NEW YORK -- First, there's the chaw of tobacco, a huge one that Lenny Dykstra stuffs into his cheek and leaves there the entire night. By the end of a game, he will have dribbled tobacco juice onto his chin, his hands and an occasional umpire or teammate.

"The tobacco, that's an interesting story, dude," the National League's leading hitter says.

The story, dude, is that Dykstra grew up in Orange County, Calif., and Rod Carew was his boyhood idol. Carew played with a large chaw in his cheek, and Dykstra read it was there for a purpose. "Rod said the chaw helped him keep his front eye open," Dykstra said, "and that it made him stay focused on the ball."

So Dykstra plays with a chaw. Sometimes he goes through two packs of Red Man a game. When he goes two games without a hit, he switches brands until he gets back on track.

That hasn't happened often this season, as a loud, profane Mighty Mouse named Lenny Dykstra is threatening to become the first Philadelphia Phillie in 32 years to lead the NL in hitting.

He entered a series at Shea Stadium this weekend batting .384, first in the NL on-base percentage and near the top in a handful of other categories.

He has become the best and most surprising player on one of the NL's most surprising teams. A decade after the Phillies signed Pete Rose to throw some life into a stagnate team, they've found another little guy who talks too much, slides too hard and absolutely, positively hates losing.

He let the Phillies know that loudly and profanely a couple of weeks ago when he called a players-only meeting after it looked as if the team might slide back into last season's losing ways.

Pete Rose, that's the name that keeps coming up when baseball people are asked about Dykstra.

"I think he reminds people of Rose," Phillies owner Bill Giles said. "He reminds me of Rose. He's one of the guys you want on your team. He can be very irritating to the opposition. I know when he played for the Mets he made us so mad. He was like a little rooster."

Phillies hitting coach Denis Menke said: "I see a lot of Pete in him. When Lenny played for the Mets, I hated him. But I'll say one thing, he got your respect. I saw Nolan Ryan throw a pitch at his head one night. Lenny got up, dusted himself off and hit a double off the wall."

At 27, Dykstra has arrived, complete with a rap lingo, new wave haircut, wardrobe heavy on sneakers and T-shirts and a face that has already adorned the cover of several magazines and the Letterman show. Charlie Hustle does 1990.

Asked if the world was ready for him, Dykstra smiled and snapped: "Wake up, dude, it's the '90s." All Duded Up

In Dykstra's world, almost everyone is "Dude." He's not very good with names, but he's not very good with concentration either. He once forgot he owned a Porsche and teammates say they've been in the middle of conversations when he has simply gotten up and walked away. He warns reporters that no interview will last longer than 10 minutes "because I have trouble sitting still that long." That's true in games too, and even with the chaw he's so antsy between innings that he routinely slips down a runway and finishes off a cigarette with one or two deep drags.

His vocabularly is X-rated, his teammates say he has seen a closing hour or two, and in an era when a lot of baseball players have at least visited a college campus Dykstra is a visit back to another era.

"A caveman," one opponent said.

His teammates call him "Bart" as in Bart Simpson, the flaky cartoon character. His language is his own. When a reporter asked why he did a certain public appearance, he said: "I work for whoever gives me the glue, dude." Oh yeah, dude, glue means money.

He played golf after his wedding, and, when asked if his wife minded, snapped: "Dude, she had no say-so."

In his 1986 autobiography -- a lot of those Mets wrote books, even a 24-year-old part-time outfielder -- he spoke of his passion for football, writing: "I loved giving cheap shots. I loved hitting people and I loved getting hit."

Phillies broadcaster Richie Ashburn played tennis with him this winter and said: "Dykstra throws rackets, which doesn't bother me except that the racket he kept throwing was the one he borrowed from me. And the four elderly ladies {on the next court} cringed at some of his comments after blowing an easy shot." The Phillies say they've received similar complaints from fans who lay out $55 for the best seats at the Vet only to find they occasionally are too close to Dykstra's expletive-laced comments. His story is an interesting one because he may be on his way to proving some of the game's best judges of talent dead wrong about him. Not that anyone ever doubted his talent. The thing about him is that the Mets always thought he could be this kind of player. Remember the summer of '86? That's the summer the Mets were the best and most hated team in baseball, leading the game not only in victories (and a World Series championship) but also in curtain calls and television time.

The Mets didn't simply beat you, they humiliated you, and Dykstra may have been the most hated guy on the game's most hated team. He cursed and spat and slid with his spikes up no matter what the score. He practically stood on the plate, dared pitchers to throw inside, and when they did he glared and cursed.

"I think every professional athlete has to have a certain cockiness in order to be good," Gary Carter said. "Lenny does, and if you're playing against him you don't like it. . . . Lenny's never going to be the most popular player in baseball."

The problem was that, in playing beside Darryl Strawberry and Keith Hernandez and Carter, he thought he ought to hit the ball out of the park like they did.

The Mets talked to him about being a leadoff hitter, about hitting good pitches and cutting down his swing. In fact, they pleaded with him and took him into batting cages from Montreal to Montezuma.

"And then," said Bill Robinson, his former hitting coach, "he'd hit a home run and be messed up for two weeks."

Robinson would talk. Dykstra would nod and say something like "Gotcha, dude."

Only he never did. He never won an everyday job, and entered this season with a .268 career average. The Mets became convinced that he was going to be like a thousand other guys who have one set of talents and insist on not using them.

Last summer, they finally gave up and sent him and reliever Roger McDowell to the Phillies for Juan Samuel. The Mets now admit that deal stinks. Samuel was a bust and was traded to the Dodgers for Mike Marshall -- who wants to be traded.

Meanwhile, Dykstra has turned into the everyday center fielder-leadoff hitter and clubhouse force the Mets desperately need.

"We tried to get Lenny to change," Mets Vice President of Baseball Operations Joe McIlvaine said with a shrug. "But he was consumed with hitting home runs. He wasn't playing every day, and when he did get in there he thought every hit had to be a double or homer. When we traded him, our evaluation was that he was never going to make the necessary adjustments."

Dykstra did make the necessary adjustments, and to this day a lot of people are stunned. Menke worked with him hour after hour this spring, but even he admits: "You can talk to a guy, but that kind of change has to come from within. For whatever the reason, he decided not to try to hit the ball out of the park." Said Robinson, now an analyst for ESPN: "I just think he realized that if he goes out and hits .300 he can make a ton of money."

Dykstra admits as much. He's earning $700,000 this year, but is eligible for free agency after the '91 season. The Phillies have all but said that a good '90 season could mean a two- or three-year contract in the $7 million range.

He said he had already decided to change, especially after hitting .181 the last 2 1/2 months of last season. But the Phillies wondered when he showed up at spring training with 30 extra pounds, much of it in his arms and around his neck after a winter of weightlifting.

"My first thought," Manager Nick Leyva said, "was that he would try to hit home runs. He really didn't. The other thing I worried about was whether it would cost him his quickness. It didn't. It may have made him quicker."

Dykstra came into spring training, moved up on the plate and began spraying line drives all over the place. Then, early in the season, he pulled a muscle in his side, and when he returned he was unable to take the big home run stroke.

Only once has he fallen back into his old habits. That was May 14 in San Diego when he made three fly ball outs to end a 10-game hitting streak. After the game, he saw Menke on an elevator at the hotel and said: "For the first time this year, I got out of my game plan. I had family here and got kind of excited."

Menke smiled and said: "I'm glad you realize it."

The next day, Dykstra started a 23-game streak that pushed him over .400 for almost two months. Now Where Was I?

In an interview he paces, bobs and weaves and tries to escape. He will walk back for two more sentences, then say he has to go, only to come back 10 minutes later. He bites his sentences, lets one thought run into another.

"When things are going good, all you can do is ride the wave," he said. "That's what I'm trying to do. . . . I know you have hot streaks and cold streaks. The main thing is that now I know what my role is. I'm the leadoff guy and they want me on base. I never played regularly when I was with the Mets, so naturally when you go in there you press. I'm now able to take it one at-bat at a time and know I'll be in there tomorrow even if I got a game or two without a hit. I know some people think this is a fluke, but they're going to look up in September and be surprised.

"I had to make adjustments to become an everyday player. . . . I'm going good now and I'll enjoy it for as long as I'm doing it.

He has talked longer than he planned to talk. He pulls a cigarette quickly from a pack in his locker, grabs two bats and smiles.

"Gotta run, dudes," he said. "Catch me later."

Year..........Team.........AB...R...H...HR...RBI...SB...Avg.

1985......New York Mets...236...40...60...1...19...15....254

1986......New York Mets...431...77...127...8...45...31...295

1987......New York Mets...431...86...123..10...43...27...285

1988......New York Mets...429...57...116...8...33...30...270

1989......N.Y. Mets-

...........Philadelphia...511...66...121...7...32...30...237

.......Pre-1990 tot. ....2038..326...547..34..172..133...268

1990.......Philadelphia...241...49....91...3...28...11...378