Camden Courier-Post - March 10, 1980

Phils’ Smith feeling secure


By Rusty Pray of the Courier-Post


CLEARWATER, Fla. – Every baseball player who has aspired to reach the major leagues wonders what it is going to be like when – and if – he makes it.


Every kid who has played on a sandlot or high school diamond fantasizes about stepping into a big-league lineup and hitting a game-winning home run, or making game-saving catch.


That universal dream became a nightmare for Lonnie Smith, the Phillies' rookie who probably will be among the seven outfielders the club takes north when spring training ends in April.


Smith, a shy person, was thrust into a high-profile situation on opening night in Veterans Stadium a year ago. Danny Ozark, who would be in his final year as manager of the Phillies, threw Smith into right field – a strange position – to replace an ailing Bake McBride. As if that weren't enough pressure for a 23-year-old kid, Ozark also made Smith the lead-off hitter.


And whatever dreams Lonnie Smith might have had about his debut as a starter were crushed on that April evening. He went hitless and badly misplayed several balls in right. It was an embarrassing introduction between Phillies fans and the player who may one day be the club's centerfielder.


"I was scared, to be truthful," Smith said yesterday after a three-hour workout at Carpenter Complex. "I hadn't played right in awhile and wasn't sure how things would turn out. I was thinking about getting my first hit, pushing myself to get that first hit. I wasn't relaxed."


Being relaxed may be the key that turns Smith's potential, which is considerable, into performance. He never has had any trouble feeling comfortable in the minors, where he has hit .308 and averaged 39 stolen bases in six seasons. While his fielding is sometimes suspect, his credentials as a hitter and base stealer are unquestioned. Smith hit .315 in 1978 for Oklahoma City, the Phillies' Triple-A farm team. And after the Phils sent him down last season, he hit a hardy .333.


"I have to feel I'm part of a team to produce," said Smith. "With Ozark, I never felt that because all I knew I'd be doing was pitch-running.


"I like camp this year better than last year because everybody gets an equal chance to work. Last year, the rookies only got to hit on playing days. If we wanted to use the cages or hit, we had to basically wait until the veterans were finished.


"When they sent me down (last season) I wasn't disappointed," said Smith. "I was kind of glad because I was going somewhere where I was wanted, where I'd be among friends."


Smith has a powerful friend this season in Manager Dallas Green, who won 19 of 30 games after taking over for the fired Ozark in August. Green was the club's farm director before becoming manager and knows quite a bit about Lonnie Smith. Green would like nothing better than to keep Smith, using him as a righthanded pinch-hitter, pinch-runner and part-time outfielder.


General Manager Paul Owens says he could trade Smith to Detroit or Cincinnati with no trouble, but Green has shown reluctance to part with one of his prize prospects.


Indeed, Green recently vetoed an Owens deal that would have sent Smith to Baltimore for infielder Billy Smith.


With a trade all but out of the question, the Phillies will have to find room for Smith somewhere on their 25-man roster. Smith, having already been sent to Oklahoma City three times, is out of options. The Phils run the risk of losing him – and getting nothing in return – if they attempt to send him to the the 89ers.


But with Green managing and a new sense of feeling wanted, perhaps Smith will learn to relax in the big time. His dreams may yet become reality.