'Skates' Smith glides through Series of HRs

October 26, 1991|By Mike Littwin

ATLANTA -- This particular Braves fan was wearing a pink, Styrofoam, tomahawk earring, which just proves that no matter how long you've been around, there is always something new to see.

As it happens, I saw many wondrous things in my short trip to the capital of the New South. I saw Jane Fonda nominate Mark Lemke for president. I saw a former president, Jimmuh Carter, tomahawk chopping. And I saw Lonnie Smith. Not only did I see Lonnie Smith, but I also saw him standing. If that doesn't surprise you, you don't know Lonnie "Skates" Smith.

What can I tell you about him?

We can start with the obvious. Smith is playing in his fourth World Series with his fourth team, which is a record. He is 3-0 in these Series and one game away from 4-0 as the Braves and Twins head back to the MonstroDome tonight. If the Twins lose, their fans can cry in their Homer Hankies.

To get to this Series, Smith has had to overcome drug problems that nearly cost him his career, and he won back his starting position because Otis Nixon was suspended for drug use, a coincidence not lost on Smith.

"I don't necessarily feel good about how I got here," he was saying the other night. "But I do feel good about being here."

Not only is he here, but he's also playing a starring role, having hit three homers in three consecutive World Series games, which ties a record shared by Lou Gehrig and Reggie Jackson. As you know, Reggie goes by Mr. October, and now they want to pin the title on Lonnie Smith. (Pinning anything on Smith can be dangerous, but more on that later.)

"Reggie's one of the Hall of Famers," Smith said. "I'm just one of those guys who've had some luck. I'll never make the Hall of Fame. I'll just go there on a visit."

I hope they have handrails.

You see, Smith is not your typical baseball player. They call him "Skates," and not for his resemblance to Torvill or Dean. Let's just say Chevy Chase plays him in the movie. Let's just say he has his ups and downs. No one has ever been able to explain it, including Smith, but when Lonnie plays on a baseball field, it's as if it were laced with small ice patches. Back, back, back for a fly ball and, suddenly, it's, where's Lonnie? That's why, if you look at his locker, you'll see a little trophy topped by a black baseball glove. It is the "Not So Golden Glove Award," presented by his teammates.

It isn't just in the outfield where life is an adventure. Maybe you've seen him run the bases. Maybe you thought he just had an exaggerated slide. I've seem him slide 45 feet.

Here's this wonderful athlete who can't keep his feet. Maybe it's an inner-ear problem. Maybe he should have played vaudeville. Of course, not many vaudevillians have .290 lifetime batting averages or have stolen as many as 68 bases in a season.

And Smith hasn't slipped once in this Series. The only time he left his feet was to plow into Twins catcher Brian Harper in Game 4, giving his very best Ronnie Lott imitation. Harper didn't fumble. Fortunately, no one got hurt. And baseball got some great footage for its Series highlight film. Also, many of the Braves were saying they were inspired by the play.

"I'm not surprised by anything Lonnie has done," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "When we lost Otis, I wasn't worried because I knew we had Lonnie."

(By the way, Cox also said he wasn't surprised by anything Mark Lemke had done. What's next? Cox: "I wasn't surprised when a meteor landed on my forehead.")

Smith, 35, began the season on the disabled list, hit .306 in his last 63 games and played a key role in the late-season race with the Dodgers and now has three homers as a leadoff hitter. Before the Series began, people were saying that Smith, with three Series championships, was a good-luck charm. Now, he's a team leader.

"Look, I'm near the end of my career, and I know this could probably be my last Series," Smith said. "I'm enjoying every bit of it. These young guys, they don't know what it means yet. What has surprised me is how they've been able to handle it all. I don't know if I handled it this well in my first Series."

That was 1980. It was long ago, and Steve Avery, who pitches for the Braves tonight, was 10 years old, and Lonnie Smith was already providing thrills. Also spills.

"The first one was the best," he said. "This one would be pretty good, though. But if you look at the Braves' history, however this one turns out, it's already been great. The fans are on top of the world, because no one really expected this to happen."

Certainly, the Twins didn't expect it. For most of this season, the Twins were one of the best teams in baseball. They were the best team in Minnesota for two games. And now, they have to pick themselves up and get back on their feet. Lonnie Smith could tell them all about it.

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