Smith's home run to kids put on hold

March 04, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- He began his professional career in 1974, when Jeffrey Hammonds was 3 years old. Lonnie Smith has been around so long, he's older than one of the Orioles' coaches, Jerry Narron.

He's 38 now. His son, Eric, turns 14 later this month. His daughter, Yaritza, turns 13 in June. Both are from a previous marriage. He also has a 20-month-old daughter, Kayla, with his second wife, Dorothy. He wants one more child.

But not now. Not yet. Maybe next year. Smith nearly retired this winter, when his job offers were scarce and his family obligations were pressing. But now he's back, after signing a minor-league contract that will pay him $750,000 if he makes the Orioles.

"My wife came to within two numbers of the lottery -- I thought I was that close to retirement," Smith said. "It was like that until the day I signed here. I told my agent I'd get back to him in two days. Even during those two days, I was thinking about it."

Smith lives in Atlanta, a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Spartanburg, S.C., where his two older children reside with their mother. "It's getting tougher and tougher to leave home," he said. "But deep down inside, something told me I could still play. I wanted to play. I decided to give it a shot."

So there he was at Twin Lakes Park yesterday, rapping two singles in the Orioles' first intrasquad game, same old Lonnie Smith. Manager Johnny Oates likely will use him as a pinch hitter, right-handed DH and reserve outfielder. With luck, Smith could reach the World Series for the sixth time.

He's already the only player in major-league history to play in the Series with four different teams (Philadelphia, 1980; St. Louis, 1982; Kansas City, 1985; Atlanta 1991 and '92). His 112 Series at-bats are the most of any active player (Yogi Berra holds the all-time record with 259).

Still, Smith said playing time and team chemistry meant as much to him as playing for a contender. His first choice was to return to the National League, where he could have returned to Atlanta twice a year. But despite his .289 lifetime average, he found virtually no interest on the open market.

"It just got really tough out there," said Smith, whom the Orioles acquired from Pittsburgh for two minor-leaguers last Sept. 8. "I knew because of my age, the offers wouldn't be flowing in. And when I saw some of the offers other players were getting, even the thought of retirement looked pretty good."

It might have happened, if Orioles general manager Roland Hemond hadn't fulfilled a pledge to Smith's agent, Dick Moss. Hemond told Moss at the end of last season that the Orioles wanted Smith back. But the club's interest waned after it received positive medical reports on Hammonds and Harold Baines and signed Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo.

"I told him, 'Dick, this might not work out, I'm sorry,' " Hemond said. "He came down from New York and visited me. He said, 'Here's what we can work out.' I said, 'OK.' I felt somewhat responsible. At the end of last season, I thought I'd have interest. You try to live up to what you've said."

The deal was struck Feb. 4, one day after the Orioles signed

another right-handed-hitting outfielder, Henry Cotto. It appeared the two would compete for a bench job this spring, but Cotto has since left for Japan, and Smith now seems almost certain to make the club.

He represents insurance for Baines and maybe even Hammonds -- not a bad niche, considering his career nearly ended after 14 seasons. At one point in the negotiations, Hemond asked Moss if Smith was planning to retire. Moss assured him that he was not, but Smith misses his children so much, he was unsure.

"This is my second marriage," Smith said. "My wife is a beautiful woman. I think she deserves more than a part-time husband and part-time father. I want to be more than a part-time husband and a part-time father.

"My first two kids are from my first marriage. In the last three years [since his divorce], I haven't had much quality time with them. They're at an age now where there's so much temptation. They need the guidance of their father.

"They miss being around me, miss doing the things we used to do. They rely on me. They depend on me. It's not that you can't make time for them in the game. It's just that there's so much important time you can spend with them."

Time that keeps passing him by. Smith said he wants his oldest daughter to spend a month with him in Baltimore this summer, but his first wife might not consent. The Orioles don't visit Atlanta, so he can't visit Spartanburg. Thus, he might not see his two older children until the off-season.

Smith already is planning his second career -- he's trying to form a company with his landscaper to secure a chunk of the general contracting work required for the Atlanta Olympics. But he won't say he'll retire if he fails to make the Orioles. He won't even say he'll retire at the end of the season.

"It's a possibility," Smith said. "I don't want to say for sure. I want to play until I'm 41 or 42. But there are too many good young players coming up. The game has changed as far as the money."

Lonnie Smith sighed.

"Not everyone is willing to give an old guy a chance."

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