On the surface, Lonnie Smith in 1983 was having a strong follow-up to his successful first season with the Cardinals. What most, including his manager and many of his teammates, apparently couldn’t see was that an addiction to cocaine had Smith on the verge of a breakdown.
Thirty years ago, in June 1983, Smith approached Whitey Herzog, informed the Cardinals manager he was abusing drugs and needed help. Two days later, with Herzog’s support, Smith left the Cardinals and entered a drug rehabilitation facility, the Hyland Center in St. Louis.
Smith spent a month in the treatment center, returned to the Cardinals’ lineup on July 8 and performed well the remainder of the season, nearly winning the National League batting title. Smith hit .321, two percentage points behind 1983 batting champion Bill Madlock (.323) of the Pirates.
In 1982, Smith had sparked the Cardinals to the World Series championship. The left fielder hit .307, scored 120 runs and had 68 stolen bases. Three years later, Smith testified in court that he had bought cocaine three weeks before the World Series and had used the drug with teammates Keith Hernandez and Joaquin Andujar.
Smith was hitting better than .300 in early June 1983, but his drug use was intensifying.
“I did cocaine and pot mostly and I was even starting to drink,” Smith told the Associated Press in March 1984. “That was a bad sign because my father was an alcoholic and still is. I saw what it did to him and I had stayed away from that. But avoiding alcohol left me wide open to drugs.
“I started in high school in Los Angeles … It progressively got worse. The more you do, the worse it gets.”
On June 8, 1983, Smith went 0-for-2 with a pair of walks at Philadelphia. Boxscore Years later, in an interview with Kent Babb of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., Smith said he bought drugs after that game.
Wrote Babb: “(Smith) holed up in his hotel room, plowed through the drugs and began a night that would chill him to the bone. Smith says he did not sleep that night; he sat on the floor, shaking and sweating as the sun rose, and was terrified he was on the edge of a fatal overdose. He did not play in the Cardinals’ game the next day, feeling nauseated in the dugout and stuffing clumps of toilet tissue into his nostrils to stop a chronic nosebleed.”
It was that day, June 9, that Smith told Herzog of his drug problem and asked for help. Babb later reported that “Smith learned he had consumed so much cocaine that he developed a large ulcer in one of his nostrils, a sign he was burning away the flesh of his nose.”
“I felt so terribly drained,” Smith said in the 1984 interview with Hal Bock of the Associated Press. “I was losing interest in everything in life.”
The Cardinals left Philadelphia that night and went to Chicago for a day game with the Cubs on June 10. While arrangements were being made to admit Smith to the rehabilitation center, Herzog put Smith in the lineup that day. Smith produced two singles against Ferguson Jenkins, who shut out the Cardinals, 7-0. Boxscore
The next day, June 11, 20 minutes before the Cardinals-Cubs game, Herzog informed reporters that Smith had left the team and begun “in-patient therapy for a drug problem.”
Herzog said he wasn’t aware of any drug problems with Smith before the player approached him in Philadelphia.
In his book “White Rat: A Life in Baseball” (1987, Harper and Row), Herzog recalled, “(Smith) came to me and asked for help. He said he’d tried, but he couldn’t stop taking coke. He had a bad, bad problem. It later developed at that (1985) drug trial in Pittsburgh that Lonnie was using coke with Hernandez and Andujar. He didn’t tell me that at the time. He only asked for help, and we got it for him. I admired him, and still do, for having the guts to ask for help.”
Dane Iorg, who platooned with David Green as the replacements for Smith, told The Sporting News that Smith’s drug use was “really shocking.” Pitcher Dave LaPoint said, “I had no idea … None of us expected it.” Catcher Darrell Porter, who underwent treatment in 1980 for drug and alcohol addiction, said, “(Smith) never came to me. I didn’t know anything about it.”
Smith’s wife, Pearl, told St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Rick Hummel she also was surprised. “This is the first I’d heard of it,” she said. “I’d never seen it at home.”
Said Lonnie Smith to the Associated Press: “At first you deny it. That’s the first step in realizing you’re in trouble. Addicts are the biggest con men in the world.”
In an interview for the book “Whitey’s Boys” (2002, Triumph), Smith said, “After 1982 I started getting (drugs) in the mail through the winter, and in 1983 I was involved pretty bad. I couldn’t function as a husband, a father or a player. I was rushing back to my room, locking the door and doing it. I was constantly doing it until I ran out _ and then I wanted to go out and do more.”
In his first game after rehabilitation, Smith went 2-for-4 at San Diego. Boxscore He later told the Associated Press that the first week in the treatment center was difficult.
“I was undergoing addiction withdrawal,” Smith said. “I felt terrible.
“I still get the craving for drugs. You never get over that.”