athlete who falls apart after his career ends isn't so unusual, unfortunately, but rarely do those athletes become acclaimed financial advisers in between. It was so emblematic of that particular weird period. Also, he fell apart in such a spectacular way; it's sad, but of course it's also interesting.

Gelf Magazine: If you could interview Dykstra, what would you ask him?

Emma Span: Frankly, he doesn't seem to be well enough to answer tough questions these days. I would ask for his side of the story, and where things went wrong, but mostly I imagine I'd ask him about baseball, his approach to the game, and his memories of those Mets and Phillies teams.

Gelf Magazine: Did you ever entertain any notion of trying to visit Dykstra in jail for the essay?

Emma Span: Not on the Hall of Nearly Great's budget; he's out in California. It would obviously have been interesting to talk to him, but again, he does not seem to be in good enough shape to be very illuminating.

Gelf Magazine: How do you imagine Dykstra reacted to being named in the Mitchell Report? Do you think he cared at all?

Emma Span: Dykstra denied all the charges in the Mitchell Report; he didn't seem too concerned publicly, but who knows what he felt. At the time, though, he was about to launch his magazine, The Players Club. It soon went under and accelerated his money problems, but right then, he was at the height of his post-baseball success.

Gelf Magazine: Who would you like to write up for a Hall of Absolutely God-Awful?

Emma Span: There are a few players, for sure, where you wonder how the hell they've stayed in the majors, but I hate to pick on those guys. "Don't blame yourself, son. Blame the scout that signed you." That said, I could have done without about 75% of the Mets bullpen for the last decade or so.

Gelf Magazine: Taking fictional Halls one step further, if the MLB opened a Hall of Post-Career Insanity, who do they induct first and why? Dykstra? Ugueth Urbina? Somebody I'm forgetting?

Emma Span: Jose Canseco is deeply offended that you left him out.

Gelf Magazine: Getting into your new gig at Sports on Earth, what do you think is unique about SoE that will make it successful? And what have you learned from prior online sports ventures that you're bringing to the experience?

Emma Span: What Sports on Earth brings is pretty simple: really good writers. (I'm not including myself here.) We have a pretty amazing group—Joe Posnanski, Gwen Knapp, Mike Tanier, Shaun Powell, Chuck Culpepper, Tommy Tomlinson; and Leigh Montville and Dave Kindred and Will Leitch and Patrick Hruby contributing. Plus a lot of great baseball writers will be doing articles for us during the playoffs. Will that make the site successful? I don't know. I hope so. I know I'd want to read it even if I didn't work there.
Before this I was at The Daily, which ended up laying off its entire sports section. I loved my coworkers and we did a lot of good work there. At the same time, the way it was set up, so much of our work was tailored to the format—the iPad magazine—that I think the content sometimes suffered somewhat. At Sports on Earth, at least so far, we've really been able to put the content ahead of everything else. Including sleep.

Gelf Magazine: How did you enjoy writing for Baseball Prospectus? Did the site's stats-loving readers get your style?

Emma Span: I loved (and still love) BP. I don't usually write in much detail about advanced stats because it's not my particular area of strength, but I do read about them and use them to inform my writing. I can't speak for the readers, but I felt comfortable writing there.

Gelf Magazine: What's your one lasting memory from appearing on Jeopardy!? What element of the entire production were you most surprised by?

Emma Span: The very first question was Mickey Mantle, and I couldn't buzz in fast enough to answer it, and I just thought, "I will never hear the end of this, ever." In general, the trickiness of the buzzer timing was the biggest surprise for me—that, and how short Alex Trebek is.
Tragically, you can only go on Jeopardy! once, at least while Trebek is still the host. So that was it for me. The guy who finished third in my game was actually disqualified after the fact because it turned out he had been on years earlier. It was quite the scandal.

Gelf Magazine: In the two years since your book was published, have your feelings towards New York baseball changed at all? Is there anything specifically you wish you could add or amend in 90% of the Game Is Half Mental: And Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom?

Emma Span: The longer I write about baseball professionally, the less I root for any particular team and the more I just hope for great storylines. That's kind of a cliché, I guess, but it happens. For instance, this Orioles team would have driven me nuts back in the day, but now I think they're such a fun and unexpected story, even if they are making the Yankees' lives miserable. I don't feel like I love the game any less, just differently.
As for the book, there will always be things you could do better or differently but that way lies madness.

Gelf Magazine: At the 5th-anniversary Varsity Letters you spoke about your discovery of MLB fan fiction, specifically how surprised you were that graphic prose about Doug Mirabelli's package exists. In the year and a half that's passed since that event, have you came across anything baseball-related that that can beat MLB fan fiction in terms of "Holy shit, I can't believe this exists"?

Emma Span: The 2012 Orioles.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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