On the morning of May 12, 1985, the Kansas City Royals had two major problems. An 11-3 loss to the Yankees at home the day before left them 5.5 games out of first place in the American League West with a 12-15 record. For the defending division champions, a franchise that expected to make the postseason every year, this was unacceptable, even in mid-May. Even worse, they were in fourth place, meaning they needed to climb over three teams, and Oakland and Seattle were each just a half-game behind the Royals. They could very easily be in sixth place at the end of the day.
The other problem was that, in both left and right field, the Royals were suffering offensively. Left fielder Darryl Motley had gone 1-3 in that loss the day before. That lifted his line to a miserable .186/.233/.330. Meanwhile, the right field platoon of Pat Sheridan and Lynn Jones was hitting .243/.349/.311 and .161/.152/.194 respectively. While all three players had helped the Royals win the division in 1984, loyalty is limited in baseball when you are still somewhat unproven and/or a part-time player who isn’t producing.
Meanwhile, across the state of Missouri, another franchise that expected to contend every year was also struggling. The St. Louis Cardinals had won the World Series in 1982, then missed the playoffs for two years, suffering the additional indignity of watching their rival Chicago Cubs win the division in 1984. The Cardinals also awoke on the morning of May 12 facing a 5.5-game deficit in their division, with a 14-15 record.
St. Louis left fielder Lonnie Smith wasn’t struggling to the extent the three Royals players were, but he was not living up to expectations. Following his sterling 1982 season and a very good 1983 season (despite missing a month or so as he went to rehab for his drug addiction), Smith had struggled through a subpar 1984. Off-the-field issues such as family illnesses and deaths, plus the temptations every recovering addict must suffer in trying times, had affected him. The Cardinals had openly talked about trading him in the offseason, and they were ready to feature top prospect Vince Coleman next to star center fielder Willie McGee.
The week that followed may be the one that saved the Royals’ season. They scored a run in the ninth to beat the Yankees on May 12, then won five straight after that. They would have some hard times in July, but just staying in the race in mid-May kept hope alive. The same day the winning streak reached six, a trade became official: the Royals had acquired Smith for minor league outfielder John Morris.
The trade turned into a steal for the Royals. Morris was considered a top prospect after winning league MVP in the Southern League in 1983; he hit .288/.420/.516 for Jacksonville that year, then .270/.358/.427 for Omaha in 1984. But as a major-leaguer, he hit just .236/.288/.326 in 665 plate appearances over seven seasons.
Meanwhile, Smith wasn’t sure he wanted to be a Royal. In fact, he wasn’t sure he wanted to play baseball anymore.
“I had thought about quitting very seriously. I had thought about it for the last three weeks. I had told some of my teammates, but I’m not sure they believed me. But I figured (quitting) was not to my best advantage or to my family’s. I thought about it and it was not the proper time.”—Smith, quoted by the Associated Press, May 18, 1985
Royals manager Dick Howser gave Smith a phone call after the trade to explain his plan for the new player: he would man left field. And he would bat second, after Willie Wilson and before George Brett. That helped take away some of the sting of being traded.
“Anyone should be happy to be part of that lineup, I guess. Maybe I can give them the little extra they need to go back to a World Series.”—Smith, quoted by the Associated Press, May 18, 1985
Howser was happy to have the new player, commenting:
“(He’s) an everyday player. He can hit right-handers as well as left-handers. He’s always been a good offensive ballplayer. So he ought to help the guys hitting third, fourth, fifth.”—Hoswer, quoted by the Associated Press, May 18, 1985
The skipper was right. Smith’s first game as a Royal was on May 19. In the first 10 games Smith was on the team, Brett hit .405/.455/.730. Jorge Orta, who hit cleanup most of the time, batted .318/.375/.500. Frank White hit .314/.351/.486 in that span, and Steve Balboni hit .270/.372/.324.
The team hit .238/.297/.387 before Smith joined the lineup and .255/.317/.405 after, going from 3.68 runs per game to 4.39. The 1985 Royals are often considered to be a poor offensive team, but it is apparent that with Smith, they were at least decent. Some of that is probably regression to the mean, but the Royals were unquestionably getting more offense from their left fielder than they had before.
For his part, Smith had been hitting .260/.377/.323 in St. Louis, and he actually didn’t improve much in Kansas City, hitting .257/.321/.366. However, he stole 40 bases while being caught just seven times, so he still found ways to contribute. And for a team beset by injuries, just the fact he was able to play in 120 of the remaining 128 games was also helpful. Smith’s final numbers compars favorably with Sheridan’s final .228/.307/.335 and Jones’ .211/.261/.257. The Royals moved Motley to right field to accommodate Smith; he ended up with a .222/.257/.413 line, although his 17 homers were fourth-highest on the team.
Bottom line is, the Royals were 18-16 before Smith joined the team and 73-55 after. In a year when the Royals won the division by one game over California, it is obvious Smith made a difference.
Of course, the regular season is only part of the story. In addition to Smith’s heroics in the 1982 World Series, he had helped the Phillies beat the Royals in the 1980 fall classic. So Smith was no stranger to the pressure of the postseason. That came in handy. Smith started the ALCS slowly but collected six hits over the last three games as the Royals stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to advance to the World Series.
When Smith came to bat in the bottom of the first of World Series Game One, he became the first player ever to appear in the Series against a team that had traded him in that same season. He then got a little bit of revenge on his old team by hitting .291/.361/.382 in the Series and scoring two runs in Kansas City wins in Game Five and the Game Seven clincher. Certainly, he got more revenge by adding a third World Series ring to his collection.
Smith actually had a better season in 1986 than he did in 1985, one of very few Royals who can say that. He was a free agent after the season but, like many veteran players then, had trouble finding a contract (later, we would find out the owners were colluding and refusing to sign almost any free agents). The Royals eventually re-signed him in mid-May of 1987, but he only played 48 games before moving on to Atlanta after the season, where he had a career resurgence and helped the Braves go from laughingstock to perennial contender. Smith played in two more World Series for Atlanta (1991 and 1992) but failed to add a fourth ring to his collection.
All told, the Royals got 302 games out of Smith and a .270/.343/.386 line with 3.4 bWAR. However, they gave up very little and also got a World Series championship out of it. It’s fair to say this was a successful deal for the Royals.