Drugs nearly drove former Major League star Lonnie Smith to murder. The events and confusion of those days still stick with Smith, all these years after he cleaned himself up.
By KENT BABB
FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — He is aging, plump from 12 years of retirement, and sprawled on a brown, leather sofa inside his two-story, brick home in suburban Atlanta. Former Braves left fielder Lonnie Smith has little to do these days, other than to tend to his home, raise his three daughters and reflect on the memories of his 17-year baseball career.
There are good memories, such as the three World Series championships he won with three teams. And there are bad ones, such as the cocaine addiction that followed him — and nearly compelled him to commit murder.
The good memories come with mementos and posters and championship rings, most of them tucked into boxes in Smith’s basement. The bad memories, such as the stigma of addiction, stay with him. He carries the most visible reminder on his right hand, where a deep scar near his thumb reminds him that he had both a gun and a plan to kill John Schuerholz, the general manager Smith blamed for sabotaging his career while he played for the Kansas City Royals.
Smith blamed Schuerholz, now the Braves general manager, for blackballing him among other major league teams’ officials. Smith says Schuerholz never believed he had given up drugs in 1983, when he spent 30 days in a rehab clinic, and told other general managers Smith was a troublemaker with a dangerous history. Smith, who left Kansas City on bad terms after the ’87 season, spent much of the next year begging teams to give him a chance. When it did not happen, Smith bought a dime bag of marijuana and decided Schuerholz’s crime was a capital offense.
“If I couldn’t get back to baseball,” Smith says, “I was going to take him with me. I was going to fly out there, wait for him in the parking lot of the stadium and pop him. If I got caught, I got caught. If not, I’d come on back home.”
Smith pauses and extends his right hand to emphasize his point; his thumb and forefinger are extended to symbolize a gun.
“If I did, you know, the thing, at least I took somebody out who was at blame,” he says.
For Smith, “the thing” is a pet name for murder. And home was Spartanburg, where he lived during the offseason for 10 years, and the place where Smith endured his most difficult times. It also was the place where he walked into a pawnshop on North Church Street and bought a Taurus 9-millimeter handgun, the weapon he intended to point at Schuerholz’s head and, at six feet away, pull the trigger.
It was the first gun Smith, who was 32 at the time, had purchased and the second one he had held, other than his father’s hunting rifle. His inexperience showed when he took the gun into the backyard of his home in Northwest Spartanburg and fired a practice shot, one round into the grass. Smith held his right thumb too high, and the hammer snapped back and sliced his hand.
Less than a week later, Smith received a call from a familiar voice; Braves general manager Bobby Cox was calling to offer a final chance at baseball. In an instant, he forgot about murder. The plan died when he gave the pistol to his ex-wife as part of their divorce settlement.
But the scar on his hand remains, though it has faded during the 18 years since Smith envisioned his plot. He does not hide it; he says it is a reminder of how close he came to killing the man he believed had killed his career.
BASEBALL AND DRUGS
Forget it. The game was over, and it was time to relax. The marijuana cigarette came first, downed in a dozen pulls. Then came the bag of cocaine, a third of an ounce this time, and he knew he would not stop until the bag was empty.
It was a midweek game, the last one that Smith played before he hit rock bottom. After going 0-for-2 in the St. Louis Cardinals’ 7-4, midweek loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in June 1983, Smith bought the drugs from a dealer who had shorted him the last time he was in Philadelphia. It was not the performance or the loss that sent him in search of relief at the bottom of a baggie; instead, his connection with the dealer gave Smith an easy opportunity to get high.
He holed up in his hotel room, plowed through the drugs and began a night that would chill him to the bone. Smith says he did not sleep that night; he sat on the floor, shaking and sweating as the sun rose, and was terrified he was on the edge of a fatal overdose. He did not play in the Cardinals’ game the next day, feeling nauseated in the dugout and stuffing clumps of toilet tissue into his nostrils to stop a chronic nosebleed.
After the Cardinals’ 11-inning loss, Smith walked into manager Whitey Herzog’s office and told the manager he had a drug problem and was scared it might kill him if he did not get help. Herzog referred him to the team’s substance-abuse counselor, and after a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs, the team returned to St. Louis, where Smith entered rehab.
Smith learned he had consumed so much cocaine that he developed a large ulcer in one of his nostrils, a sign he was burning away the flesh of his nose. He began a month of rehab, when he had to learn how to eat and sleep and live without drugs as a psychological parachute.
But Smith, who was traded to the Royals in May 1985, learned he could not leave his history at the rehab center. He admitted to using cocaine in ’85 during the so-called Pittsburgh drug trials, after which 11 players were suspended from baseball for drug use. Smith was among seven players suspended for the 1986 season; those players were allowed to play under certain conditions, such as submitting to random drug testing and performing drug-related community service.
Smith says his punishment was not enough to make Schuerholz forget about his past. He blamed Schuerholz for his reduced role in 1987, when he played in 48 games despite finishing second on the team in hitting a year earlier.
“From the moment I showed up, he thought I made too much money,” Smith says. “You can never make any money under him. I guess I respect him as a businessman, but he put a hurt on my career. I haven’t really liked the man since.”
Attempts to reach Schuerholz through the Braves organization were unsuccessful.
In December 1987, the Royals released Smith. He returned to Spartanburg and, when his calls to other teams went unreturned, he was forced to sit and wonder what had happened to his career.
Smith was angry and frustrated and depressed all at once. One night in late February 1988, the day before he visited a pawnshop on North Church Street, Smith drove his black van to a Spartanburg housing project. He rolled down the driver’s side window and waited for a man to jog in his direction. Smith handed the man $40, and the man handed him a small bag of marijuana.
Forget it. Smith, who had been clean for nearly five years, needed relief in any form he could find it.
A PLAN TO MURDER
Smith took satisfying drags on a marijuana cigarette and thought about the past. Baseball was all he had known. His agent had told him earlier that week that no team wanted him; word had circulated that Smith was a malcontent with a penchant for noticeable — and contagious — mistakes.
His history was well documented, but he thought his troubles were behind him.
Smith sunk deeper into the chair at 185 Ridgewood Drive in Inman, staring into the fireplace and taking long pulls from his joint. He thought about the future.
Smith considered driving back to the housing project and becoming a drug dealer, a profession that never would match the $400,000 he earned playing for the Royals in 1987. Two years earlier, when the Royals won the World Series, Smith made $1 million.
He wanted revenge. He configured a plan to kill Schuerholz, a man he believed stole two years from his life.
Smith entered the pawnshop, a few blocks from the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, and asked to see a Beretta. He wanted a pistol that would fire more than six rounds — in case he missed or needed to finish the job.
“I figured if I got close enough to him, it didn’t matter,” Smith says. “I didn’t think I really wanted to do it, but at the same time, I really did. To have something that you love and have somebody take it from you, it will drive you to do anything.”
The clerk told him he was out of Berettas, but the Taurus 9-millimeter was compact, easier to use than the Beretta, and its magazine held 15 rounds. Smith took it home and fired a bullet into his backyard.
A few days later, Smith’s phone rang. The voice on the other end was Cox, who admitted he had heard rumors Smith was an agitator and was considered a clubhouse cancer while he played for the Royals.
Cox told Smith he would give him one chance, a tryout that hung on the thinnest of threads. One mistake would send him back to Spartanburg with nothing on his schedule but more time to think.
Smith hung up the phone and ran into his living room. He retrieved the bag of marijuana, about half of which remained, and threw it into the fireplace. Smith signed a minor-league contract with the Braves on March 12, 1988.
He found out 19 months later that his time with Schuerholz was not finished.
A HUG THAT ‘HAD TO BE DONE’
Smith played in the minor leagues with newfound enthusiasm and the same old talent, playing most of the 1988 season with the Triple-A Richmond (Va.) Braves. The team included Ron Gant, David Justice and John Smoltz, players he would share a dugout with when the Braves reached the 1991 and ’92 World Series.
The Atlanta Braves called him up for the final 43 games in 1988, and he played the entire 1989 season in the majors. Smith, who was two years removed from the most difficult time of his life, hit .315 with 21 homers in ’89; he was named the National League’s comeback player of the year and finished 11th in MVP voting. His numbers remained steady in 1990, but the Braves finished in last place. Cox named himself manager in June of that season.
Smith watched on television as team president Stan Kasten introduced the team’s new general manager in October 1990. When Smith learned Schuerholz was Atlanta’s choice, he told his wife, Dorothy, he would not play for Schuerholz; that he planned to quit baseball once and for all.
Smith credits Dorothy, whom he married in September 1990, for talking him out of that decision and easing his anger toward Schuerholz. Smith says he avoided Schuerholz during their two seasons together in Atlanta; if Smith saw Schuerholz walking in his direction, Smith darted around a corner or behind a door.
But the pair came face to face during a locker-room celebration after the Braves clinched the 1991 National League West championship. Amid champagne and high-fives, Smith whirled around and saw Schuerholz standing six feet away, the same distance he had imagined would stand between them when Smith planned to point the gun at him, and their eyes locked.
Not wanting to interrupt the celebration of the Braves’ first division title since 1982, Smith stepped forward and hugged Schuerholz.
Smith, who maintains he has not overcome all his anger from March 1988, says he is uncertain whether the hug was genuine.
“It felt sincere,” Smith says. “But deep down inside, I hated it. It was something that had to be done. It was a joyous time, and I didn’t want to disrupt it. It just had to be done.”
A high-ranking official in the Braves’ front office said this week Smith had an easygoing personality and he did not think Schuerholz knew the intensity of the outfielder’s anger. The official said Smith kept to himself but his teammates “loved him.” Cox, he said, would not have tolerated him otherwise.
“Lonnie was an all right guy. He would drink one beer in the clubhouse and be out the door,” the official said. “For him to stay around with Bobby Cox, you know ... he was a standup guy. You don’t hang around Bobby for a couple of years if you have something crossways.”
THE NEW LONNIE
More than a dozen years after he played in his final game, Smith’s days are slow. He spends most days on his leather couch or under the hood of one of his cars.
He often wonders what might have happened if his choices had been different, if he had not held fast to his desire to quit drugs or if he had ignored the telephone the day Cox called. If in 1988 he had boarded a plane bound for Kansas City and carried through with “the thing,” Smith realizes his life would be far different than it is now.
Smith left Spartanburg when he signed with the Braves, and he left his former life 175 miles northeast of Atlanta. He divorced his first wife, Pearl, and says he has not ingested an illegal drug since that night in 1988, when he spent $40 for a small bag of pot. He gave the gun to Pearl after their divorce, saying at the time he would never need it.
Smith says he has not been to Spartanburg in more than a decade; it carries too many bad memories, even though his ex-wife and two eldest children live there.
He started a new life when Cox gave him his second chance, one Smith says he was determined not to ruin. Smith earned nearly $7 million during his final six seasons in baseball, the time during which he squashed his feelings of revenge to play for the man he once had planned to kill. His earnings were enough that neither he nor his wife has to work, and he says a trust fund has been established for each of his three daughters.
As for forgiveness, Smith cannot define the feelings he has toward Schuerholz. The men have not spoken, though Smith has appeared at several team reunions in the past few years. Perhaps it is because deep scars fade but do not disappear, from wounds where a pistol sliced his hand to visions inside of a desperate man’s mind.
It is a place Smith admits no one else knows, not even the people who have tried for nearly two decades to understand the source of his scars.
Some would prefer to never revisit those wounds.
“If I had been him, I don’t know if it would have gotten to that point,” Dorothy Smith says. “I don’t know about letting somebody spit in my face, but there are other ways to handle it. What he went through, that’s pretty up-against-the-wall stuff. I don’t know what his days were like then. I’m just glad Schuerholz didn’t get shot. What triggers that? I’ve never gotten to that point. I don’t know what he was thinking about, but it sounds pretty scary.
“I just know how Lonnie is now, the Lonnie after all that. And he’s a good Lonnie. That’s the one I know. That’s the only one I want to know.”