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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)

"Ya' know, somebody mentioned when we were play-ing ball in Cincinnati last year that there are only five switch-hitters with more than 250 homers," Bonilla re-calls as he relaxes in the conference room of Performance Imaging, his home theater business, based in Greenwich, Connecticut, the player's hometown.

He names the hitters: "Mickey Mantle [536], Eddie Murray [504], Chili Davis [328], Reggie Smith [314] and me [262]. Only five switch-hitters in the history of baseball with 250," he repeats, flashing the smile. "I think 300 is a nice benchmark."

Nice, indeed. In more than 130 major league seasons, only 77 players--less than 1 percent--have hit 300 homers. Should Bonilla hit number 300, he will equal Hall of Famer Chuck Klein. Rogers Hornsby, doubtless the greatest all-around second baseman that ever lived, finished at 301. Bonilla considers the numbers the way kids once perused the backs of baseball cards.

If he plays five years and averages 28 per season, he's told, he'll pass 400. "Guys are staying in shape all year round because they don't have to work in the off-season," he says hopefully. If he gets to 400, he goes from 77th place to 26th place, passing Al Kaline at 399. If he does that, he'll be ahead of all but a fraction of one percent of all the players--only 25 men--who ever put on a uniform. "Now you have me interested," he says. He checks the figures. "I have a chance to do some things. It's refreshing to hear that, because so many people have gotten caught up only in the money; they have forgotten what you've done."

If Bobby Bonilla is indulging himself in a little game of what-if in the twilight of his career, he deserves it. After 12 years in the majors, many of them played under the onus of trying to live up to astronom-ical salaries that demanding fans felt he didn't deserve, the 35-year-old Florida Marlins third baseman has earned a measure of redemption. Last year, Bonilla helped the fledgling Marlins to a World Series championship after only five years as a team, the fastest-ever rise of an expansion organization. He has put aside the demons of the past--a long stint in the pressure cooker of the New York sports media, a rap that he couldn't perform in the big game--and it is now a time for dreaming.

Bonilla and "the Fish" swam against the steepest of probabilities last autumn, unexpectedly knocking off the Giants and Braves in the playoffs and then the Indians in the World Series. Neither the IndiansMarlin matchup, nor the outcome, could have been predicted by the most prescient sage or an oracle at Delphi.

Few baseball pronosticators pay much attention to expansion clubs, much less teams whose colors are teal and white and are named after saltwater fish with snouts. But the Marlins achieved their meteoric rise to the top by making use of the age-old elixir of timely pitching, hitting and defense. The Marlins had just enough scoring in the games in which they didn't pitch well and just enough pitching and defense in the ones in which they didn't hit well.

For Bobby Bonilla it was the culmination of a career that has included several standout seasons and several filled with disappointments and painful near-misses. It is not a time to rest on his laurels, however. Coming off postseason operations on his left Achilles' tendon and left wrist, he rejoins a team that has been ravaged. Wayne Huizenga, who owns the Marlins as well as Blockbuster Video, claimed that the team lost $35 million last year. In an attempt to dump salaries, the Marlins traded nine members of their World Championship squad. Not long after the uplifting strains of Gloria Estefan's "Reach" had filled a packed Pro Player Stadium celebration, a piranha chewed away at Florida's roster as well as its fandom, with its loyal pockets of ethnic enthusiasm reflecting the team's diversity. Gone are pitchers Kevin Brown (who made $4.8 million in 1997), Robb Nen ($3.08 million) and Dennis Cook ($850,000), and outfielders Moises Alou ($4.5 million), Devon White ($3.4 million) and Jeff Conine ($2.8 million). And that's just a portion of the dearly departed.

The victory lap that Bonilla and White took around the field after Game 7--following a dramatic, 11th-inning victory--had occurred only five months before. It felt like a lifetime.

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.

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.

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.


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