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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 4)

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?

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