If Bobby Bonilla put together a resume, it would surely begin, “Have bat, will travel. Position negotiable.” Mixing a sunny smile and a genuine love for playing the game with a sometimes sour disposition, Bonilla’s personality is part Ernie Banks and part Albert Belle. While his potent offensive numbers have always kept him in demand, defensive problems and a sometimes surly demeanor have kept him on the move. In fifteen major-league seasons, the switch-hitting Bronx native has played for seven different teams.
Undrafted out of high school, Bonilla toured Europe with a United States amateur team in 1981. While there, Bonilla caught the eye of Pittsburgh Pirates scout Syd Thrift, who promptly signed him to a minor-league contract. Bonilla’s rise through the Pirates’ farm system came to a halt during spring training in 1985, when he broke his right leg in a collision with teammate Bip Roberts at second base. The injury prompted Pittsburgh to leave the young prospect unprotected in the major league draft, where he was promptly snatched up by the White Sox.
After Bonilla started the 1986 season by batting .269 in 75 games for Chicago, the Pirates corrected their mistake by sending pitcher Jose DeLeon to the South Siders on July 23 for their former farmhand. Bonilla finished the season hitting just .240 as a part-time outfielder for the Bucs while incumbent third baseman Jim Morrison led the team with 23 homers. But after Morrison was shipped to Detroit in a trade for Darnell Coles on July 31, 1997, Bonilla took over at the hot corner and wound up with a .300 average, 15 homers and 77 RBI.
Bonilla joined with teammate Barry Bonds to form a powerful tandem which Pittsburgh sportswriters dubbed the “BB Gunners.” In his five full seasons with the Pirates, Bonilla drove in at least 100 runs three times, kept his batting average between .274 and .302, and hit as many as 32 home runs. A four-time All-Star with the Pirates, Bonilla finished second to Bonds in the 1990 NL MVP voting.
Despite his success at the plate, Bonilla had trouble finding a home in the field. An outfielder by default, Bonilla looked far more confident with a bat in his hands than a glove. At third base, he employed an innovative but ineffective sideways-facing fielding stance. He committed 67 errors in two seasons at the hot corner, prompting manager Jim Leyland to move him back to the outfield in 1989.
After helping the Pirates to consecutive NL East crowns in 1990 and 1991, Bonilla decided to test the free-agent waters before the 1992 season. A hectic bidding war was eventually won by the New York Mets, whose five-year $29 million contract made Bonilla the highest-paid player in baseball history. The deal seemed like a match made in heaven. The rebuilding Mets had added an offensive centerpiece to replace Darryl Strawberry, and Bonilla was thrilled to return to his native New York, where his father could watch him play. At his official Mets introduction, Bonilla told the press, “I know you all are gonna try, but you’re not gonna be able to wipe the smile off my face. I grew up in New York. I know what it’s all about.”
Unfortunately, the marriage of Bonilla and New York wouldn’t survive past the honeymoon — a tenth-inning home run (his second of the game) to defeat the rival Cardinals on Opening Day. Bonilla never warmed to the role of team leader that the Mets wanted him to play. “I just want to be one of the guys,” the new arrival said, but his huge contract made him a marked man. Compounding the problem, Bonilla considered himself to be a line-drive hitter, not the slugger the Mets had expected to fill the power void created by the departure of Strawberry. Although the switch-hitter owned tremendous power from either side of the plate (in July of 1987 he hit just the seventh upper deck home-run in the history of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium), he would often maintain that “home runs are overrated.”
As the Mets stumbled early in the season, New York fans wasted little time loudly registering their disapproval at Shea Stadium. Mired in an awful batting slump, Bonilla bore the brunt of their anger. In late May he caused a flap by wearing earplugs at the plate to drown out the chorus of boos which greeted him each at bat. His season hit a low on June 25th when TV cameras caught him calling the press box between innings to complain about an error charged against him. Bonilla dug himself a deeper hole and aggravated already tense media relations by shamelessly denying that he was protesting the official scorer’s decision. Instead, he told reporters, he had been calling to inquire after the health of Mets’ PR man Jay Horwitz.
Although Bonilla’s next two years in the Big Apple proved more productive than his disappointing initial season (.249, 19 HR, 70 RBI) he never won the support of Mets’ fans and his trademark smile soon settled into a frown. In late July 1995, Bonilla was batting .325 and enjoying his best season in New York when the Mets traded him to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for prospects Damon Buford and Alex Ochoa.
As Bonilla tore apart American League pitching at a .333 clip, he appeared refreshed by the change of scenery and overjoyed to have left behind the sour atmosphere of the Mets. When Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig‘s consecutive games played streak on September 6th, Bonilla recorded the proceedings in the clubhouse and dugout with a hand-held video camera.
Once again, though, what seemed like a perfect match would soon dissolve into acrimony. Early in 1996, Bonilla bristled when manager Davey Johnson suggested that the Orioles would be best served by using the defensively limited outfielder as a designated hitter. Bonilla flatly refused to consider the possibility. A career National Leaguer, Bonilla had always played the field and felt uncomfortable sitting on the bench for most of the game. To the Baltimore media and fans, however, the heretofore popular star came off as a selfish player, resurrecting questions about his attitude which continued throughout the season. Although Bonilla drove in 116 runs and hit 28 of Baltimore’s record 257 home runs (a mark broken the following season by Seattle), he had worn out his welcome in another city. After an abysmal 1-for-20 performance during a five-game loss to the Yankees in the ALCS that October, the free agent headed south to the Florida Marlins.
With the Marlins, Bonilla found a measure of the redemption that had eluded him. After another strong regular season when he batted .297 with 96 RBIs, Bonilla found himself playing in the World Series against the Cleveland Indians. (He still refused to DH, however. “I’m not DH-ing, trust me,” he announced as the Series moved to Jacobs Field after Game Two. “I think I’m 0-for-the-world DH-ing.”) In past post-seasons Bonilla’s performances had had fallen far short of his regular season production, branding him as a player who couldn’t produce when it mattered. Before coming to Florida, Bonilla had managed just fifteen hits in 79 post-season at bats and his teams had never won a post-season series.
This time around, however, Bonilla came through. With Florida trailing 2-0 in Game Seven, Bonilla led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a booming home run to right-centerfield off Jaret Wright. After Florida tied the score in the ninth inning, Bonilla lined a lead-off single to center to ignite the Marlins’ winning rally in the eleventh.
The goodwill that followed Florida’s championship proved short-lived, although this time Bonilla wasn’t to blame. As part of Marlins’ owner Wayne Huzienga’s financially-driven team dismantling, Bonilla was traded in May of 1998 to the Dodgers along with third baseman Gary Sheffield and catcher Charles Johnson for catcher Mike Piazza, outfielder Jim Eisenreich and third baseman Todd Zeile. The West Coast would not prove kind to Bonilla. Hampered by a chronic wrist injury, he hit just .237 with seven home runs in 78 games for the Dodgers in one of the worst seasons of his career.
Bonilla’s brief career in LA came to an end when the Dodgers named his Baltimore nemesis Davey Johnson as their new manager after the season. He was unceremoniously traded back to New York for reliever Mel Rojas, who had sunk to the bottom of the Mets bullpen after a long string of disastrous outings. Mets fans were almost as disappointed in Rojas than they had been in Bonilla and the Mets had no objection to giving Bonilla a second chance if it meant a chance to dump Rojas’ salary on another team. Again, however, the slugger tarnished his image by picking a charity event to direct bitter invective towards Dodgers’ GM Tommy Lasorda.
Bonilla’s second stint with the Mets turned out to be just as disastrous as his first. After a knee injury sidelined him in March, he gained weight and hit just .160 in 60 games with the team. His lumbering ineptitude in the field earned him sarcastic ovations from Shea Stadium crowds whenever he fielded the ball cleanly. Unhappy with Bonilla’s play, the Mets placed him on irrevocable waivers in June. Not surprisingly, he went unclaimed.
For his part, Bonilla was angry that he wasn’t given more at-bats, often clashing loudly with manager Bobby Valentine over his lack of playing time. He was kept on the post-season roster, but struck out twice in his four at-bats as a pinch-hitter. As the Mets were eliminated by the Braves in the eleventh inning of a gut-wrenching NLCS Game Six, Bonilla reportedly sat in the clubhouse with teammate Rickey Henderson — playing cards.
“I’m not going to stay quiet again next year,” Bonilla announced in December. But by that point, it was clear that Bonilla had no future in New York. He was finally released in January after reaching an unusual agreement with the Mets: Instead of picking up his $5.9 million salary for the 2000 season, the team pledged to pay him $1,193,248.20 each July 1st from 2011 to 2035 — nearly $30 million all told. Less than a month later, Bonilla signed with the Braves.
Surprising the Mets, Bonilla became a productive addition to the Braves’ lineup. With Atlanta’s outfield stricken with injuries, he started 62 games in left field, hitting .255 with 28 RBIs, and served as their main pinch hitter. The next season, he agreed to a one-year deal with the Cardinals to serve essentially the same role. Manager Tony La Russa announced that if he was able to stay healthy, Bonilla would platoon in right field with Ray Lankford, due to Lankford’s inability to hit left-handers. But Bonilla’s batting average hovered around .200, limiting his playing time. In May he slapped Brewers’ Jeromy Burnitz, incurring a one-game suspension.