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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 3)

When he returned to Pittsburgh later that week to play against his old team, he was booed by the Pirates fans. After a golf ball thrown from the stands hit him in the head, he went back to the dugout to get a helmet. The Pirates' organist played "Take the Money and Run."

Bonilla had a better year in 1993, reporting to camp with a thicker skin and a thinner body, hitting 34 homers and driving in 87 runs. But controversy continued to swirl around him when he threatened reporter Bob Klapisch, co-author of The Worst Team Money Could Buy, a clubhouse exposé that laid bare many of the team's peccadilloes from the previous year. "I'll hurt you," Bonilla said to Klapisch, as the writer approached his locker after a game. Horowitz had to hold Bonilla back.

By his third year in New York, Bonilla had grown more comfortable with the pressure. He said it all changed when a cartoon on the back of the Daily News portrayed him wearing diapers, with a headline reading "Baby Bonilla." "My wife looked at it and started cracking up," he says. "I said, 'Honey, you all right?' It was funny, genuinely funny. From then on I put everything else behind. It took me a while after that, but I realized it was a war you cannot win."

In 1994 he was hitting .290 with 20 homers and 67 RBI when a strike shut the season down in early August. He started the 1995 season strong, hitting 18 homers, 53 RBI and .325 into July, but the Orioles, who needed a cleanup hitter and right fielder, snatched up Bonilla.

"I was a little sad. I don't know if you can be sad and relieved at the same time, but that's what I was feeling," recalls Bonilla. "I saw my father, my family, my wife and kids and my brothers. I met some nice people at Shea, but I was also relieved because I didn't have to put up with any more shit."

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."


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