NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 60: LONNIE SMITH
The rest of the story just fell into place:
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
A humble rookie named Willie McGee made himself an all-time favorite, third-string catcher Glenn Brummer stole home in a walk-off winner, “Engine No. 42” Bruce Sutter taught the National League how to spell “relief,” Darrell Porter made a triumphant turn from addict to World Series hero, and Ozzie Smith backflipped his way into baseball legend.
Somehow dropped from the narrative through the passage of time, however, are the contributions of that team’s most valuable player — Lonnie Smith.
He was the final addition to the lineup, but also the spark that fired a Cardinals’ speed-based offense that manufactured more than four runs per game.
And he fell into the Redbirds’ lap.
Herzog had been content to platoon Dane Iorg and Tito Landrum in left field until Cleveland Indians’ General Manager Phil Seghi called out of the blue the previous November. The Philadelphia Phillies were in need of a catcher to replace Bob Boone and offered Smith to Cleveland in exchange for Bo Diaz. The Indians weren’t in the market for an outfielder, but Seghi had an interest in Cardinals pitchers Silvio Martinez and Lary Sorensen.
Philadelphia had made Smith the third overall pick of the 1974 amateur draft, but limited his playing time for the four years since his big league debut. Still, over 474 at bats in 1980 and ‘81, Smith batted .333 with a .400 on-base percentage, 54 stolen bases and 109 runs scored.
Herzog told Seghi “let’s make a deal right now,” skirting owner Gussie Busch, who wanted to be informed of player moves before they were made.
So Martinez and Sorensen went to Cleveland, Diaz went to the Phillies and Smith became the Cardinals’ new left fielder and lead off man.
All he did for the eventual champions is bat .307 with 35 doubles, reach base at a .381 clip, steal a career-high 68 bases, drive home 69 runs and score a league-best 120 more. He kept it up in the World Series by reaching base 10 times and scoring a series-best six runs. If not for a blown call at the plate in the sixth inning of Game 6, Smith also would have been the first player in 18 years to steal home in a World Series game.
Atlanta Braves’ outfielder Dale Murphy was the National League MVP thanks to his league-leading 36 home runs and 109 RBIs, but Smith got eight of the remaining 10 first place votes to finish second.
The Cardinals collapsed in 1983 and finished in fourth place, four games below .500. Smith continued to hit, however, slashing 321/.381/.453 and falling just short of Pittsburgh’s Bill Madlock for the NL batting title.
But having slumped to a .250 average midway through the 1984 season, Smith met privately with Herzog to ask for help in dealing with his addiction to cocaine. In exchange for immunity, he later testified in a federal court that he had been a long-time drug user and had helped supply cocaine to other players. Teammates Keith Hernandez and Joaquin Andujar also were implicated in the so-called
“Pittsburgh Drug Trials.”
Herzog has frequently lauded Smith’s bravery for coming clean and seeking help. But when he continued to struggle into the following season, the Cardinals traded Smith to Kansas City for outfielder John Morris.
St. Louis went on to National League championships in ‘85 and ‘87, while Smith wrote his own new chapter with the Atlanta Braves. Over the remaining eight years of his career, he hit better than .300 twice and played in two more World Series.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1982-’85
.292 in St. Louis | 173 stolen bases with Cardinals | 1 WS ring | 11.7 WAR with Cardinals
TOP 100 SCORE: 2.83