Commentary

Bittersweet memories of '85 for Smith

Ex-Royal believes GM blackballed him to rest of league

Updated: September 16, 2010, 11:39 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. -- At a local franchise eatery, the background music swells and then picks up tempo. Lonnie Smith is washing down a plate of buffalo chicken tenders with another cup of black coffee laced with sugar. He's talking full-throttle about his distrust of the old Kansas City Royals front office, his lingering belief that it shortchanged him on a contract and, even worse, later bad-mouthed him around the game as he scuffled to find a job.

Some from the '85 team may have suffered hurt feelings after being traded or not re-signed, but no Royal experienced the mental anguish and mood swings of Smith -- a tough, speedy outfielder acquired from St. Louis in May of the championship season. In the '87 season, his workload was dramatically reduced to 48 games -- the fewest since his '80 rookie debut in Philadelphia -- with the celebrated emergence of two-sport man Bo Jackson. Smith soon was out on the streets without a job.

At 32, with two kids and bills to pay, Smith swallowed his pride and played winter ball in Puerto Rico to prove he wasn't washed up. When his agent, Dick Moss, couldn't find anything, Smith himself picked up the phone and called every club, with the exception of Kansas City, looking for a big league gig.

[+] EnlargeLonnie Smith
Ronald C. Modra/Getty ImagesLonnie Smith feels he was blackballed by former Royals general manager John Schuerholz. Smith would later reunite with Schuerholz as a member of the Atlanta Braves and played in the 1991 World Series.

When that failed, Smith recalls having purchased a Taurus 9 mm handgun from a pawnshop with the disjointed thought -- though one clearly never acted upon -- of possibly shooting then Royals general manager John Schuerholz. His angst eased when Bobby Cox, then the general manager in Atlanta, offered him a make-good deal in the Braves' farm system. Smith responded by winning the National League Comeback Player of the Year after the 1989 season. Ironically, a year later, Schuerholz arrived in Atlanta as GM and Cox went back down to the field to resume his managerial career.

"Some people tried to say that Bobby Cox saved John Schuerholz's life, because he gave me a job," said Smith, who overcame bouts with drug abuse to become one of baseball's top base stealers in the '80s and contribute to five pennant-winning teams. "Well, people want to think that I actually would have done it -- I don't know if I would have or not. I still had two kids and a wife, and mortgages and everything that I had to take care of. Going away to jail, being on death row or whatever wouldn't have helped. But I will tell you, I was frustrated. I was angry. And I am not ashamed to admit, yes, I did contemplate [it].

"During that winter I got so frustrated and angry because I couldn't get a job. And it wasn't that I couldn't play. My agent said every place he shopped me said the word from Kansas City was I had a bad attitude and couldn't play anymore."

Smith later ditched the gun, giving it to his ex-wife when they divorced.

All these years later, Smith seems at peace with how his career eventually played out and his new life, even if some bitterness from Kansas City lingers. He's remarried and is the doting, stay-at-home dad to three daughters. He's up most mornings by 5:30, fixing breakfast before the girls head off to school.

As for Schuerholz, the current Braves president said he's long been aware of the story surrounding the gun purchase, but not unexpectedly declined to comment further. The future Hall of Fame executive noted that he thought enough of Smith as a player to have traded for him, adding "I have no problem with Lonnie. Lonnie was a big productive player for us. He was one of the best clutch players we had."

Asked about Smith's belief that he played a role in blackballing him after his Kansas City years, Schuerholz said: "I didn't have any feelings like that at all. And nobody that has ever been around me would say that I did."

During the two years they overlapped in Atlanta, including 1991 when the Braves went from last place to play in the World Series, Smith said he routinely went out of his way to avoid Schuerholz. They obviously didn't reminisce about the championship they shared in Kansas City, not when they barely spoke.

"I knew we didn't have that type of relationship, at least on my half, that I could talk to him and not get upset," Smith said. "So the best thing I could do was stay away and let him do his job, and me try to carry on with my job. Even though I saw him quite a bit, I gave way."

In a complicated way, Smith respects his old boss, at least as a baseball man. "If I had a team, I would hire him, because he is that good of a businessman as far as baseball," he said, echoing a compliment voiced almost universally by former Royals.

The rub with Smith, as is often true with athletes and folks in other walks of life, came down to money. Even though Smith already had played on World Series title teams in Philadelphia and St. Louis, then Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill made him available during the '85 season after he lost his job to the younger Vince Coleman. He was pulling down a $1 million salary, a huge sum at the time for a part-time player and equal to what the Royals were then paying George Brett, the face of the franchise. So Smith welcomed the chance to jump-start his career, but he saw issues in Kansas City before even heading west on I-70.

"The day I was traded, I was told by someone in St. Louis that it was a great place to go and play," he said. "Just play hard, but not to trust the front office."

After the World Series and then a solid year in '86 -- hitting .287 in 134 games -- Smith said Schuerholz lowballed him with a $300,000 offer, comparing him to aging part-timers Ted Simmons and Dave Collins. The baseball owners were later found guilty of colluding to hold down salaries and Smith had no other offers in '87, so he re-signed in Kansas City. Smith played sparingly that season under first-year manager John Wathan, an old teammate, and admittedly sealed his release after refusing to play in the season finale.

"I just remember towards the end I wasn't playing at all," Smith said. "And then the last day of the season everyone is planning on getting out of town. Some of them were even planning on faking injuries. I knew I wouldn't be back the next year because I could see the writing on the wall. So right after infield practice and everything, I went in [the clubhouse]. I packed my bags. Showered. Put on my clothes.

"About the second inning, one of the coaches -- I can't remember the coach -- came in and said, 'John [Wathan] wants you to come out and step in for [Gary] Thurman. He just got injured.' 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."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.