Scarred by drug trial, redemption isn't retribution for angry Smith

Ken Rosenthal

October 23, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

TORONTO -- The man has a history, and it goes far beyond his base-running gaffe in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Lonnie Smith entered a drug rehabilitation program in 1983. He was fined, suspended and ordered to perform community service after testifying in the Pittsburgh drug trial in '85.

Mocked for his careless style of play, scorned by the game's powers-that-be, the outfielder nicknamed "Skates" portrays his career as a series of indignities and slights. Thus, it fit neatly into his world view when Toronto again walked David Justice to pitch to him last night.

In Game 3, Smith responded with a go-ahead single off Juan Guzman in the eighth inning of a game the Braves lost in the ninth. Last night, he hit a stunning opposite-field grand slam to change the entire chemistry of this series.

The Braves trail three games to two heading back to Atlanta, all because of a player they attempted to trade earlier this season, a player who started only 31 games. Lonnie Smith is back, back with a clutch hit, back with a vengeance. That, of course, is part of his history, too.

Few recall that before his base-running fiasco in Game 7 last year, he hit home runs in three consecutive games. He's a .280 hitter in 186 postseason at-bats. This is his fifth World Series appearance. He's 2-for-12, but his fifth-inning homer gave him the series lead with five RBI.

The obvious question afterward was if the grand slam erased the memory of last year, when he failed to score from first on Terry Pendleton's long double in the eighth inning of a scoreless game. The Braves lost to Jack Morris and Minnesota, 1-0, in 10 innings. Smith immediately was labeled the goat.

"I don't think I will ever get any retribution for that game," Smith said. "People all year have brought it up. Some even consider it one of the major blunders in World Series history. Do I feel any retribution? No. I was just glad we were in the game, up by a couple of runs."

Still, this is an angry man. He flipped his bat after connecting on Morris' 1-2 fastball, then unleashed a stream of profanity as he began his home-run trot. He said the Blue Jays "insulted" him by walking Justice. In fact, they merely wanted Morris to face a right-handed hitter rather than a left-handed one who had

homered off him the previous inning.

Smith later said he understood, but he remains sensitive to any perceived offense. "I've been criticized my whole career," he said. "For one thing, I'm a black man, so I'm going to be criticized. For another thing, I've been considered a mediocre player. Last year was nothing new."

Still, for all his troubles, Smith said his "greatest hurt was when the game turned on me after the Pittsburgh drug trial. They told me if I told the truth [in testimony] everything would be fine. I'm not angry. I realize in this game, people don't like

honesty. When you tell the truth, there's always someone that turns on you.

"I was asked by the commissioner's office, the National League and the Cardinals [his former team] to talk, tell everything I know and not lie. They promised me I would not be penalized. I did that only to find baseball turned on me. They fined me and suspended me."

Commissioner Peter Ueberroth later reduced the suspensions of the players who testified -- Dave Parker, Keith Hernandez and Lee Lacy, among others. But for whatever reasons, it took Smith time to recover. He got released by Kansas City after the '87 season.

At such times players often fear their careers are over. Smith figured he might wind up "selling used cars, which I know I wouldn't have been very good at. I kept my fingers crossed and prayed every night. I knew I could still play."

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, then the club's GM, signed him as a minor-league free agent the following spring. One year later, Smith produced his best season, batting .315 with 21 homers and 79 RBI. The Sporting News named him National League Comeback Player of the Year.

Cox said Smith is "still swinging the bat as well as he ever has," but when his playing time dwindled earlier this season, he asked for a trade. GM John Schuerholz said he contacted several American League clubs. None wanted Smith, whose 1992 salary was $1.7 million.

So, once again, Smith went about reviving his career. He batted .288 after May 27, then went 2-for-6 with an RBI triple in the National League playoffs. He already has twice that many at-bats in this series, thanks to the use of the DH in the AL park.

He was 7-for-31 (.226) lifetime off Morris before his grand slam, but none of that matters now. Suddenly, Smith is reborn as a hero, and Morris recast as a goat. No doubt Smith will scoff at the labels, but maybe now the perceptions of others will change.

The man has a history. Some of it is actually good.

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