Philadelphia Daily News - August 5, 1980
Lonnie Comes of Age
Whiz Kids ’80 By Stan Hochman
First of three parts
A 2-by-4, swung just right, can bust a kneecap. A rock, thrown at short range, can shatter two, maybe three ribs. That's life in the inner city.
But insults? Sticks and stones could break Lonnie Smith's bones, but names could never harm him.
"I can deal with criticism," Smith said the other day. "I've gotten criticized all my life.
"When I was younger, everyone said I was ugly. Small. With a little head.
"I was clumsy, falling down all the time. People laughed.
"And I was a tacky child, bad coming up; stealing a lot. We had enough to get by with, but you always wanted more, and some of the things, you couldn't have.
"As I got older, my parents told me I was headed for trouble. Some of my friends were getting thrown in jail, getting shot. 'Hey,' I said, 'I'll be getting out of school pretty soon, it's time to straighten up.'"
SMITH IS 24 now, a tightly wound 5-9. He has tried to pad out his smallish face with long sideburns and a scraggle of beard, but his eyes still dominate. They are large eyes, soft eyes, the startled eyes of a doe caught in a car's headlights. The eyes deceive.
He is a genuine big-league ballplayer, a vital part of a Phillies team that is hanging tough in a harsh pennant race.
He is 3,200 miles and a zillion years from Watts and it baffles him to hear the, street-corner mockery rattling through a clubhouse.
"We do tend to get on each other... in fun," Smith said. "I'd like to see us slack off on that a little. Some guys can't take it. Me, I could care less. I've been gotten on all my life.
"I guess it's always gonna be that way. It's how some guys get themselves up. They need that to stay on a certain level."
Obviously, there is more to Lonnie Smith than swift feet and large eyes. He is changing the way the Phillies play the game on the field. And, perhaps, with a little help from his young friends, he will change the way the Phillies play the game in the clubhouse.
"I agree with Lonnie." said Tug McGraw, your basic grizzled veteran. "There always has been lot of cynical, sarcastic needling. It's a real test of your ability to deal with pressure. But sometimes, it's carried too far.
"YOU GET IT FROM players, fans, the press, there's too much of it.
"And that baffles me. Players complain about the fans and the news media getting on "em, being sarcastic. You'd think they should give themselves a break.
"Why treat themselves the same way? Maybe they're gluttons, maybe they enjoy it."
Gene Mauch enjoyed it. He'd go straight for the jugular. When Lou Brock was struggling defensively in Wrigley Field, Mauch nicknamed him "Double Dribble."
Brock never forgot, never forgave. He had some of his more splendid games against Mauch’s teams. Smith, learning to play left field and right field in the crudest classroom of all, seems cut from the same bolt of cloth.
"He's never played the corners," said Lee Elia, who managed him in Spartanburg and Oklahoma City. "He's always played center. So it's an adjustment. But now, he's playing up here for a guy who makes him feel comfortable. Before, he got the feeling it was a door-die situation.
"He loves to play, he's coachable. He gives you everything he's got. every day. He never has to look in a mirror and say he didn't try. In all the years I've known Lonnie, any mistake he's made is because he's trying so hard.
"Nobody in the league goes from first to third or second to home as fast as he does.
"AT SPARTANBURG, WE were playing Charleston in 75. We communicated very well visually. He was on third and we looked at each other. He wanted to steal home. And he did. He scored before the catcher caught the ball. That's something I'd never seen before."
Spartanburg, that's where Lonnie Smith learned to live with the occasional bomb. That's where he met his wife. Pearl, who helped shatter his oyster-shell exterior.
"I hate to lose," Smith said. "But I can take a loss as well as a win. You see, I've only played on one winner and that was in Little League. In high school, I was never on a winner. I've taken my lumps.
"But I wasn't able to handle them until a couple of years ago. After I met my wife. After that. I was able to come home to a good atmosphere. I didn't have to just sit there and think about how bad I played.
"I used to wonder, how could I mess up that play? How come I couldn't handle that pitch? I'd stay up all night, thinking about it, until it was time to go to the ballpark again.
"My wife, when we met, we were both basically the same. Quiet. Shy. As things have gone on, she's gotten me to open up a little more."
And for all his doe-startled eyes and his pigeon-toed gait, he has always been a tiger, snarling into second base, busting up double plays.
"IN MY 15 YEARS in the game," said John Vukovich. "I've never seen anybody close to him. And he's not dirty about it.
"He can accelerate so damn fast and he's not afraid to slide hard."
Smith has refined his style, switching from a cloud-of-dust bodyblock that would have delighted Woody Hayes.
"I've been doing it ever since high school," Smith said. "My coaches stressed it. I don't really enjoy the crunch. But, most of the time, I don't even make contact. I'm just trying to intimidate the infielder.
"It's not scary. If you do it right, 9 of 10 times, you’ll come out OK. I used to just leap and roll into guys. Got hurt a few times doing that.
"And that's why I went to the basic slide. I'm not trying to hurt anybody. So far, only (Doug) Flynn got mad. He looked at me, like he wanted to hit me. I'm just trying to get some part of my body in front of his legs, while trying to keep my face out of contact."
Manny Trillo has the antidote for that kind of poison, a bazooka he fires at low trajectory.
"Oh," Smith said, giggling, "with Manny it's a different story. I had my experiences with Manny in winter ball.
"The first time he almost took my head off. The second time I just ran down and got out of the way. Manny is too quick and his release is too deadly. I give him the right of way."
IN 1977, SMITH STOLE 45 bases, lugging around a nickname like an anvil. "They called me 'Lightning' and I didn't like it," Smith said. "That gave away the element of surprise to other teams. Whenever I got on base, they were constantly throwing over there, keeping me close."
That is naive, of course. They could have nicknamed him "Molasses" and it would have taken the opposition about 3.5 seconds to realize the base-stealing menace that Smith represented.
Stripped of the element of surprise. Smith hit .315 and still managed to steal 66 bases in 1978 at Oklahoma City. That got him a September fling with the Phillies.
Danny Ozark used him as a pinch-runner and Smith continued to make life miserable for middle infielders.
The next year, Ozark played his cruel trick on Smith, thrusting him into the opening-day lineup in right field, without an inning's preparation at the position.
The nightmare of two botched plays haunted Smith for weeks, until he got pardoned from the prison of Ozark's distrust of rookies, and returned to Okie City.
This spring, the Phillies even considered trading Lonnie for Baltimore's Billy Smith, a disgruntled utility infielder. That's a Jaguar-for-an-Edsel kind of trade, and Dallas Green helped squelch it.
"HE'S VERY AGGRESSIVE," GM Paul Owens says now, praising with faint damns. "He runs into a few mistakes and runs right out of 'em. I think he's improved in the field. He's never gonna be a great, great outfielder. But I see him doing things with his hands he didn't do before.
"He doesn't throw real well, but he can charge the ball, utilize his speed, like Richie Ashburn did."
The Orioles released their Smith. The Phillies stuck their Smith back in the trade showcase just before the June 15 deadline. Lonnie handled the pitching better than the quizzing.
"Keith Moreland mentioned it to me," Smith recalled. "It didn't bother me. All I wanted was a chance to play. Here... or someplace else. I was happy just to get the chance to play, to show what I could do. I heard rumors but it didn't worry me.
"June 16 I was a little relieved. I wanted to stay with Philadelphia. But mainly I was relieved because I wouldn't have to answer showcase questions.
"I'm happy the deadline passed. I'm happy about everything so far. And I can't wait until the season ends, to see how we end up."
HE HAS A LOT of company, including club owner Ruly Carpenter. The emergence of Smith, Bob Walk and Keith Moreland has muffled the prophets of doom who point to eight regulars who are all over 30.
"The ideal mix," Carpenter said the other day, "is to have established guys and have one young guy move in every other year to take over a key position. If you put all young guys out there, you're gonna make a helluva lot of mistakes.
"Lonnie Smith excites me, just watching him play. Something always seems to happen. The other night we were down three or four runs and you really can't steal unless you're 99 per cent certain you can make it.
"He stole three bases, changed the tempo of the game, and we won.
"The young guys have helped us stay competitive. The young guys deserve a lot of credit"
When Greg Luzinski's knee unraveled. Smith got the chance to play regularly. He has now scored 45 runs in 59 games, an incredible pace.
He has stolen 20 bases, 10 in a row, 17 of his last 18 attempts. It hasn't hurt to have Pete Rose lockering alongside him, hitting behind him.
"He's changed," Rose said, glancing at Smith. "Confidence-wise. Which is the big thing. He feels he belongs now, which is true. That's what you look for in a kid. Does he feel part of the game?
"A LOT OF PLAYERS he's played with (in the minors) are here now. He knows he played good when he played with those guys.
"He runs as good as anybody in the league and he likes to run. I'm a patient hitter. With him on, I can be super patient. I'll take pitches. That's OK. I'm a better hitter with two strikes on me.
"I talk to him about pitchers, what they like to throw. I'm not convinced he's like me, that he wants to know what everybody's ball is doing.
"Some guys don't give a damn about what a pitcher's ball is doing. They go up, look for the ball, and hit it."
Smith listens politely, then goes up and takes a good aggressive cut at what he sees. If he has one flaw as a leadoff hitter, it is the scarcity of walks, only two in his last 100 at-bats.
There is one more test, of course. Finding out how he hits with his pants dirty.
"He's still learning the game," said Mike Ryan, who managed Smith at Okie City. "He still doesn't know the pitchers yet.
"But I've seen him slip and almost fall and still steal second standing up. As soon as he learns more, I don’t think they'll throw him out even when they pitch out.
"HE'S AMAZING. HE'S basically the same every day. He can be 0-for-10 and not show it He's the same after an 0-for-4 as a 4-for-4. A gentleman.
"He's got an excellent attitude for the game. Maybe a little unconscious. I'm not sure he knows what that 0-2 pitch is that knocks him back off the plate.
"Anyway, it doesn't faze him in the least."
They are still underestimating Lonnie Smith, and that's OK with him. Mario Soto decked him Sunday, after Smith had swiped three bases, scored three runs. He got the message-in-the-chin massage.
"I don’t take it as a compliment," he said. "It's not a compliment when a guy throws at you. But it really doesn't bother me as long as I don’t get hit in the head.
"If he hits me it hurts him more than it hurts me. If he hits me, I can steal on him."
He has come a long way from Watts, a long way from the clumsy little guy who was always tripping over his own splayed feet.
Nobody knows how fast he ran the first 90 feet of that journey.
"Once." he said, "I was timed in 3.6 going to first, from a faked-swing start. I was faster when I was younger.
"But I was a pole vaulter in high school because there were three guys on the track team faster than me. I did run the 100 once, when one of our guys got sick.
"I ran it in 11 seconds. But it didn't matter, because I didn't win."
Second place is nowhere for Lonnie Smith. Don't let those doe eyes deceive you.
Tomorrow: Bob Walk
Docs: J.R. Suffered Major Stroke
HOUSTON (UPI) – The blood clot that felled Houston Astros pitcher J R. Richard cut off the flow of blood to the right side of his brain for as many as four hours, but doctors say it still is too early to know if he suffered permanent damage.
"I would say that this was a major stroke," said team physician Harold Brelsford, one of three doctors participating in an Astrodome news conference yesterday to explain Richard's condition and treatment.
The 6-8 All-Star pitcher collapsed during a light workout at the Astrodome last Wednesday, four days after his release from Methodist Hospital where he had undergone extensive tests to determine the cause of fatigue in his pitching arm.
Doctors who examined him for three days then said he had a circulatory problem in his right arm and shoulder that did not require surgery. They said he could resume workouts but probably would be limited in the number of innings he could work in each game for the rest of the season.
BUT 10 MINUTES into his first workout, Richard, 30, collapsed and nine hours later underwent a life-saving operation that removed the blood clot which doctors now say did not develop until after his July 26 release from the hospital.
The doctors answered repeated questions yesterday about why Richard was allowed to practice so soon after his release.
"Despite finding that (the initial circulatory) blockage I don’t know of any medical treatment that was necessary," said Dr. Charles McCollum, a vascular cardiologist and the doctor who led the surgical team.
Asked to evaluate Richard's condition, McCollum said, "He still has marked weakness... it may be transient or it may be permanent. He has shown improvement of motor function.”
Doctors have said since the surgery that Richard's, left arm and leg suffered partial paralysis. Earlier they had said they expected to know by last night whether the weakness was temporary.
"It's difficult to evaluate his condition," Brelsford said. "He seems to be making improvement every day."
HE SAID RICHARD has been sitting up in bed in the intensive care unit of the hospital and has shown improved alertness. Richard remains unable to converse but doctors did not indicate whether it was because of tubes which remain in his throat or because of his stroke.
“It's very possible he may not be back this year, but we've seen people with strokes return to relatively normal activity," McCollum said.
The doctors provided details for the first time yesterday indicating the seriousness of Richard's condition upon his arrival by ambulance at the hospital.
"The condition was unstable with some irregularities of the heart," said a statement released at the news conference. "The patient was transferred to the intensive care unit where these were stabilized. It was apparent that he had suffered a stroke and that he had no pulse in his right carotid artery."
Asked if the stroke was severe enough to kill Richard, McCoUum said, "possibly."
Brelsford said doctors had been unable to find "one definite factor" that caused the stroke.
RICHARD HAD COMPLAINED since June 17 of a "dead" right arm. At no time did he say the aliment caused him pain, only that his arm quickly became fatigued when he pitched.
Nevertheless, he started for the National League in the All-Star game and pitched two scoreless innings. His last pitching assignment was July 16 when he went 3⅓ innings before asking to be removed from the game.
Two nights later Richard tested his arm on the sideline and told pitching coach Mel Wright that the fatigue remained and he was placed on the 21-day disabled list.