Having been there, Lonnie Smith can feel sympathy for Strawberry

BASEBALL

April 10, 1994|By TOM KEEGAN

Orioles reserve outfielder Lonnie Smith, 11 years removed from a midseason stay in a drug rehabilitation center, remembers the words of a professional.

"My rehab doctor told me drug abusers make the best con men in the world," Smith said. "Usually, it takes one to know one and even then you can't always tell.

"I was playing for Atlanta in '91 when Otis Nixon had his problems and I never saw the signs. It's not as easy to spot as some people think. If a user wants to hide it he can, unless he's completely gone."

Darryl Strawberry, who admitted himself into a drug treatment facility Thursday night, hadn't reached that stage when Smith saw him before a spring game in Florida last month.

"It surprised me," Smith said of the Strawberry news that cast a pall over the Los Angeles Dodgers. "When I saw him in spring training, I thought he had his life together. Evidently, there was something deeper inside him that was bothering him."

Strawberry's vanishing act from the Dodgers disappointed Smith, who voluntarily admitted himself for treatment in 1983.

"I think it's sad," Smith said. "And I think Darryl could have handled it a little better. I think he should have gone directly to the Dodgers, instead of drifting off on his own."

No one was happier than manager Tommy Lasorda when the Dodgers signed Strawberry to a five-year, $20.5 million contract before the 1991 season, a contract that has two years and $8 million remaining.

Slowed by a weak back that eventually required surgery, Strawberry totaled 10 home runs and 37 RBIs the past two seasons.

Lasorda tolerated the lack of production, but he couldn't bring himself to accept Strawberry's drug use. Lasorda comes from a generation that has trouble with the entire concept of drug use. Lasorda aired his frustrations honestly, instead of riding the politically correct bandwagon.

"I don't buy that it's an illness," Lasorda said. "I say it's a weakness. When you're putting something in your body that you know can do you harm, that you know can ruin your life, that's a weakness."

Smith has heard those sentiments.

"A lot of people feel that way and everyone is entitled to his opinion," Smith said. "Usually, the ones who feel that way are the same people who distinguish between alcohol and marijuana. In reality, other than one being legal and the other illegal, the only difference is one's a dry high and the other's a wet high. Both give you the same hangover. Both are addicting and both can lead to harder drugs."

When Smith's cocaine abuse began to scare him in 1983, he sought help. He is glad he made that choice, even though it led to a misconception that he was a repeat offender. Now Smith joins baseball in wishing Strawberry well in his drug treatment.

"I know Darryl, but not as close as I wish I had known him," Smith said. "The Darryl Strawberry I knew was a nice guy, a guy who went through a lot of ridicule in New York and remained a nice guy."

Even if he rights himself in drug treatment, Strawberry's chances of returning to the Dodgers are close to nil.

"I don't know that he will," Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said in a published report. "We are not holding a spot for Darryl Strawberry. It makes no sense to do that. His future is very uncertain as far as playing for the Dodgers again. This team isn't waiting for Darryl Strawberry to come back. He has a contract, but we haven't given up any of our rights. We're looking at that contract."

Teammates voice support

Quotes gathered by Ken Daley of the Los Angeles Daily News:

From Detroit's Eric Davis, Strawberry's close friend: "When you have things going on inside your head, it's easy to hide. Darryl is not one who shows his emotions off the field to a lot of people. In fact, probably one of his biggest problems is his ability to open up to other people when he needs to. That's why this has made me so upset. I felt I wasn't there for him somehow. I sit back and ask myself what could I have done.

"I'm just concerned about Darryl the individual. He has to live without baseball at some point in his life anyway. If he comes back and plays baseball, that's great. But if he comes back and has his life together, that's even better."

From Tim Wallach, who had a locker next to Strawberry all spring and was a teammate of Tim Raines in Montreal when Raines used cocaine: "That's what's weird. I can look back and I played Montreal when there were some problems, and I had no idea then. It's hard to explain. I would have thought nothing [about Strawberry]. Nobody had an idea."

Claire: "There was not a time we didn't ask hard questions. With someone who's got a drug problem, there's big-time denial. There are always a lot of rumors, but you've got to have hard facts. He has been asked on numerous occasions."

Holy Delgado, what a batman

Opening week Rookie of the Year, hands down, goes to Toronto catcher-turned-left fielder Carlos Delgado, who hit his third home run Friday. His first two were tape-measure shots at SkyDome.

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