Interesting article about former major leaguer Lonnie Smith, his drug problems and his plot to kill current Braves GM John Schuerholz.
FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — Former Cardinals left fielder Lonnie Smith has little to do these days, other than to tend to his home in suburban Atlanta, 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, including the Cardinals in 1982. And there are bad ones, such as the cocaine addiction that followed him — and nearly compelled him to commit murder.
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 Atlanta 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. Advertisement
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 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."
Home was Spartanburg, Ga., 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-mm 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. 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.
Baseball and drugs
Forget it. The game was over, and it was time to relax. The marijuana cigarette came first. 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.
After going 0 for two in the 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.
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 was terrified he was on the edge of a fatal overdose. He did not play in the Cardinals' game the next day.
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 Smith entered rehab.
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.
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.
A plan to murder
Smith took satisfying drags on a marijuana cigarette and thought about the past.
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 mistakes.
Smith 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.
The clerk told him he was out of Berettas, but the Taurus 9-mm 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 about Smith.
Cox told Smith he would give him one chance. One mistake would send him back to Spartanburg.
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 reluctant hug
Smith played in the minor leagues with newfound enthusiasm and the same old talent, playing most of the 1988 season with the Class AAA Richmond (Va.) Braves.
The Atlanta Braves called him up for the final 43 games in 1988, and he played the entire 1989 season in the majors. Smith hit .315 with 21 homers in '89; he was named the National League's comeback player of the year.
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 for talking him out of that decision. Smith says he avoided Schuerholz during their two seasons together in Atlanta.
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.
Not wanting to interrupt the celebration of the Braves' first division title since 1982, Smith stepped forward and hugged Schuerholz.
"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."
The new Lonnie
More than a dozen years after he played in his final game, Smith 's days are slow.
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 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.
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.