Advertisement

Braves Tip Padres, Stay Close : Baseball: Smith defends suspended teammate Otis Nixon then sparks Atlanta offense in 6-4 decision.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Left fielder Lonnie Smith’s body trembled with rage. His voice cracked, and his eyes moistened.

Smith, along with his Atlanta Brave teammates, took a vow Monday that they would not talk about left fielder Otis Nixon after he tested positive for a controlled substance and was suspended for 60 days. Smith hadn’t talked to the media in nearly two months, anyway.

But hours before the Atlanta Braves’ 6-4 victory Wednesday over the San Diego Padres, his feelings seeped out.

Smith, angry and enraged, can’t understand the public’s condemnation of Nixon. It’s as if Nixon purposely had a cocaine relapse. Or as if he really wanted the Dodgers to gain an edge in their National League West division race.

Advertisement

“They don’t understand,” Smith said. “They’re talking about something they know absolutely nothing about. They don’t know the man, and they’re judging him.

“I know what it feels like. I’ve been there. I’ve been through more torment than anyone could even imagine unless they’ve been in a war. People come up and say, ‘Yeah, Lonnie, you were an addict, but you beat it. You beat cocaine. You’re cured.’

“Let me tell you, the day I’m cured is the day I go to my grave.

“Every day is a battle. You think about it all the time. You think about it when you’re alone. You’re never over it.

Advertisement

“I’m still a chemical dependent, it’s just that I haven’t used in the last seven years.”

Who would have thought that the Braves’ pennant hopes would rely on one former drug addict replacing another?

Smith, who said Wednesday that he still undergoes frequent drug testing, is the man being asked to replace Nixon as the Braves’ leadoff man. Nixon was batting .297 with 81 runs scored and a league-high 72 stolen bases. He appeared to be a shoo-in for the comeback player of the year and was talking to the Braves about a three-year, $5.5-million contract.

That all changed Monday when the commissioner’s office informed the Braves that Nixon tested positive for a controlled substance. He was suspended for 60 days. The Braves had no legal recourse.

“It’s like we were hit in the gut,” said John Schuerholz, Braves general manager. “The pain still hasn’t gone away.”

The Braves were left with two options. Replace Nixon with rookie Keith Mitchell. Or put Smith, a 10-year veteran who’s considered below-average defensively, in left field.

“It wasn’t that hard of a choice,” Braves Manager Bobby Cox said, “we just didn’t want a rookie in that situation.”

Smith, starting in his third consecutive game Wednesday in place of Nixon, paced the Braves by reaching base four times with two singles and two walks.

Advertisement

He opened the game with a leadoff single to left, stole second, and by the time the inning ended, the Braves had a 5-0 lead. The Braves pounded rookie starter Ricky Bones for seven hits in the inning, all singles.

The Padres came back with two runs in the bottom of the first on a run-scoring double by Kevin Ward and a sacrifice fly by Fred McGriff.

But left-hander Tom Glavine (19-10), bidding for the Cy Young award, didn’t allow another hit until McGriff’s leadoff double in the seventh. Glavine didn’t get into trouble until the eighth. He gave up three consecutive singles to open the inning, and the Padres closed the gap to 6-4 and had runners on first and second when Cox went to his bullpen.

He called upon Alejandro Pena to face Benito Santiago. After surviving a line drive by Santiago that just went foul by inches, Pena induced a ground ball to third baseman Terry Pendleton, ending the inning and the final threat. Pena pitched the final 1 1/3 innings for his ninth save--and fifth since joining the Braves.

While the roomful of reporters surrounded Glavine, there alone was Smith, reveling alone in his accomplishments, thinking back to 1985.

That season, Smith helped carry the Kansas City Royals to their first World Series championship. Smith, replacing the injured Willie Wilson, batted .318 the final month of the season, scoring 14 runs with 12 RBIs and six stolen bases.

“We would not have won the pennant in Kansas City without the acquisition of Lonnie Smith,” said Schuerholz, the Royals general manager at the time. “I wouldn’t be wearing this World Series ring without him.”

Now, Schuerholz is calling on Smith to do the same again.

Advertisement

Only this time, it’s different. Smith knows as well as anyone in the Brave clubhouse that if the they lose the National League West title to the Dodgers, the city of Atlanta never will forgive Nixon.

“It’s hard to believe, after what he did for this team, everyone’s turned their back on him,” Smith said. “Who are they to judge him? Who are they to ridicule the man? I’m probably saying more than I should, but this is really getting to me.

“It’s like no matter what happens, no one will ever forget. We may be on the road now, but we know what’s going on back in Atlanta.

“We hear a lot of people saying we have no chance now. Hey, we’re not dead. Do we look like we’re dead? And I hear what they’re saying about me, like I don’t belong in the lineup.

“I’m a the bad boy, remember? I can’t catch. I can’t run. I’m not an offensive threat.

“In a way, I’m actually glad they still drug-test me. That way, it’ll stop the rumors. It’ll stop the suspicions. It’ll stop all the innuendo. I’m not perfect. But I can play. I can still play this damn game.”

Smith also wants to win this division for Cox. He’s the man who rescued him. Smith was released after the 1987 season, coincidentally by Schuerholz, and Cox was the only general manager who showed interest. Smith rewarded him by becoming the Comeback Player of the Year in 1989, and now that Cox has returned to the field, he wants to show his appreciation once again.

“I wouldn’t be here without him,” Smith said. “He gave me a chance when no one else would. There’s nothing that would be nicer to see him with one of those rings on his finger.”

Said Cox: “He’s absolutely the hardest and most aggressive player I’ve run across in my life. He’s fearless. He’s had a bum knee all year and hasn’t complained a bit.

“He’s the man I want going for us down the stretch.”

Smith, who is only 50 plate appearances shy of guaranteeing his $1.75-million contract next season, already has three World Series rings. He was on the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980, the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982 and the Royals in 1985. Every time he’s in the playoffs, his team has won the World Series.

“The biggest concern on our minds now is making sure Otis gets better,” Smith said. “We’ll be all right. We just want to make sure he is.”


Advertisement