There are a handful of Atlanta Braves whose careers are defined by one moment.
On the good side, you have Otis Nixon (The Catch), Sid Bream (The Slide) and Francisco Cabrera (the single that led to the slide). Even David Justice to an extent is remembered largely for his home run in Game 5 of the 1995 World Series, though he had numerous big moments both before and after that.
But if one former Brave is defined by failure at exactly the wrong moment, it’s Lonnie Smith. His baserunning gaffe in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series — which the Braves lost 1-0 in 10 innings — will be mentioned very early in his obituary, if not in the first paragraph.
And that’s a shame really. Not only was Smith a wonderful player, but it’s unlikely the Braves would have even been in the World Series that season without him.
Nixon was suspended 60 days for violating MLB’s drug policy on Sept. 16, 1991, meaning he would miss the remainder of the season. The Braves, who led the Los Angeles Dodgers by just a half-game in the NL West standings at the time, would be without their speedy leadoff hitter for the balance of the regular season and the playoffs.
Into the breach stepped Smith, who had been the Braves’ fourth outfielder behind Nixon, Justice and Ron Gant much of the season. He’d also filled in for the injury prone Justice at times, playing left field with Nixon in right (Gant inexplicably played center that year over the defensively superior Nixon, but that’s a discussion for another time).
Smith started the final 18 games of the season, in which the Braves went 12-6 to capture the NL West title by a single game over the Dodgers. He batted .254/.363/.373 with two homers, 8 RBIs, 10 walks and three stolen bases in that span, with his on-base percentage effectively making up for the loss of Nixon’s .371 OBP.
Smith had a number of big moments down the stretch. On Sept. 19, he delivered a game-tying RBI single in the seventh inning at San Diego, then singled and scored the go-ahed run in the 10th inning of a 4-2 win.
On Sept. 25, he hit a solo homer to help the Braves beat Cincinnati 2-1. On Oct. 2, he scored a run and lined a two-run single as part of a six-run first inning in a 6-3 win over those same Reds.
And against Houston Oct. 5, Smith led off the bottom of the first with an RBI single, and came around to score the Braves’ first run. He later contributed an RBI double as Atlanta won 5-2 to clinch the division on the next-to-last day of the regular season.
Smith had a mostly quiet National League Championship Series against the Pirates, though he did double twice in a 1-0 Braves victory in Game 6. The Braves won the series in seven games and advanced to meet the Minnesota Twins in the World Series, where Smith would try to add a fourth championship ring to those he’d already won with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980, the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982 and the Kansas City Royals in 1985.
Smith didn’t do much in the first two games at Minnesota, both of which the Braves lost to trail the series 2-0 heading back to Atlanta. But once the series returned to Fulton County Stadium, Smith became the dynamic leadoff hitter the Braves needed.
He homered in the fifth inning of Game 3, which the Braves won 5-4 on Mark Lemke’s 10th inning walk-off single. Smith went deep again in Game 4, this one a game-tying solo shot in the seventh inning to set up Atlanta’s 3-2 victory on Jerry Willard’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth.
It was in the fifth inning of Game 4 that Smith was involved one of the signature plays in a World Series filled with them, when he was thrown out at home plate trying to score on Terry Pendleton’s double. Smith crashed into Twins catcher Brian Harper, who turned a somersault but somehow held onto the ball and Smith was out.
Photos of the bone-jarring play at the plate were widely circulated, appearing in publications all over the country. Here’s video:
The Braves routed the Twins 14-5 in Game 5, but Smith homered again, becoming the sixth player to go deep in three straight games of a World Series (there are now nine). Had Atlanta somehow won one of the first two games in Minnesota, Smith might have had a decent case to be World Series MVP.
Smith reached base three times in Atlanta’s Game 6 loss in the Metrodome, scoring ahead of Terry Pendleton’s two-run homer in the fifth inning. The Braves lost 4-3 in 11 innings on Kirby Puckett’s walk-off homer, setting up a classic Game 7, and the moment Smith will never live down.
Smith reached base in both the third and fifth innings, but was stranded on base when Pendleton and Gant couldn’t come through against Twins starter Jack Morris. With the game still scoreless, Smith led off the top of the seventh with a line-drive single to right field.
Pendleton then ripped a 1-2 pitch into the gap in left-center, splitting Puckett and left fielder Dan Gladden and going all the way to the wall. But Smith did not score, instead trotting into third base.
CBS announcer Jack Buck immediately exclaimed “that was terrible by Lonnie.” Analyst Tim McCarver opined that Smith didn’t see the ball and might have gone for a “deke” — that is, a fake double-play decoy — by Twins rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch (Smith later denied this, saying he’d simply lost the ball in the Metrodome’s white roof).
Whatever happened, Smith clearly stopped as he rounded second base, when there was no need to do so. Here’s video:
And as Braves fans would come to learn over the next nearly two decades, such a mistake would never go unpunished in the postseason. With the infield in and runners on second and third, Gant grounded weakly to first for the first out.
The Twins then intentionally walked Justice, loading the bases. That brought up Bream, who bounced into a 3-2-3 double play to end the inning.
The game remained scoreless until the bottom of the 10th, when Gene Larkin delivered a bases-loaded single to give Minnesota a 1-0 win and the World Series championship. Morris, who’d pitched a complete game, was hailed as a postseason hero.
Smith was declared the goat for failing to score on Pendleton’s double, perhaps making a rookie baserunning mistake in the process. But is that really fair?
As is often the case in close games, critics seek out one person to blame. Chicago Cubs fans for years excoriated fan Steve Bartman for the team losing Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS, never mind that Alex Gonzalez’s error had kept the inning alive and a series of Cubs pitchers blew a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning.
Smith “wore the horns” in 1991, with players such as Gant and Bream — who’d both failed in the clutch in Game 7, Gant more than once — and manager Bobby Cox — who’d brought left-hander Charlie Leibrandt in to face lefty killer Puckett in the 11th inning of Game 6 — getting by unscathed by public criticism.
Smith, on the other hand, was roasted. The Sporting News’ Dave Nightengale wrote that Smith “pulled a baserunning error that should put him right up there with Fred Merkle in baseball’s bonehead department” and predicted the Braves would eat the $2 million owed to Smith for 1992 and “just get rid of him.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Dan Barreiro called Smith’s baserunning mistake one of the “all-time stupid moves in World Series history.” The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke joked that Smith might have broken his leg between first and third, sarcastically noting “this theory was disproved after the game when Smith was able to walk quickly away from questions that will be asked in Atlanta until next spring.”
As Plaschke noted, Smith refused to answer reporters’ questions after the game, which probably didn’t help his case. He finally broke his silence the following spring (the Braves kept him on the roster after all), giving a detailed description of the play to a reporter for The Sporting News in March 1992.
“I had the steal sign, but I thought I had a better chance with a delayed steal,” Smith said. “I took off running and didn’t look toward the plate. I heard the crack of the bat, saw Knoblauch’s fake and Gladden running into the alley. I slowed down at second, didn’t see the ball. I then saw Gladden and Puckett converging seconds before the ball hit the wall.
“I just didn’t pick up the ball and didn’t pick up (third base coach) Jimy (Williams). People want to blame me, that’s OK. The media’s version that Knoblauch fooled me is not true. I just didn’t see the ball. The only part the media got right was that I didn’t score on the play.”
Nixon, Gant and Justice were all back in 1992, and Deion Sanders emerged as a capable platoon center fielder with Nixon. That relegated Smith to mostly pinch-hitting, and he batted .247/.324/.437 in 182 plate appearances spread across 84 games (he then batted just six times in the seven games of the NLCS against Pittsburgh).
With the Braves needing a designated hitter for the World Series games in Toronto, Smith started Games 3, 4 and 5. He went just 2-for-15, but did hit a grand slam — off Morris, no less — in Atlanta’s 7-2 victory in Game 5. (The Braves lost the series in six games).
The Braves let the 36-year-old Smith walk as a free agent after the season, and he signed a one-year, $1 million deal with Pittsburgh, which had just lost superstar left fielder Barry Bonds to free agency. He hit .286/.422/.442 in 94 games with the Pirates before being traded to Baltimore in September, and finished his career with 35 games for the Orioles in 1994.
Smith did not return after the 1994-95 player’s strike, and ended his baseball days with a .288/.371/.420 line in 1,613 major-league games with six teams. His longest stint with one club was the five years he spent in Atlanta, whom he’d joined in 1988 after twice nearly washing out of the league due to cocaine addiction.
(The drug problems apparently got bad enough that Smith considered trying to murder Royals general manager John Schuerholz because he believed Schuerholz had blackballed him from baseball before he caught on with the Braves, as Smith told a reporter from The State newspaper of South Carolina in 2006. Ironically, Smith later ended up working for his old nemesis again when Schuerholz became Braves GM in 1991).
Smith’s time in Atlanta included an astoundingly good 1989 season for a team that went 63-97 and finished in last place. He batted .315/.415/.533 with a career-high 21 homers and 79 RBIs, posting a .948 OPS that was easily his best as a big-leaguer. He also posted an incredible 8.8 WAR, which was the best in the National League that season (well ahead of league MVP Kevin Mitchell’s 6.9).
He followed that up with a .305/.384/.459, 4.6-WAR season in 1990, when Atlanta again finished in last place. He was 35 by the time the Braves began winning in 1991, but was still a highly productive player.
Of players with at least 500 games played as a Brave since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966, only five have an OPS+ higher than Smith’s 131 — Hank Aaron (160), Chipper Jones (141), Rico Carty (140), Freddie Freeman (137) and Justice (132). That means Smith was a better offensive player on the whole during his time with the Braves than Fred McGriff (128), Bob Horner (128), Dale Murphy (125) and Andruw Jones (113), among others.
Baseball writer Bill James — a lifelong Royals fan who watched Smith closely during his time in Kansas City — wrote extensively about Smith in both his Bill James Guide to Managers and the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. Aside from being a good hitter and a dangerous base stealer — he stole 68 bases for the Cardinals in 1982 and 52 for the Royals in 1985 — Smith was also noted for his adventure in the outfield.
“He was a comical outfielder who fell down chasing balls probably once a game on average, or more, for which reason he was nicknamed ‘Skates,’” James wrote. “He also had frequent throwing errors. He had very small hands and feet, which were the source of his problems; the small feet caused him to fall down, and his hands were so small and so muscular that it was hard for him to grip the ball properly.”
But, James noted, Smith was good enough to have appeared in 32 World Series games with four different teams. “It’s not all coincidence,” James wrote. “Despite the mistakes, he was a hell of a player.”
Smith has mostly stayed out of the public eye since his retirement from baseball, continuing to make his home in Atlanta but avoiding the various Braves team reunions over the years. He told the AJC’s Carroll Rogers in 2003 that he had more or less put his World Series moment of infamy from 12 years earlier behind him.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Smith said. “I have my good days where it doesn’t bother me, doesn’t hurt me. … The bad days aren’t really bad.”
Sources: SI Vault; Sporting News archive (via PaperofRecord.org); Newspapers.com; The Bill James Guide to Managers (Diversion Books, 1997); The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (The Free Press, 2001); Down to the Last Pitch: How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time (Da Capo Press, 2014); Deadspin.com; Baseball-Reference.com