Heading into 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves with one of those good baseball problems: They had too many outfielders. In addition to Lonnie Smith, Andy Van Slyke, and Tito Landrum, top prospect Vince Coleman was ready for prime time. Smith had been an excellent hitter between 1980—83 before having an off-year in ’84 that he admitted was the result of several personal problems he was facing at the time, including trying to come clean after years of cocaine abuse. 1985 was not starting off great either after Smith bumped and shoved an umpire during a spring training game. Smith became the odd man out when he was dealt to KC in mid-May. (The Royals gave up minor league outfielder John Morris, a well-regarded prospect at the time who never found success in the majors.)
Smith immediately became the everyday left fielder in KC, though manager Dick Howser liked to replace him with Lynn Jones late in games when the Royals had the lead. Though Smith was speedy, his defense was notorious. He was stuck with the nickname “Skates” due to his adventures in the outfield. Smith’s hitting did not recover from the dip that started in 1984, but he managed to be one of the leading run scorers on the team thanks to taking the occasional walk, stealing 40 bases in 47 attempts, and batting in front of George Brett and Hal McRae. Overall though, it was a fairly disappointing regular season. “I haven’t played the way I’m capable of,” he said after his first couple months with the team. “I’ve struggled a great deal.” He was impressed by his teammates though: “I’m really amazed at the talent. It’s a finer team than the one I left, really.”[i]
Smith hit second in the lineup almost all year, but Howser made him the lead-off man for the last few games of the season and left him there for all 14 playoff games too. Whatever disappointments there were in the regular season were more than made up for in that charmed championship run. Smith provided an excellent .361 OBP against tough pitching in those 14 games. Probably his best moment came in game three of the World Series when he knocked a two-RBI double to give the Royals a lead they maintained. Smith was the first player to ever face a team he started the season with in the World Series.
Though a sprained ankle bothered him almost all season, Smith remained the everyday left fielder in 1986, and his hitting improved to better than league average. In a reversal of the ’85 regular season, Smith was individually pretty good, but the team had a disappointing year. Usually hitting first or second in the order, Smith led the team with 80 runs scored. Smith had to donate 10% of his 1986 salary to anti-drug causes, perform community service, and was subject to random drug tests to avoid suspension related to his earlier cocaine use.
Despite the decent year, the Royals declined to exercise their option to bring Smith back at a salary of $950,000 for 1987, even though they had to buy him out for $200,000. GM John Schuerholz still hoped to keep Smith and offered him a contract in the neighborhood of $450,000. “We don’t consider it a viable offer,” said Smith’s agent Jim Bunning.[ii] But Smith found no interest on the free agent market, and came back with his tail between his legs to accept a minor league deal with KC in late May for around $375,000. “There were times I felt bitter that I was sitting out not making money…At times, I felt bitter towards management, but every player goes through that.”[iii] (It came out later that owners were guilty of some collusion in the ’86-’87 off-season.)
After beating up AAA pitching for five weeks, Smith was called back up to Kansas City, where he got into just 48 games and did not do so hot. Kevin Seitzer has shared at least one good memory from a mostly miserable ’87 for Smith: Seitzer had hit 5-for-5 so far in an early August game. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and the Royals with a big lead, Smith, hitting one spot in front of Seitzer, told Seitzer, “I’ve never seen anybody get six hits before. You’re going to get a chance.” Seitzer: “I didn’t think anything about it until that sucker got a base hit to left field. I got goose bumps. I walked to the plate thinking, ‘This dude’s giving me a chance to get another AB.’…It’s like Babe Ruth calling his shot.”[iv] (Seitzer doubled.)
But frustrations for Smith boiled over on the last day of the ’87 season. Not in the starting lineup, Smith headed to the locker room after pregame warm-ups, showered, packed his bags, and put on his street clothes. As Smith told it, “About the second inning, one of the coaches came in and said, ‘John (Wathan) wants you to come and step in for (Gary) Thurman’…I told him no. He said, ‘What do you want me to tell him?’ I said, ‘Well, tell him I got non-playingitis and I’m out of here.’ That was it for Kansas City.”[v]
Smith already carried a grudge against the Royals front office, but that grudge turned to rage once Smith started looking for a new team to sign with for 1988. No team was interested, and Smith believed Schuerholz had blackballed him (which Schuerholz has denied[vi]). Smith’s thinking got so twisted that he purchased a gun for the purpose of possibly murdering Schuerholz. Smith himself does not seem to know how serious he was, but it was much more than just a fantasy: “If I couldn’t get back into baseball,” Smith later said, “I was going to take him with me. I was going to 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. If I did, you know, the thing, at least I took somebody out who was to blame.”[vii] Thankfully, the Braves came to him with a minor league offer a few days after he purchased the gun, and the volatile career of Lonnie Smith moved on.
[i] Mike Fish, “Adjusting to A.L. Difficult for Smith,” The Sporting News, July 8, 1985.
[ii] “Royals,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1986.
[iii] “Royals,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1987.
[iv] Denny Matthews, Hi, Anybody! (Ascend Books, June 15, 2009), 57-58.
[v] Mike Fish, “Bittersweet memories of ’85 for Smith,” http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=5572278, September 16, 2010.
[vii] Kent Babb, “Battle Scars,” The State, November 5, 2005, C1.