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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.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

(continued from page 1)

Bonilla's road to diamond glory was circuitous and long. Before the green expanses of Florida and Connecticut, there was the infinite asphalt and gray tedium of the South Bronx. Roberto Martin Antonio Bonilla was born there on February 23, 1963. His earliest connection was to an electrician, that being his father, Roberto. Bobby's parents separated when he was eight years old, and his mother, Regina, gained custody of him.

One day he watched his father enter an old building, ascend a ladder and get knocked flat on his butt by an electric shock. Then he got right back up and climbed the ladder. "He had no fear of it," Bonilla marvels, even now. "He was impressive. I grew up in the Bronx with Mom, but he was always around, living in Flushing [Queens] not far away. There's no one I looked up to more than my dad."

Electronics did not move him though. "I was just looking at him and decided this is not for me," Bonilla says. But that's all he knew: what wasn't for him. The South Bronx turned out some good folks, but it also churned out a steady dose of teen marriages, drugs problems and plain old trouble. "Kids having kids--it's not something I wanted for myself," says Bonilla, explaining how the environment drove him to excel. "For some reason I was different. My brother would tell me stories about when he woke up I was swinging a bat. He said my mind was always going. I never wanted to be categorized, like 'oh damn, I'm 18 and got two kids.'"

He played baseball at Lehman High School, just across the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge from Shea Stadium, and found that he could drive the ball. "There were no fences on most fields and so you hit them over heads and ran and ran," Bonilla remembers. "Lehman had a fence in right field, into the lumber yard." When he was in 10th grade he met a ninth grader named Migdalia in the lunch room. The two dated, became high school sweethearts and eventually married.

A pinch of good fortune brought Bonilla's talent to the fore. His high school coach, Joe Levine, went to a seminar where a high school all-star team was being put together to play in Scandinavia. "Next thing you know, I'm picked. This was overwhelming to me. I was about 17, in 12th grade. That's when I started to think, 'Maybe, just maybe....'The school and my dad chipped in to get me the $1,000 to go.

"I wanted to go to Arizona State, but they didn't want to take me. Sid Thrift [then an executive in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization who was with his son on the Scandinavian trip] asked me, "Do you want to go to school or play ball?" I said, 'I didn't get picked at the school I wanted to go to, so I'll play ball.' Sid asked me if I wanted to sign and I said sure." Within weeks Bonilla was at a tryout in Bradenton, Florida.

"Now I go to the tryout and they say 'yes' and I go to Pirate City where their spring training is. There I see Willie Stargell's picture, [Roberto] Clemente's picture, Manny Sanguillen, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski. All I can remember is being in Bradenton and looking at a picture of Three Rivers Stadium and just staring at it and thinking, 'Shit, I'm going to be in this stadium.' "

The 18-year-old Bonilla signed with the Pirates organization on July 11, 1981. During that year and over the following four seasons--on clubs like Alexandria in the Carolina League and Nashua in the Eastern League--his play was mediocre, his highest average reaching only .262. Nonetheless, he was about ready for the big show in 1985 when he broke his ankle and went on the disabled list for four months. The White Sox selected him in a draft of unprotected minor league players in December 1985. He played 75 games with the Sox before they traded him back to Pittsburgh for pitcher Jose DeLeon on July 23, 1986. He got into 63 games with the Pirates that year, hitting just .240.

At the age of 24, in 1987, Bonilla started to show signs of potential. Playing 141 games, migrating between third, first and the outfield, he hit 15 homers and batted .300. In 1988, his first of six All-Star seasons, he hit .274, with 24 homers and 100 runs batted in. In 1990 he blasted 32 homers and knocked in a career-best 120 runs. But, in postseason the Pirates lost to the eventual world champion Reds, four games to two. Bonilla went 4-for-21 (.190) with no homers and one RBI.

The following year the Pirates sailed into the postseason, but the ship sunk again as they scored only 12 runs in a seven-game series against the Atlanta Braves. Bonilla was 7-for-23 (.304) but knocked in just one run.

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