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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 2)

Bonilla still remembers the buzz about those two playoff series. "People say 'You didn't hit well,' " says Bonilla. "You know what they say: good pitching stops good hitting.

"I always thought when you get in a short series it's not 'let's get 'em tomorrow.' It's about every pitch, every at bat--a little more intensified. And instead of just staying relaxed, you pick up your concentration so much that you can have a tendency to get tense."

Before the 1992 season, Bonilla turned free agent. The Pirates made him an offer of $16.5 million over four years, but Bonilla, through his agent, rejected the offer. The White Sox and Phillies both passed on his five-year, $28 million asking price. The next day, December 2, 1991, Bonilla signed with the Mets. After four hours of negotiation, Al Harazin, in the midst of a legendary spending spree as a first-year general manager of the Mets, put together a $29 million, five-year package. The $6.1 million Bonilla made in 1992 was the highest salary on the Mets, the highest salary for a right fielder, the highest in all of baseball.

After an auspicious start, the 1992 season turned into a bust. On opening day in St. Louis, Bonilla hit two homers, including a two-run blast in the 10th inning that gave the Mets a 4-2 victory. "At first it was nice being back in New York; my father was at the games," Bonilla recalls.

But his performance wouldn't remain at that level. "My first year was very difficult," Bonilla admits. "I tried to do a lot more than I was capable of doing. I'm no Albert Belle. But I was a pretty good RBI guy in Pittsburgh, bringing some solid numbers over. If I had just kept that in my mind, then I might have had a smoother transition. But I tried to give them 29 million reasons why I should get the money." Bonilla knocked in 70 runs and hit just .249, his worst full season in the major leagues.

Fans and the media compounded his woes. "I came from Pittsburgh and I was a good guy and then when I came to New York suddenly I'm a horseshit guy. I don't know why. I think you have to be a lot tougher to play here and have real thick skin." Bonilla admits to having said something that probably encouraged the treatment.

"You guys won't be able to knock the smile off my face," a smiling Bonilla told a gathering of reporters at the start of the 1992 season. "They might have taken that as a challenge," Bonilla observes now, "Like, 'Say what? You don't know where the fuck you're at, kid.' "

Some fiascos he might prefer to forget. On a Saturday game at Shea Stadium in late May, Bonilla, who was hitting just .130 at Shea to that point, took hitting coach Tom McGraw's suggestion to try ear plugs. He did not expect the plugs to drown out the boos, he said, but only to afford him a little more concentration. A firestorm of con-troversy ensued. Was he telling the boo birds where to get off? After the incident reached full boil two days later, he took out the plugs and hit a single, a double, a grand slam and knocked in six runs in a night game at Shea. Controversy defused. At least for a while.

Not a month later, Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux's one-hopper caromed off Bonilla's glove for an error. The Shea Stadium scoreboard flashed the "E" sign--and kept on flashing it--right over the right fielder's shoulder. "I don't know why that particular guy working the scoreboard decided to do that," says Bonilla. "That really pissed me off."

When Bonilla ran back to the dugout, the TV camera followed him to the phone that links up with the press box. After the game--a 9-2 Mets loss--Bonilla said he was calling Mets public relations dir-ector Jay Horowitz to check on his health. The next day he said he was "making light of the situation," merely joking about Horowitz's health the day before. But he offered no explanation of what he was calling about, and as a result he incurred the wrath of the beat writers on New York's four major dailies and with it the distrust of the fans.

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