A story of baseball, drugs, vengeance and redemption

I saw a familiar name that I hadn’t heard in a long time–years, probably–mentioned on a Royals fan site.

Lonnie Smith.

Lonnie Smith was a talented but troubled outfielder who rose to prominence while playing for Whitey Herzog’s 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. He could run like nobody’s business and he was a fearsome hitter on top of that, but he also had a drug problem.In 1985, Smith had a minor injury and missed the beginning of the season. His bat was diminishing anyway, and the Cardinals had a young guy by the name of Vince Coleman waiting in the wings. Coleman got Smith’s job, and the Cardinals shipped Smith off to the Royals in exchange for John Morris, a prospect who made it to the majors the next year but never became a star.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Smith put up respectable but unspectacular numbers. But the Royals needed someone who could hit between Willie Wilson and George Brett and, like Wilson, run like his hair was on fire when Brett made contact. Smith did that pretty well.

Now, about that drug problem. Smith spent 30 days in rehab in 1983 when he was playing in St. Louis. In 1985, after the World Series, when the players all had a chance to speak, Smith thanked three people specifically. He thanked Royals’ hitting coach Lee May and Royals’ DH Hal McRae for helping him get his hitting stroke back, and Jesus Christ for helping him get off drugs and stay clean.

He stayed clean for about four years.

Smith’s hitting improved the next season in Kansas City, but then history repeated itself, and Smith lost his left field job to another prospect, the two-sport flameout Bo Jackson. Jackson’s 1987 season showed much more promise than it did powerhouse, but the Royals liked what they saw enough that they considered Smith expendable, and they released him in December of that year.

Smith waited for a call from another team interested in giving him a chance, but the phone never rang. Depressed, Smith started taking drugs again. And as the story from earlier this month goes, if the phone hadn’t rung one day with the then-lowly Atlanta Braves offering him one last chance, he might have flown back to Kansas City and tried to murder the general manager who released him.

Instead, Smith signed a minor-league contract with Atlanta and worked his way back into the major leagues. He once again blossomed into a minor star, and earned $7 million in his 6-year comeback tour. Unlike many professional athletes, he saved enough of his fortune that neither he nor his wife have to work today. They live comfortably and he has established trust funds to take care of his kids’ future.

I had never heard the murder plot angle of the Smith story.

The story (linked above) makes for an interesting read. After reading so many stories about ex-Royals with unhappy endings, it’s nice to see a happy ending this time.

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