#71 in our countdown is Lonnie Smith.
Cocaine is a helluva drug
Lucky Lonnie. Lonnie Smith was a talented, but flawed player who got to be a starter on five different World Series teams, three of which won Championships. He started for the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1985 Kansas City Royals, and the 1991 and 1992 Atlanta Braves. He has appeared in 32 World Series games, more than Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Stan Musial, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan or Willie Mays. Baserunning gaffe aside, he was pretty clutch in the World Series too, batting .277/.341/.473 in 112 World Series at bats.
Lonnie was originally the third player taken overall in the 1974 Amateur Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. He was given the nickname "Skates" because of the way he moved around in the outfield. He moved quickly through the system with a .300 average, great walk totals, and lots of stolen bases. He spent four seasons at AAA Oklahoma City, hitting .308, .277, .315 and .330, with 171 stolen bases over that time period. However, he couldn't manage more than a cup of coffee with the Phillies until 1980 when he made the club out of spring training.
The Phils had a veteran laden club with guys like Bob Boone, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt, but Lonnie filled in well as a fourth outfielder. He was a sparkplug, hitting .339 with a team high 33 steals in just 100 games. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, and celebrated a World Championship in his first big league season as the Phillies knocked off the Royals in the 1980 World Series.
With veterans Garry Maddox, Gary Matthews, and Bake McBride patrolling the outfield in Veterans Stadium, Lonnie found it tough to break into the starting lineup. In 1981 he was still excellent in a reserve role, hitting .321 with a team high 21 steals, despite just 176 at bats. With a wealth of solid outfielders, the Phillies shipped Smith off to St. Louis that winter in a three team deal.
In a full time role for the first time, Lonnie thrived, hitting .307 for the National League Champion Cardinals, stealing 68 bases, scoring a league best 120 runs and earning an All-Star selection. He was the perfect blend for a leadoff hitter, finishing fourth in steals (although he was caught a league high 26 times), and eighth in on-base percentage. He was huge in the World Series, hitting .321 with four doubles and a triple as the Cards defeated the Milwaukee Brewers for the title. For his efforts, he finished second in MVP balloting to Dale Murphy.
Lonnie continued to hit in 1983, and his .321 batting average finished just two points behind batting champion Bill Madlock. His season was marred however when he had to check himself into a drug rehabilitation and missed four weeks of the season. He learned he had consumed so much cocaine that he developed a large ulcer in one of his nostrils.
''Sooner or later, it was going to catch up with me and I knew it....'Sometimes I knew I couldn't play, but I went out and went through the motions. I knew it was affecting my play...I was pretty close to rock bottom. I thought I'd reached it, but a lot of people said I didn't. I didn't think I was much of anything. I had no self-respect and I had no self-esteem. I felt like I was a junkie on the street...'I had no desire to play the game and I had no desire to win. I was just showing up.''
In 1984, his numbers fell dramatically. His average dropped to .250, although he did draw a then career high 70 walks. In 1985, the Cards had a speedy young rookie outfielder named Vince Coleman. That spring Lonnie had to deal with unending trade rumors and in March he was given immunity on drug charges in return for his testimony in a grand jury trial on a federal drug case involving the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I had thought about quitting very seriously..But I figured (quitting) was not to my best advantage or to my family's. I thought about it, and it was not the proper time." In May, the Cardinals dealt Smith to the Royals for minor league outfielder John Morris.
"Lonnie Smith has been a key player for the Cardinals and is a player who we think can increase our offensive productivity,"
Lonnie was mildly disappointing that season, hitting just .257 for the Royals with a .321 on-base percentage, although he did manage to swipe forty bases, good for fifth in the American League. He later admitted he was still doing cocaine during the 1985 season. After dispatching the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series, the Royals faced Lonnie's old team, the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Lonnie had a great series against his ex-teammates, going 9-27 in the leadoff spot with three doubles, four RBI and two steals.
The following spring training, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth announced Smith and six other players would face one year suspensions from the game of baseball for using and distributing illegal narcotics. The suspensions would be lifted however, in lieu of a donation of 10% of the player's salary to charity, community service and an agreement to random drug testing.
Smith rebounded to hit .287 that season with 26 steals, although the Royals slumped to just 76 wins following the resignation of manager Dick Howser due to a brain tumor. That winter, the Royals refused to offer Smith arbitration, making him a free agent. Following his strong season, Smith expected to receive numerous offers. To his great surprise, the phone never rang.
''I'm concerned because there is a very good possibility I will be out of baseball,...'I'm sitting back and waiting for calls that don't come. I'm out here in never-never land waiting to see what happens.''
Many players found themselves in the same boat, unable to receive offers from any team, forcing them to return to their old ballclubs on May 1. Later, the owners would be found guilty of illegally colluding against the players. By the time Smith returned to the Royals on May 1, they had already moved on by acquiring young slugger Danny Tartabull and former college football star Bo Jackson. Lonnie found himself in a reduced role and hit just .251 in 48 games. That winter, he was released by the Royals. He blamed General Manager John Schuerholz for blackballing him throughout baseball for his drug past. Years later, he would admit that he seriously considered murdering Schuerholz, even going as far as purchasing a weapon.
"I figured if I got close enough to him, it didn't matter...I didn't think I really wanted to do it, but at the same time, I really did. To have something that you love and have somebody take it from you, it will drive you to do anything."
Instead Smith got a call from Atlanta General Manager Bobby Cox, who offered Smith a minor league contract. Smith eagerly accepted and spent most of the season in the minors, before appearing in 43 games with the Braves, hitting just .237. Smith came back with fire in 1989 and won a starting spot with the Braves in spring training. ""He's like the Lonnie of old, only he's better in the outfield now," said Braves general manager Bobby Cox. "I guess we can't call him Skates any more."
Smith responded with a terrific season, hitting .315 with a career high 21 home runs and a career high 76 walks. He finished eleventh in MVP balloting and was named Comeback Player of the Year. He would go on to hit .300 again in 1990 with some of the young minor leaguers he played with at Richmond in 1988 like Ron Gant, David Justice, and John Smoltz. That winter, the Braves would name John Schuerholz, the man Smith once considered murdering, as their new General Manager. Smith initially refused to play for Schuerholz, and again threatened to quit.
Once his wife talked him out of retirement, Smith helped guide the young Braves to a miraculous turnaround season, going from last place to first place in just one season. On the day the Braves clinched the division, Lonnie went to Schuerholz and hugged him in joyous celebration. The former clubhouse cancer was a beloved part of the Braves championship team, leading they young team to success.
Lonnie did well in the World Series against the Minnesota Twins, smacking three home runs in the series, but he is best known for making a crucial baserunning blunder. In Game Seven, the Braves and Twins were locked in a scoreless tie into the eighth. Lonnie led the inning off with a single. Terry Pendleton would follow with a double, but Lonnie would hesitate rounding second base when Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch faked a relay throw. The hesitation would cost Lonnie as he would end up at third instead of scoring, and the Braves would fail to score in the inning. The Twins would win the game in the tenth, sending the Braves home.
Lonnie would bounce around from the Pirates to the Orioles before finally calling it quits in 1994 at age 38. He retired with an impressive .288 average, nearly 1500 hits and 370 stolen bases.