Philadelphia Inquirer - July 21, 1980
Born to Run
Lonnie Smith: Another Brock?
By Jayson Stark, Inquirer Staff Writer
Lonnie Smith is leaning against the Astrodome batting cage, watching dreamily as assorted Phillies step in to take their swings.
He almost doesn't notice the imposing figure sidling up toward the cage from the Houston Astros dugout. But this figure, this J. R. Richard notices him.
J. R. Richard is the most dominant pitcher in the game. A few months ago, he wouldn't have known Lonnie Smith from Lon Chancy Jr. But now the word has gotten out. Lonnie Smith is somebody pitchers have to know about now. So J. R. Richard is strutting over to check out this dude firsthand.
"Hey, Smith," grunts Richard, "you in there tonight?"
"Yep," says Lonnie Smith meekly.
"Man, they say you can run," Richard sighs.
Smith jumps into the cage now. He is swinging, not listening. But over the thwacks of the bat and the murmur of the pregame crowd, you can still hear J. R. Richard talking. He is talking about Lonnie Smith.
"Yeah, they say you can fly, man," says Richard. "They say your feet never touch the ground...."
Danny Ozark questioned whether he could hit.' A few baserunners over the years have questioned whether he could throw. About 50,000 fans at the Vet once questioned if he could catch a baseball on one bounce.
People were always indicting Lonnie Smith for some baseball sin or another. But there was one thing nobody ever accused him of. Lonnie Smith could run. They all agreed on that. Yes, sir. Flat... out... run.
Put some radials on this guy, and he'd win Indianapolis. Saddle him up, and he'd take the Derby. Throw 50 cents down his fare box, and he'd beat the Frankford El from downtown Philly to Bridge Street.
"You know that old line about the guy who could hit a line drive up the middle, and he's so fast it hits him on the back sliding into second?" says fellow Phillies rookie George Vukovich. "Well, that's Lonnie."
Lee Elia is a Phillies coach now. But in 1975 he was managing a Class A Phillies farm team in Spartanburg, S.C. Among his players that year was a quiet kid of 19, less than a year out of high school in Compton, Calif. His name was Lonnie Smith.
"The things he could do," marvels Lee Elia, shaking his head. "I remember going to play in Charleston one night. And Lonnie's on third base. I'm coaching, and he says to me.'I think I can steal.' I just said, 'Go ahead home.' The guy goes into his windup, and Lonnie's off. A helluva jump.
"You know, he actually beat the ball to the catcher?" Elia says, phrasing it like a question, as if nobody else would believe it. "Beat the ball to the catcher."
He is a grown-up Phillies rookie now, age 24. He is hitting .357. He has stolen 14 bases in 17 tries. He scored 28 runs in the first 42 games he played. Of the first 22 games he started, the Phillies won 16.
The people who used to eye him cautiously and wonder have come to accept him now. A lot of those people were Phillies players, veteran players.
They watched him stagger around right field on Opening Night 1979. They watched those wild, awkward dashes he sometimes made around the bases. They watched him fall down, throw to the wrong base, not hit.
They knew all about the minor league stats, the .308 career average, the 66 stolen bases in Triple A. But minor league stats go over in the big leagues like Monopoly money in the New York Stock Exchange. Heck, if minor league stats mean anything, Joe Lis would have candy bars named after him.
This was the big leagues, kid. In the big leagues, they have to see for themselves.
"Yeah, but the guys on this club had never seen Lonnie Smith play the way Lonnie Smith can play," says John Vukovich.
John Vukovich is the guy who crosses the generations on this Phillies team. He is the guy who played with the Bowas and Luzinskis in the early '70s. He is also the guy who played with the Smiths and Morelands in Oklahoma City in the late '70s. People asked John Vukovich what the story was on this Lonnie Smith. John Vukovich just said, "Give him a chance."
"What you saw up here before this year wasn't the real Lonnie Smith," Vukovich says. "He wasn't playing relaxed. He put too much pressure on himself. Or other people put pressure on him, which he felt."
It wouldn't take a CIA agent to figure out who was putting that pressure on Lonnie Smith in the past. It was our old jowl-face friend, Daniel Leonard Ozark.
Ozark may have been a player's manager, but he was surely not a rookie's manager. He knew how to write out a lineup of the same eight guys. He knew when to pull an Ollie Brown off his bench and when to go to a Tommy Hutton.
But people like Lonnie Smith befuddled him. Smith was a guy who could have helped Ozark had he brought him along slowly, used him in the right spots, showed faith in him.
But instead of nurturing Lonnie Smith slowly, he tossed him out there against the Pirates, against John Candelaria, on Opening Night with the skydivers jumping in with the first ball. He tossed him, too, into right field, a position he had never played, the only outfield position Ozark hadn't used him in all spring training.
It was asking for disaster. And Ozark got one. Smith went hitless, misplayed two balls into extra-base hits and got yanked by the sixth inning. He got two more at-bats the rest of the month. Ozark was afraid to use him as anything but a pinch-runner. He was almost afraid to do that.
"He thought I was just a Matt Alexander-type ballplayer," says Smith, referring to that legendary Pittsburgh Pirates sprinter who has pinch-run his way to six runs this year but still doesn't have an at-bat.
"I mean, Alexander, he can't hit at all. He can't field at all. All he can really do is run. I don't think I'm that type ballplayer. But that's all he could see in me. Despite the years I had with the bat in the minors, he felt I couldn't hit. I always felt I'm a natural-born hitter."
But Ozark ignored the years in the minors. He looked at Smith's rock-hard upper body and decided this was the body of a home-run hitter. Next thing Smith knew they were messing with his swing, trying to turn a documented .300 stroke into a Gorman Thomas downtown rip.
Smith couldn't adjust. He wasn't playing anyway. He was depressed and miserable. He asked to go back to Oklahoma City, asked for an unheard-of-fourth trip back to Triple A. Ozark couldn't say yes fast enough.
"I felt better there, I felt relaxed," Smith said. "The only problem was my wife. She didn't want me to go down. She wanted me to stay. But she really couldn't understand what I was going through....
"I just didn't feel like part of the team, I just felt like I was put here because I was running out of options, and he was kind of forced to take me."
You see him play now, see what he is capable of, see how he manufactures runs out of flares and walks and stolen bases. You see all that and you wonder: Could Lonnie Smith have been doing this all along?
"I think he could have been if Dallas had been the manager," said John Vukovich. "Because Lonnie's playing right now even better than he played in Triple A. And a very big part of that is because he knows the manager has confidence in him. He just didn't feel – along with a lot of other young guys – that Danny had any confidence in him."
He is normally the most polite of young men. He is normally soft-spoken and cautious. But when the subject is Danny Ozark, it is hard for Lonnie Smith to be polite or controlled or anything but angry.
"I've seen him up here this year, and he's seen me," Smith says of Ozark. "But I haven't made any attempts to speak to him. We don't have much to say to each other.
"I just don't feel he was fair with me, so I don't want to have anything to do with him. I think he sees now he was wrong not giving younger players a chance. If he doesn't, there's something wrong with him."
Even Danny Ozark, for all his other blind spots, could see that Lonnie Smith had The Legs. Those legs have powered him through the doubts and the rough spots and the mistakes a billion times before. They have bought him the chance to show he could hit, the chances to show he could field, the chance to show he could throw.
"I know that's what got me here," says Lonnie Smith. "The ability to run."
"What they used to say about him," says Phillies vice president Paul Owens, "is, cut off his legs and he'd be just another player."
He was, it seems, born to run. He was born in Chicago on Dec. 22, 1955. His parents split when he was 6 months old. His mother died when he was 3. He grew up, separated from his two brothers, in the home of an aunt and an uncle in Compton, a few blocks south of the Los Angeles city line, seven miles from Dodger Stadium.
He was a self-professed "bad kid." But as he grew older, he managed to resist the gangs that roamed his neighborhood.
"I realized I was going to be on my own," says Lonnie Smith. "And gang violence wasn't the thing. I didn't want to wind up in jail. Or dead."
His legs carried him even then, onto the baseball team and onto the track team. On the track team, though, nobody regarded him as any burner extraordinaire. He was, in fact, only about "the fourth- or fifth-fastest guy in school." They made him a pole vaulter. Bob Seagren he was not. A junior high coach recommended he specialize in baseball. He did, gladly.
"I never really liked track because I didn't like to run a lot," he says, smiling at the irony of that. "Short distances were OK. But I didn't like the workouts, running lap after lap after lap. That seemed like all we did – run and run."
But legs in baseball are an underappreciated weapon. You hear people talk of great arms on pitchers, of great wrists on hitters, of great hands on fielders. But legs are, in some ways, the rarest of gifts, because they complement all the others.
The fielder who can run catches more, the hitter who can run gets on base more. And once set loose on the bases, legs become weapons all their own. And unlike the home-run stroke, they are always there.
Lonnie Smith played on a high school team that thought nothing of stealing bases 10 runs up or 12 runs down. Like his track team, they just ran and ran, and none more than Lonnie Smith. The scouts came and watched, and above all also they noticed those now-famous Lonnie Smith wheels. And the way he used them.
"We timed him to first in 4 (seconds) flat," says Gordon Goldsberry, one of the two California scouts who followed Smith for the Phillies. "But the thing we liked was that he did it consistently. He wasn't one of those guys who, just because he'd hit the ball back to the pitcher, would run it in 5 flat. He always ran hard. That, to us, was an indication of how he played."
The Phillies were dazzled enough by Lonnie Smith that on June 5, 1974, they made him the third amateur draft pick in the entire country. Among the people taken later in the first round that day were Lee Mazzilli, Garry Templeton, Dale Murphy, Scot Thompson, Lance Parrish and Rick Sutcliffe. Some people say Smith, not Brown University's Billy Almon, might have been the first player chosen among everybody had he not hurt his arm in his senior year.
A year and a half later he was already in Triple A, hitting .308 in Oklahoma City, waiting for somebody in Philadelphia to realize he could help any time they needed him.
Despite all his skills, Lonnie Smith is not what you'd call your classic stylish player. Mike Schmidt is stylish. Steve Garvey is stylish. Lonnie Smith can get most everything done. But slick he ain't.
To start with, there is his fly-ball approach pattern. This is highly unlike, say, the Garry Maddox method. Maddox seems to be loping toward each fly ball almost before it is hit. With Lonnie Smith, you are often not real sure he will get there until that final instant.
He breaks in on the deep ones. He breaks back on the short ones. Then there is a furious torrent of speed from those incredible legs. And even when he finally does get there, he is sometimes diving and lunging and falling on his head.
"Some guys just have that instinct, and you can't really teach it," says Paul Owens. "And some people just don't have that knack. Lonnie hasn't showed me that. He may improve on it. But I don't think he'll ever have the natural instincts to move like a Maddox or a Paul Blair.
"I'll tell you, he scared me a couple years ago. I didn't think he'd ever be able to play out there well enough to play every day. But the thing Dallas thought more than anything was that his speed could make up for a lot."
It couldn't make up for his arm, which never really bounced back from a 1973 shoulder operation, but they have taught him to charge balls. They are getting him to make the easy, accurate throw to the cutoff man instead of the long, furious throws that often go awry. And Lonnie Smith has been willing to work and work and work and work. So his defense now is not nearly the liability that his offense is a strength.
He has always hit .300. He has always gotten on base. And yet you sometimes wonder how he does it. The stroke, too, is hardly textbook.
He swings harder than most .300 hitters. He uppercuts. He will be flailing at the ball, his bat and his body flying toward third, while the ball is often looping the other way into right. And yet, says Phillies coach Mike Ryan, "I don't see any way he can't hit .300, with the speed he has and the way he makes contact."
"The son of a gun is so damn tough to pitch to," says Ryan, who managed Smith in Oklahoma City in 1978. "You'll jam him right on the hands, and he'll hit it into right. He'll hit it off the end of the bat and hit it into right. And how many infield hits does he get?
"The thing is, he can look so bad on one pitch, the pitcher will think he's got him set up. Then on the next pitch he'll take the most hellacious rip – and still hit the ball somewhere."
He was born on base, it seems. And when he is on base, you don't have to be a registered sign stealer to know what it coming.
He slips off his batting glove and stuffs it in his back pocket. He takes his lead – two steps, three steps, four steps – to the very end of the dirt cutout in the Astroturf. He gives you that first crossover step, and he is off.
He is not big (5 feet, 9 inches tall), so he does not have the long strides of an Omar Moreno. He does not get the awesome jump of a Lou Brock or a Rodney Scott. With Lonnie Smith, it is just pure pumping. He is all furious leg action, 12 strides per second, burning power from an innate source only he knows how to tap.
"I've seen him fall down on his first step and still steal," says Ryan. "He'll just overpower you with speed."
Sometimes, in fact, he even overpowers himself. It is not unusual one second to see Lonnie Smith motoring in one direction and the next to see him sprawled out someplace.
"I've seen him round third on a triple or something and fall right on his face," says Owens. "We were worried about it a couple years ago. I mean, he'd keep falling down.
"I guess he just runs so fast," said Owens, "his feet can't catch up."
There are times in a ball game when you should never take your eyes off Lonnie Smith. One of those times is when Smith is on first and somebody hits what might normally be a double-play ball.
There is almost no such thing as a double-play ball when Smith is on first – not unless the second baseman or shortstop is real good at throwing the ball from his rear end.
"I've never in my life seen anybody take a guy out at second like Lonnie," says Tim McCarver, whose big-league career began in 1959. "And that's rare in a young player.
"Most guys," says McCarver, "might have the same tenacity. But they can't get there that fast. With Lonnie the guy gets the ball, and he's right on top of him. You have to hit it awful hard to have him not get there."
But Lonnie Smith just shrugs off the notion that those crashing takeout slides represent any unusual skill.
"It's just something I've always done," he says. "My high school coach taught me that one day. He told me with my speed I should be able to do it. No problem. Since then I've been doing it. The main thing is, you can't be afraid to go in there hard."
"In the minors," said Elia, "he'd come into second so hard that if the ball was there the same time some kids would just let it go. He'll just bleeping kill you. Maybe (Dave) Parker shakes you up. But I don't think even Parker goes in like he does."
So much of what Smith has accomplished this year, he has accomplished because he is a different man inside. Goldsberry, the scout who knew him at 15, and Elia, the manager who knew him at 19, say that when Smith was younger he made about as much noise as an empty hallway. And last year, when he first came up, he never felt a part of things, never talked to a soul.
But this year he is a new person using an old body. He is loose and articulate among writers, jokes easily with kids and does the definitive impression of the "Saturday Night Live" Greek luncheonette ("No Coke. Pepsi.") He is, in short, being himself, on the field and off.
"I was always quiet before because it was a new world to me," he says. "It was something I had to adjust to. I've always been shy, quiet. It was like a habit I had to break. Sometimes I still go into this little thing of being quiet, it's just a feeling that I have to get to know people.
"My wife helped bring me out of it. She's also shy. But you know, I think it's just that once you start getting older, you have more responsibilities. And you know you just have to talk more in certain situations. I can feel it now. I'm just more relaxed around people now."
He is also hitting .357. And that's alway been a terrific relaxation technique.
"Yeah, but which came first?" wonders John Vukovich. "Is he relaxed because he's hitting? Or is he hitting because he's relaxed?"
The question now is, how good can Lonnie Smith be?
"I think of Lou Brock," says Phillies coach Billy DeMars. "When he first came up he had trouble fielding. I don't think there was any worse fielder than Lou Brock when he came up to the major leagues. So the Cubs got rid of him. But look what he did for the Cardinals. He's the guy that made that team go. Lonnie Smith is the same type of kid."
McCarver, who played with Brock, says the comparison isn't perfect. Brock had home-run power when he was young. Smith is strong, but he doesn't have that kind of stroke. Brock also had the most explosive acceleration in the game, McCarver says. Smith needs a few steps to get rolling.
But the comparison is apt in some respects. Both Smith and Brock turned their speed into an intimidating offensive force. And Smith was nearly dealt away for the same reason the Cubs traded Brock. It looked as if his defensive shortcomings would never balance even an extraordinary offensive gift.
You shudder to think now that Smith was almost exchanged for Billy Smith, a utility infielder who was released a month later.
But any projections on Lonnie Smith's potential must await the day when he fits into this team full-time. Owens sees him ultimately as a left-fielder. So he will have a very big obstacle – Greg Luzinski – in his way. For awhile, at least.
"I don't really try to look into the future," Smith says. "I try to take every day as it comes. Hopefully, one of these days, I'll become a regular. It might even be soon. But for now, I don't expect to play every day. I'll just have to make the best of whatever chances I get."
Braves take third in row from Phils
3-2 loss is first for Walk
By Jayson Stark, Inquirer Staff Writer
ATLANTA – A Phillies season wouldn't be complete without a good old-fashioned thrashing by the Braves. Well, it's complete now.
The Braves are the same guys who won two of their first 10 games after the All-Star break. They are also the same guys who won three in two nights from the Phillies.
Larry McWilliams' seven-hitter finished off No. 3 last night, 3-2. It also sent Dallas Green into his standard one-run loss speech.
"I don't see us doing what we say," Green harrumphed. "I hear us say we want to win. I hear us say we're gonna get 'em. I hear us say we'll grind it out. But I don't see it."
The Phils' grind-it-out opportunities were a bit limited, though, by the fact that all of their hits came with two outs. You can't squeeze or hit-and-run or move runners over when you don't have an out to play with.
But it's all cumulative. The Phillies have scored more than three runs in only two of seven games since they blew out of Philadelphia.
Their problems are not just one-nighters. Pete Rose is 0-for-11 and 2-for-17. Lonnie Smith was 0-for-5 last night and is 1-for-his-last-13. Mike Schmidt is 2-for-15 since his hamstring healed. Larry Bowa is 8-for-39 (.205) since he stopped giving interviews.
"I don't see any major slump," Green said. "I think everybody's swinging the bat. This guy tonight is just tough to hit."
McWilliams (7-6) is only the fourth lefthanded starter to beat the Phillies this year. But he is a lot similar to the other three (Charlie Leibrandt, Bob Sykes, Jim Kaat) in that he doesn't singe you with any 99-m.p.h. blazers.
"He's a breaking-ball pitcher," Green said. "He doesn't give you any fastballs to swing at. He makes you hit his pitch. He's really not our favorite type of pitcher."
McWilliams, whose only loss at home was to the Phillies in May, is also a member of the SWA (Slow Workers of America). Hitters love that, too.
"If every hitter took as much time as he takes to pitch," sad Pete Rose, "the concession people would love it – five-hour games."
Speaking of slow workers, the Phillies' Bob Walk finally got interrupted on the road to 22-0 or wherever he was heading.
Walk (6-1) worked fast enough and struck put seven. But the Braves got around on a few Walk fastballs, and handed the man they call "Whirly-bird" his first loss of the year.
"I had pretty good velocity tonight, but the ball was pretty straight," Walk said. "I just couldn't get it to move. I had good stuff. They just had good batters."
Walk settled into a decent groove after the Braves nicked him for two in the first. And "hell," said Green, "he ought to get out of the first inning, too. All Lonnie's got to do is catch a fly ball."
Walk had two outs, Jerry Royster on first and got Gary Matthews to pop one to short left. But Smith got a late jump, finally launched into one of his classic last-second dives and missed it.
The ball scooted by to Garry Maddox. And Maddox yielded to temptation at the sight of Matthews going halfway toward second. He wound up lobbing the ball indecisively to Manny Trillo, and Royster scooted home.
Then Matthews stole second. And Walk, fearing a resumption of the Bob Horner Home Run Festival, proceeded to walk Horner.
"I've seen a lot of home runs here the last couple days," Walk shrugged. "I was thinking about that with Matthews and Horner up. I was trying not to let them hit home runs, and maybe that got me in trouble. I probably should have gone right at them."
Jeff Burroughs lined Walk's next pitch to center, and it was 2-0.
But Walk was fine after that. He struck out six between the second and fourth innings. The big one was a two-out whiff of Bill Nahorodny in the third with two on.
In the fifth, the Braves got one more, with Horner knocking in his 24th run in his last 21 games with a sacrifice fly. But it would have been worse had Walk not had Maddox' incredible wheels and glove out there behind him.
Maddox somehow tooled half a mile to grab Matthews' no-out rocket to deep right-center. Dale Murphy tagged and went to third, but that beat a two-run double.
Maddox then made the loooonnng sprint to left-center to catch Horner's bullet, too. The run scored. But the combined distance traveled by Maddox just to get Walk two outs must have been 200 feet.
The Phils' problem offensively was that it takes a lot of two-out hits to score. They put together three of them in the – second singles by Trillo, Larry Bowa and Bob Boone – for one run. But that was it until the eighth.
Then they finally got their first baserunner with less than two outs, when Bake McBride drew a one-out walk. Schmidt forced him for the second out. But a Glen Hubbard error opened the door for Trillo's second hit, an RBI double.
So it was 3-2, second and third, for Bowa. But his liner to left hung up a little too long, Burroughs hauled it in, and that was that.
Warren Brusstar came on to pitch into and out of a tough mess in the eighth. He fanned the good-hitting McWilliams and got Royster on a bouncer to Schmidt with men on second and third.
"Booney said he was throwing the crap out of the ball movement-wise," Green said. "It was the right situation for him, too. It wasn't a super clutch situation. But he got himself into a little jam he had to work out of. And he did, to keep us close."
But McWilliams coasted through the ninth, and a road trip that started 3-1 is now 3-4.
Green: LaGrow’s farewell gripe “a copout’
By Jayson Stark, Inquirer Staff Writer
ATLANTA – Dallas Green's feelings about the now-departed Lerrin LaGrow could best be summed up by the old saying, "Don't go away mad, Lerrin. Just go away."
LaGrow complained that the Phillies aren't having much fun playing, and that this causes a lot of their problems. He blamed the fans, the press and (by implication) the manager for putting too much pressure on them.
But Green said such reasoning is just "a copout" and said LaGrow should have just taken his $75,000, gone home and kept quiet.
LaGrow also said he didn't want to pitch anymore. Green said that if LaGrow was so sure of that, he should have said so in spring training. "He didn't say he was gonna give back the money, though, did he?" Green grumbled.
NOTES: Randy Lerch pitches tonight in Cincinnati (against Mike LaCoss). But that doesn't mean he is back in the rotation. What it does mean, said Green, is that he has doubleheaders draining the staff, he is committed to pitching Steve Carlton every fifth day, and "I don't have anybody else."... Dickie Noles wasn't exactly Rich Gossage on Saturday (2/3 of an inning, five hits, four runs). Green said he thought Noles' problem was just that too many hometown friends and relatives were watching him.... Garry Maddox' 12-game hitting streak ended last night. The streak tied Bake McBride for the longest by a Phillie this year.... Despite Mike Lum's two hits Saturday, he still has a rare statistical daily double – more strikeouts than hits (10-9) and as many walks as hits (9-9).