Rehabbing image no game for Smith

March 22, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There's no need to tell Lonnie Smith, the Orioles' reserve outfielder and designated-hitter candidate, about stigmas.

Eleven years have passed since Smith voluntarily checked himself into a drug rehabilitation clinic, and still nobody seems to be able to get the story straight, he says.

Rather than run from his past, though, Smith talks about it, figuring it's the best means to rectify matters.

"Somehow, there was this perception out there that I had been through drug rehab three times and I had been caught with drugs and arrested," Smith said. "That never happened. I went in on my own in '83 and had my problem treated. I never had a relapse.

"I don't mind talking about my drug problem. I just hate the assumptions people make. I hate the misperceptions."

And he hated what he was doing to himself 11 years ago. Smith said it got to the point that he went two consecutive days without sleeping after he snorted a half-ounce of cocaine in one night.

It didn't kill him. But it did scare him. "I found that whenever I had some, I wouldn't stop doing it until there wasn't anything left," Smith said. "That's when I knew I had a problem."

So he placed himself in the hands of baseball's drug rehabilitation program in the middle of the 1983 season, his second of the 3 1/2 he spent with the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was then, he said, that he gained control of his drug problem and lost control of his image. An accountant might be able to camouflage substance-abuse treatment as a vacation. A professional athlete can't, especially not one who leaves in the middle of a baseball season. Smith encountered one curse of celebrity: the forfeiture of anonymity.

His participation in the baseball drug trials of 1985, which came as a result of a grand jury investigation that exposed drug use in major-league baseball, only fostered the drug image.

"I testified for the state of Pennsylvania in the baseball drug trials, was fined and forced to undergo random drug testing," he said. "Everyone assumed I was in and out of rehab. That wasn't the case.

"For a time there I felt like I was being blamed for every incident involving drugs in baseball. The whole thing virtually almost destroyed my life, my family, my career. It was always one of the first things brought up about me. I found myself defending myself all the time."

Pride has replaced bitterness for Smith.

"I'm proud of the fact I took care of my problem and I'm still surviving," he said. "This is the 11th year I haven't been involved in drugs. I never denied I had a problem, never strayed from dealing with it. When ever baseball wants to test me they can test me. I don't intend to fight that. That's the only way I can prove I'm clean. If I'm getting into arguments with umpires or acting silly on the field and they think something isn't right, they can test me. They will find I'm clean."

Clean, but not fooled into thinking he is forever freed from temptation. "It is something you have to always battle," he said. "It's not like you wake up one day and you are cured."

Never cured and seemingly never more optimistic than now.

"The last five years have been a heck of a lot easier," Smith said. "I have a new wife, a new daughter, we're expecting in December, and I have my two kids from my other marriage. Life has been good to me. There is no need to go back into that black hole in the ground. I've been honest with myself and I'll continue to be honest with myself."

Smith is honest enough with himself to realize it won't be his glove, or even his once-dangerous speed, that figures to earn him a spot on the Orioles' bench.

Owner of a .289 lifetime batting average, Smith has been among the Orioles' hottest hitters all spring.

Acquired last Sept. 8 from the Pittsburgh Pirates for minor-leaguers Stanton Cameron and Terry Farrar, Smith hit .208 in 24 at-bats for the Orioles. Two of his five hits were home runs.

Now 38, Smith is bent on playing in the World Series for a fifth different organization. No one else has done it for more than three teams. He played in the World Series for Philadelphia (1980), St. Louis (1982), Kansas City (1985) and Atlanta (1991, '92) and has four home runs and 14 RBIs in 32 World Series games.

Smith should know what makes for a championship team. And he said he sees those qualities in the Orioles, who invited him to spring training as a nonroster player.

"It's taken me this spring to feel comfortable here," he said. "There was a lot of nervousness for me last year, coming here in the middle of a pennant race without my family. I feel more comfortable now. It's fun here. I'd rather be on a team like this one, where guys don't have attitudes."

L He considers himself one of the guys, but only to an extent.

"I'll do a little here with them, a little there," he said. "I try to participate in things, but I try to spend more time with my family now. When I first came up it was baseball first, family second. It's not like that anymore. It's family first now."

In many ways, life is much different for Smith since he first broke into baseball as a 1974 first-round draft choice of the Phillies, a quiet kid from rugged Compton, Calif.

He craves one more change. He wants the stigma to fade.

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