Herbert Kelso wants everyone to know that Lenny Dykstra is still his buddy. Ain't no controversy about that fact. And he knows for sure that Lenny Dykstra is good for the fifty large ones he still owes Herb.

Kelso also wants everyone to know that he is not some low-life gambler who is a threat to the integrity of major-league baseball and its stars. He's not some leg-breaking bookie.Who is he then?

Herbert A. Kelso says he is just a well-respected Jackson businessman who likes - no, loves - to play golf and poker. His two biggest heroes in life are Thomas Jefferson and Bobby Layne. Jefferson because they share an interest in construction and the Constitution and Bobby Layne because Kelso was a high school quarterback who ran his huddle just like Layne: Keep your mouth shut or he'll beat the crap out of you.

Refined and rough-edged, he is a throwback to that era of fine ol' Southern gentlemen: He can dance with the ladies and wrestle with the hogs.

In Jackson and throughout Mississippi he moved in fine circles, the country club and Cadillac set. Is the baseball commissioner worried about the $78,000 in gambling debts Dykstra, the Philadelphia Phillies' all-star center fielder, ran up with Kelso, the $50,000 Dykstra admits he still owes him, or the kind of folk Dykstra associated with down in Jackson?

Stop worrying, for crying out loud, says Herb Kelso. When Herb plays golf and poker he does so with some of the most upstanding citizens of Jackson: accountants, lawyers, doctors, company presidents, you name it. All affluent people, all Southern gentlemen. This ain't that low-life circle that got Pete Rose in so much trouble. So says Herb Kelso.

For nearly six hours Friday, Kelso talked about his life, his businesses, his recent trial and his relationship with Dykstra. It was his first interview since he was acquitted in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Miss., of helping to run an illegal casino operation and several other charges.

Kelso, 47, was a childhood math whiz, and that is how his mind works. Ask him a question and he's off, the thoughts coming so fast his mouth can't keep up. He goes off on tangents that last 10 or 15 minutes, a blizzard of thoughts and statements.

But always he comes back to the original question, he comes back to his good buddy Lenny Dykstra.

Dykstra was a key prosecution witness against Kelso, who was acquitted last week of one count of running an illegal casino, one count of conspiracy and three counts of perjury.

Dykstra has been under intense scrutiny because of his association with Kelso and gambling. Kelso said that Dykstra had no choice but to testify against him and that he doesn't hold that against his friend. Kelso said Dykstra got up on the witness stand and told the truth: They bet on their golf games and played poker on a regular basis during the off-season. Kelso doesn't deny that. But he is not some organized-crime-connected-back-alley professional gambler. That's a different breed of cat from Herb Kelso.

Kelso comes from Southern stock. He was born in Knoxville, Tenn., son of a contractor. His parents were strict Southern Baptists. He became fascinated by the game of poker when he was 7 years old, and he has been learning the art ever since.

Kelso first began playing poker with his little buddies for matchsticks and marbles. He took up golf when he was a teen-ager. He loved both games more than anything.

Lenny Dykstra grew up in Southern California, a world that couldn't be any more different from Herb Kelso's South. But what they have in common is a manic competitive streak.

Kelso talked of his fondness for Dykstra throughout the interview. Often he would jump out of his chair, right hand in his pants pocket, jiggling golf tees and loose change.

"If Lenny Dykstra and I were the opposite sex, hell, we'd probably be lovers," he nearly shouted. "It's the competitive streak in both of us that attracts us to each other."

On the golf course neither one would give the other an inch. Money? "Hell, it wasn't the money we play for," Kelso said. "The money just spiced up the competition."

Kelso first met Dykstra at the Live Oaks Country Club here in Jackson while Dykstra was playing for the Jackson Mets, a farm team of the New York Mets. Dykstra's father-in-law belonged to the club and so did Kelso. One day they all played golf together.

Kelso had seen Dykstra play baseball in Jackson and had admired his competitive, hustling approach to the game. He reminded him of ... himself.

So they started playing golf together. Then they began playing poker together. "Lenny wasn't very good at first," Kelso said, "but Lenny is a very astute business person. I've never seen him throw his money away. When he first started playing, he would usually lose a little money and then just watch."

In the last couple of years, Dykstra's golf and poker games improved dramatically. "On the golf course, Dykstra is a home run hitter," Kelso said. "He used to hit it long but spray it around. But the last couple of years he hit it straight."

At first they played for $2 a hole or $5 a hole. But they kept increasing the bets, $500 a hole, $1,000 a hole. They always owed each other money, but seldom did money ever change hands.

Eventually, Kelso started bringing Dykstra to his poker games during the off-season. The game was about 18 years old by then, and it was high stakes. At first, Kelso said, Dykstra was not a good poker player. But he wasn't stupid, Kelso said. He'd lose a thousand or so and then watch. Kelso would cover Dykstra's losses with his own line of credit. Sometimes Dykstra would win the money back in golf. It was a rotating line of credit, a gentlemen's game.

No one from the office of baseball commissioner Fay Vincent has talked to him about his relationship with Dykstra, Kelso said. Baseball commissioners have been known to suspend players for associating with gamblers. Vincent said Saturday his office had an active investigation of the case but offered no further comment. Kelso said he would be willing to talk to Vincent or any representative of baseball.

"If the resources of all the branches of the United States government can't find anything in my past that is detrimental to baseball, I don't think the baseball commissioner can either. But he is welcome to come and try," Kelso said.

The last thing he wants is for Dykstra to get in trouble because of him. "He's my buddy," Kelso said. "There's no one I'd rather play golf with."

But he said he understood that he might not be able to play golf again with his buddy, or even associate with him.

"His friends in Jackson still love him," Kelso said. "But if it is in the best interests of Lenny Dykstra, baseball, America, or whoever, that Lenny Dykstra don't play golf with me, then I'll never play golf with him."

Herb Kelso is nothing if not patriotic.