Throughout his 15-year professional career, outfielder Lonnie Smith has toyed with the idea of quitting baseball. In 1975 he resigned from his Class A team for a day, and in '80 he became so frustrated with the Phillies that he left in the middle of a game, then changed his mind and returned an hour later. When Smith suddenly found himself without a job in 1987, however, it wasn't because he had quit but because baseball had given upon him.
After the Royals released him that year, Smith called almost every team in the majors, and the only one that offered him a job—and a minor league slot at that—was the Braves. "I wanted to prove that what they said about me in Kansas City wasn't true," says Smith. "Atlanta was my last and only chance. I had to make the best of it."
He has. At week's end he was leading the National League with a .441 on-base percentage, was third in slugging percentage (.579) and fourth in batting (.331). Not bad for a 33-year-old who was supposed to be washed up.
Why was Atlanta the only team to gamble on a career .289 hitter who has won World Series rings with three organizations? Smith thinks it may have something to do with his not-so-glorious past.
One night in 1982, the Phillies' mascot, the Phanatic, poked fun at Smith's reputation for supine fielding by tripping and hitting the deck. Smith, who had been traded the year before to the Cardinals, wasn't amused, and when the Phanatic got up, Smith tackled him, spraining both of the creature's ankles. The mascot tackle came during what Smith calls his "crazy years." In 1983 he spent a month in drug rehab after having been addicted to cocaine for four years. He came back and hit .321 that season, missing the batting title by two points. Since February 1986 he has been subjected to random drug-testing and has passed every test. Says Braves manager Russ Nixon, "Lonnie should be complimented as much for getting himself back together as for his baseball."
It hasn't been easy. During the Braves' minor league camp last year. Smith says, "My body ached, and I threw up a lot." Shortly afterward he was assigned to the Triple A Richmond Braves and batted .300. He was called up to Atlanta at the end of July and hit .237 in 43 games. To stay in shape and avoid the pain of the previous spring, Smith played in the Puerto Rican League last winter. He was the league MVP, batting .366, with 28 steals.
He has kept up that pace this season and added some power to his repertoire. Before '89 he had hit no more than eight home runs in a major league season. This year he has already hit 16. As for his legendary laid-back approach to fielding, he has made only two errors in leftfield. In fact, he has become so fond of his unflattering nickname, Skates, that he's written it on his batting glove.
"I never thought he'd be like this," says Nixon. "Look how far he had to come." But Braves veteran infielder Darrell Evans says, "It's not a comeback. Lonnie's just someone who hadn't had an opportunity."
Smith may get a lot more opportunities offered to him when his contract expires at the end of the season. "My girlfriend asked me, 'Why don't you go somewhere else?' " he says. "But it's not about money anymore. It used to be. Now it's about being happy. And I'm as happy playing baseball here as I have ever been."
Smith's stunning season in Atlanta has wowed the fans.