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Swinging for the Fences

With a World Series Championship under his belt, Bobby Bonilla sets his sights on his place in baseball history.

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Bonilla left some good in his wake. For five years he has run a bowling tournament in New York City that benefits the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. For his efforts, he received the Thurman Munson and Gary Carter awards for humanitarian concern in the community. A veritable who's who in baseball show up to bowl in his tournament. Cigar lovers Tino Martinez and Cecil Fielder bowl, as do Paul Molitor, Craig Biggio, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Kirby Puckett, and Ozzie Smith.

With the New York-Baltimore swap completed, Bonilla left a Mets team that played .479 in 1995 for an Orioles team that fared only slightly better at .493. "What sticks out in my mind [about the first season in Baltimore] was the night Cal Ripken broke the record," says Bonilla. The night was September 6, 1995, and Ripken eclipsed Lou Gehrig's mark by playing in his 2,131st consecutive game. "He was a master at work," Bonilla recalls. "I remember every day in 1995 anticipating the streak." Bonilla admits that he wondered if teammates in the Baltimore clubhouse would be afraid to step on Ripken's feet or accidentally bump into him and cause an injury. "But then I saw him wrestling with [Baltimore outfielder] Jeffrey Hammonds," and he stopped worrying.

In 1996, Bonilla helped Baltimore win 88 games and make the playoffs as a wild-card team. "I was the only one having a problem with Davey [Johnson, the Baltimore manager] because I didn't want to DH. It means so much to me to play, and I mean pick up a glove, pick up a bat." Nevertheless, he was designated hitter in 44 of 159 games and posted his best season in years, finishing with 28 homers and 116 RBI. In the playoffs, the Orioles beat Cleveland and then lost to New York.

After the 1996 season, Bonilla became a free agent and was picked up by the Marlins. In Florida he was reunited with Jim Leland, his old Pittsburgh manager whom many consider to be the best in the business. "Everything you hear about Leland is right on the mark," says Bonilla. "He's not only good with young players, he's good with all types of players. If you ask what your situation is, he'll answer it for you. He won't bullshit you. He's a no-nonsense guy with a big heart."

Florida had a good mix of youth and veterans. "I like to have fun and keep things in perspective," says Bonilla. The atmosphere was loose and Bonilla even found a few smoking buddies. He enjoys Davidoff Special "T"s and Gran Cru No. 5s and Ashton Maduro No. 40s--all mild cigars. "Very mild," he affirms. "I can't smoke the harsh ones."

Relishing a Gran Cru No. 5, he explains his less-is-more philosophy of cigars. "I smoke one cigar a day, two tops, because I personally think you lose what the taste is all about if you start smoking three, four or five. I think after the first one, it becomes just smoking, not tasting."

He had started smoking just a few years before. His wife told him to try a cigar--or a pipe or something--so he would stop all the fidgeting with his hands. "I smoke on my way to the ballpark. When I'm smoking is when I'm most relaxed. In Baltimore, I'd have one while walking to Camden Yards. Now I like to get to the park early, light one up. If it bothers someone, I respect that," he says. "For the most part, everyone enjoys the smell of it. They may not smoke, but they enjoy the smell. I won't do it if it makes them uneasy. A few [teammates] dabbled in it. Darren Dalton [the Florida first baseman who retired after the 1997 World Series] smoked in the trainer's room while he was icing his legs. He'd say 'Bo, you're gonna join me with one,' and I'd say 'Double-D, I'd be more than happy to.'"

Whether Florida could fire up on the diamond was another matter. But the Marlins soon developed high expectations for themselves. It started with the way they played the Braves. "We went 12-6 [including the playoffs] against them and played them really tough last year," says Bonilla, who hit .297 with 17 homers and 96 RBI during the regular season. "What separates Atlanta from everyone else is that they beat the teams they're supposed to beat. That's why they won 101 games.

"Unless you have the pitching to match the Braves, you can forget it," he continues. "But going into the playoffs we felt very confident with Al Leiter, Kevin Brown and Alex Hernandez against [John] Smoltz, [Tom] Glavine and [Greg] Maddux. Then we had Tony Saunders, who was big against Atlanta, and we matched him up with [Denny] Neagle. We had four guys to hold their team down. So what it comes down to is who's gonna get the big hit. We were able to do that." And they beat the Braves four games to two.

Then the Marlins had a World Series to remember. After the teams split the first two games in high-70 temperatures in Florida, the action shifted to frosty Cleveland. Bonilla, the team's oldest member, was taking his sore Achilles' tendon and cranky hamstrings, stretched by more than 1,700 major league games, to a climate where football players could be forgiven for not getting loose. Bonilla was most noticeable in Game 3 and Game 7, two contests that decided the outcome of the Series. With Cleveland leading 4-3 in Game 3, Bonilla got a good jump on a slow roller, he reached twice into his glove for the ball and then threw wildly past first base to allow a run in. "I grabbed it the first time but I couldn't feel it," he says, using a credible explanation on a night when the wind chill made it feel like 23 degrees.

A two-run homer by Jim Thome in the fifth made it 7-3. But Florida got back to 7-5 on a two-run homer by Jim Eisenreich. With a man on second in the bottom of the sixth, Bonilla dived, smothered a Matt Williams smash and threw him out from his knees. Indians reliever Mike Jackson offered no relief and Florida evened the score, 7-7.

Bonilla started the ninth by drawing a walk, hustled to third on a single and, when the ball got away from Williams and went into the camera well, he trotted home with the go-ahead run. He came up again in the inning and ended the carnage by singling home two runs. Florida won, 14-7. Asked about the sloppy four-hour-twelve-minute arctic-like marathon, Bonilla said, "We're called the Boys of Summer for a reason."

After splitting the next two, the Indians won Game 6 behind the pitching of Chad Ogea.

In Game 7, Cleveland took a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning. Leading off the seventh, Bonilla hammered a fastball right on the screws, then stood and watched it sail far over the right-center field fence. "He threw a better strike than he wanted to," said Bonilla. In the bottom of the ninth, the Marlins tied the score on a sacrifice fly.

Bonilla led off the 11th with a single and the bases soon loaded up. After Craig Counsell's soft grounder was misplayed by Tony Fernandez, Florida had first and third with one out. An intentional walk to Eisenreich loaded the bases. It appeared Cleveland would escape when Fernandez fielded a slow roller and threw home to force out Bonilla. But shortstop Edgar Renteria got another clutch hit, this one a liner to centerfield to win the Series. Bonilla led the charge out of the dugout. The Marlins had engineered the fastest climb to the top of any expansion club in baseball history. What more could one ask? A chance to defend their title?

Not so fast. Along with the money issue, Huizenga cited south Florida's weather. While only two Marlins home games were rained out, fans at Pro Player Stadium had to sit through 30 rain delays, 19 of which lasted more than an hour. Huizenga asked for a retractable roof, but got little support. So he put the team up for sale to Marlins president Don Smiley for $150 million. Huizenga then set about slashing costs. An investment group was being formed this April to buy the club, but Smiley thinks the team won't be sold until the stadium issue is resolved.

Fans who fell in love with the Marlins last October are outraged. The team, which included players from Cuba, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking nations, made a tight connection with Miami's Latino community, which is now among the most vocal critics of the Marlins organization. A world-championship team is supposed to have at least a chance to repeat, using roughly the same talent it won with. Smiley understands. But he also understands the game's economics. "If we're not the best example of the dire situation the game is in," says Smiley, "I don't know who is."

Starting the season on the disabled list is not where Bonilla wanted to resume baseball after a World Series. Do the recurring injuries nag on a 12-year veteran? "It was just unfortunate that I hurt the Achilles' again and the wrist hurt me. Things are going to happen. Thank God it wasn't major where I couldn't throw the ball or I couldn't swing the bat--that's scary stuff.

"I'm not at all worried about being 35. I'm one of the investors in Performance Imaging. We set people up with home theaters. In five years, people will want to see movies in a nice setting, invite a couple of the guys over to watch Monday Night Football."

Bonilla met his business partner, Mark Risi, when his wife, Migdalia, wanted a satellite dish to watch his games all over the country. So Risi installed the dish. Bonilla, who once studied at New York Institute of Technology, discovered that he shared the techno-lust with Risi and they were soon partners.

But before he devotes all his energies to the home theater business, Bonilla hopes to make his last few years in baseball memorable. A shot at 300, 350 or 400 homers--those are worthwhile goals. Maybe when his swing slows down, Migdalia will get a fuller swing at her goals of trying her hand in business, producing a line of skin products. Any woman who gets you to start smoking cigars is worth it.

Kenneth Shouler, from White Plains, New York, is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado and the author of The Real 100 Best Baseball Players of All Time and Why! (Addax Publishing, Lenexa, Kansas, 1998).

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