Smith Keeps Braves Close : Baseball: He leads 6-4 victory over Padres and, as a recovering drug addict, he defends suspended teammate Nixon.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Left fielder Lonnie Smith's body trembled with rage. His voice cracked, and his eyes moistened. He couldn't believe this was happening.

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 substance abuse and was suspended for 60 days. Smith hadn't talked to reporters in nearly two months, anyway. Now, hours before the Atlanta Braves' 6-4 victory Wednesday over the San Diego Padres, his feelings seeped out.

Smith, 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 race.

"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.

"I'm still a chemical dependent. It's just that I haven't used in the last seven years."

Who would ever have thought that the Braves' pennant hopes would rely on one recovering drug addict replacing another?

Smith, who said Wednesday that he still undergoes frequent drug testing, is being asked to replace Nixon as the Braves' leadoff man. The Braves' chances of winning the division title just might be predicated on Smith's success.

Nixon was batting .297 with a league-high 72 stolen bases, scoring 81 runs. 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 had 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, Brave general manager. "The pain still hasn't gone away."

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

Smith, starting in his third consecutive game in place of Nixon, paced the Brave offense Wednesday night with two singles and two walks.

He opened the game with a single to left field, 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 inning, but Tom Glavine (19-10), bidding for the Cy Young Award, didn't allow another hit until Fred McGriff's leadoff double in the seventh. After three consecutive singles to open the eighth inning, the Padres closed the gap to 6-4 and had runners on first and second when Manager Bobby Cox went to his bullpen.

He called upon Alejandro Pena to face Benito Santiago, who grounded to third baseman Terry Pendleton, ending the inning.

While reporters surrounded Glavine, Smith sat quietly, thinking back to 1985, when he helped the Kansas City Royals win their first World Series championship. Smith, replacing 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 asking Smith to do it again. Only this time, it's different. The Braves know that if they lose the National League West title to the Dodgers, Atlanta never will forgive Nixon.

"It's hard to believe, after what all 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."

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