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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

It is winter, the time when hibernating baseball fans turn to thoughts of what might have been and what could be, and Bobby Bonilla, a player dogged until recently by accusations of unfulfilled promise, is enjoying a few thoughts of his own about future potential.

"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.

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